Dick Smith: Oscar-winning make-up artist who turned De Niro into Travis Bickle and Brando into Don Corleone


Hillel Italie
Monday 01 September 2014 18:44

Dick Smith was the Oscar-winning "godfather of make-up" who amused, fascinated and terrified film audiences by devising unforgettable transformations for Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Linda Blair in The Exorcist, among many others. Late in his career he became the first make-up artist to win an Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

Widely regarded as the master in his field, Smith helped pioneer such now-standard materials as liquid foam latex and made special effects more realistic and spectacular. With Smith on hand, the middle-aged Brando was transformed into the jowly patriarch Vito Corleone, the teenage Blair into a scarred and wild-eyed demon, and William Hurt into a mass of protoplasm for Altered States.

Smith and Paul LeBlanc shared an Oscar in 1985 for their work on Amadeus, for which Smith spent hours each day turning the 44-year-old F Murray Abraham into an elderly man as Mozart's rival, Antonio Salieri. "Once I looked into a mirror at my face, I felt like it was completely convincing," Murray Abraham later recalled.

Smith fashioned a mohawk out of a plastic cap and chopped-up hair for Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and created breasts out of foam rubber for Katherine Ross in The Stepford Wives. Through foam latex and a newly flexible kind of false eyelashes, he managed to capture old age in Little Big Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman, in his mid-30s at the time, as a 121-year-old Native American. "I worked six weeks on the old age make-up, using photographic references for every wrinkle," he recalled.

Before breaking through in Hollywood, Smith was among the first great make-up artists for television. He headed NBC's make-up division from 1945 until 1959, using latex to enhance the nose of Jose Ferrer for a TV adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Smith showed little interest in special effects until he spotted a book on make-up techniques when he was Yale studying zoology (although his ambition was to become a dentist). Joining a university thjeatre group, he became so obsessed that he made himself up as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, scaring his classmates. He also turned up at a screening of Frankenstein as the title character. After serving in the Army he took a chance on television. One of his first jobs was applying make-up to Democratic Party leaders at the 1948 national convention.

Out of all the praise he received, Smith liked to cite a compliment paid by Laurence Olivier, whom he worked for on a 1959 TV adaptation of The Moon and Sixpence. Olivier's character was based on the painter Gauguin, who was afflicted by leprosy, and Smith never forgot Olivier's response after he had finished making up the actor. "Dick, the make-up does the acting for me," Olivier told him.

Richard Emerson Smith, make-up artist: born Larchmont, New York 22 June 1922; married 1944 Jocelyn De Rosa (two children); died 30 July 2014.

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