The Godfather of Makeup has passed away
by Ben Kirby
Dick Smith, the renowned “Godfather of Makeup”, has died aged 92. Smith was a legend in the field, pioneering an astonishing number of different techniques and trickery in-camera. He’s best known for his work on an impressive list of classics, including Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Exorcist and Amadeus. Indeed, it’s a tribute to his talents that – The Exorcist aside – audiences often forget that these films had such extraordinary special effects and makeup, all hiding in plain sight.
Born in June 1922, Smith began his career in television as head of the New York NBC make-up department in 1945. He was one of the first pioneers in using small sections of foam latex (instead of one whole mask), which freed an actor up to be far more expressive and mobile. During that time, he worked on shows from Roald Dahl’s Way Out to cult hit Dark Shadows. However, it is for his work in films for which Smith is primarily remembered.
The list of his achievements is remarkable, beginning with his first big job on The Godfather. Here, he transformed Marlon Brando from a matinee idol to the aged, jowly Vito Corleone, using a variety of techniques that were all the more impressive considering this was the same year Brando was naked and far more youthful in Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris.
One year later, Dick Smith became a part of horror legend with The Exorcist in 1973. The gruesome transformation of Regan (Linda Blair) from a sweet 12 year-old girl into a demon-possessed monster was vivid and wholly believable, thanks in large part to Smith’s astounding work. As if this wasn’t enough, three years later he helped bring the bloody climax of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to life. In fact, so realistic were the prosthetic injuries shown onscreen that Scorsese famously had to desaturate the colours, making the blood less red, in order to be granted the necessary R rating.
From there, Smith went on to work on Marathon Man, The Deer Hunter and Amadeus, where he transformed the then 44 year-old F. Murray Abraham into a 73 year-old Antonio Salieri. Together with Paul LeBlanc, Smith won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Makeup, while Abraham also won Best Actor. Smith himself recalled afterwards, “It was the best job I ever had. I did all the work, had plenty of time, total co-operation, [and a] proper screen test.”
Following this triumph, Smith continued to work on various projects, including on the TV show Monsters and Robert Zemeckis’ effects spectacular Death Becomes Her. He also continued to offer training and courses on movie makeup, passing on his pioneering techniques to new generations of artists. In 2011, he received one of the film industry’s highest accolades when he was given an Honorary Award from the Academy. Accepting the award, he said, “This has been an incredible joy… I have loved being a makeup artist so much, but this kind of puts a crown on all of that.”
A younger legend of movie makeup, Rick Baker, said of Smith, “There’s never going to be another Dick Smith. Dick is, without a doubt, the greatest makeup artist who’s ever going to live.”