The Master

August 4th, 2014

August 4th, 2014

Collective hearts broke across the globe at the news that the inimitable, the incredible Dick Smith had passed away on July 30th at the age of 92.  The news was broken on Twitter last Thursday by his close friend and protégé Rick Baker: “The master is gone.  My friend and mentor Dick Smith is no longer with us.  The world will not be the same,” he wrote on Twitter.  Jill Rockow, the artist who has been helping Dick throughout the last couple of years through his declining health, posted this on her Facebook: “It is with the heaviest of hearts… Richard Emerson Smith, better known as Dick Smith has passed away at approximately 11:00pm 07/30/14. He was 92.”

There isn’t much left to be said about Dick Smith that has not already been said by the people whose lives have been changed by him; by people who forged careers because of him; by people who admired his work and his desire to share his talent and knowledge.  Sian Richards’ tribute touched upon this unwavering selflessness: “Where others feared to share knowledge, Dick willingly opened it up to the masses to demystify makeup effects.  He must surely be one of the most highly respected and loved artists in the history of cinema.”

To refer to Dick as ‘The Godfather of Make-up’ simply in reference to his impeccable work on The Godfather is an injustice to his memory, as he was the Godfather for his unparalleled talent.

Director Guillermo del Toro left a touching tribute to Dick in Vulture Magazine, which can be read here, beginning simply, “Without Dick Smith, I would not be making movies. He was my mentor.”  He went on to explain the most important advice he ever received from his teacher: “Dick always said, ‘strive for realism.’  So don’t strive to make a monster a monster.  Don’t do an old-age makeup that is an old-age makeup.  Try to actually create the face of an old man, a real old man, which is what he did with Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man and F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus.  Don’t go for the effect; go for the reality.  And that’s as true for a monster as it is for a piece of delicate prosthetic makeup.”

Lois Burwell tweeted, “It’s with sadness we lose Dick Smith an inspirational makeup artist.  A kind man, a legend.  May he rest in peace.”

Dick Smith

A Yale attendee with dreams of being a dentist, Smith’s life changed forever when he happened to pick up a book of make-up artist tricks.  He began testing his skills for the Yale Drama group, and from then on he decided to turn this into his career.  He was the head of make-up for the American network NBC from 1945-1959, and was the first MUA to be an official staff member in television.  In the forefront of MUAs working on TV as it switched to colour, Smith pioneered materials and colour shading for screen, as well as use of materials we take for granted in everyday work, such as foam latex.  For a TV movie of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence in 1959, he transformed Laurence Olivier into a haggard leprosy sufferer.  The vision was so complete that, “When I finished the make-up,” Smith recalled, “he looked in the mirror and said, ‘Dick, it does the acting for me.’”

His work was class-leading within the MU industry, but it wasn’t until 1985 that he won an Oscar with Paul LeBlanc for his old-age work on Amadeus, widely regarded as the best old age make-up ever captured on camera.  He was later awarded the prestigious Governor’s Award at the 2011 Oscars – a privilege never before bestowed upon a make-up artist.

Between working on innumerable projects, Smith had time to pen a book – The Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Manual – which multiple artists have credited as being essential to their careers, including Rick Baker, Richard Taylor and Mike Spatola.  He also created a course to share his knowledge, Dick Smith’s Advanced Professional Makeup Course, which many of the top MUAs today graduated from.  In fact, more Oscar-winning artists are graduates of this course than any other course or make-up school in the world.

In an age where digital effects are rapidly encroaching on make-up artists’ jobs, it is reassuring and poignant to see the reaction the film and make-up community to Smith’s passing, as it exemplifies that there is still a place, still a respect, for manual effects.

Dick Smith’s legacy will be carried on into the future, along with his unyielding good nature and love for his craft.



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By Deborah Murtha

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