I don’t care for the Oscars whatsoever, but I was lucky enough to catch the presentation of the Governor’s Awards, and saw that make-up legend Dick Smith was being honored with a lifetime achievement award. That got me thinking of when I was in college, and how a friend and I were able to get him to come speak to our class.
I studied at the only film conservatory in the country, at Purchase College in New York; it already seems like a lifetime ago, having graduated in 2001. One of the brilliant things Purchase did for its students was that it employed people working in the field to teach classes. So, instead of getting some bitter man or woman who once dreamed of being a director but had to settle for the reality of teaching, we would have working professionals teach classes that were specific to their fields.
One of the legends we had teaching us there at the time was Howard Enders, a documentarian but foremost a writer, and a hell of a good one. He taught dramatic writing classes for freshmen, laying the groundwork for students to develop writing techniques that would help them learn then to write for the screen.
In 1999, while bullshitting with him about the old days, my roommate and I learned he once had a very close friend he hadn’t spoken to in years: Dick Smith. We were floored. “Dick Smith?!” we said. We got to talking about Smith and how sad it sounded that they’d had a falling out years back; hell, my friend and I were so amazed that Howard was speaking of the legendary Dick Smith that we offhandedly commented to him that he should call Mr. Smith up, patch up the friendship, then invite him to come speak to the film class.
To show you how amazing a man like Howard Enders was, he did just that.
Within days, Howard told my friend and I that he had indeed called his old friend, put their old disagreement aside, and invited him to talk at Purchase. Then my friend and I were tasked with getting everything ready and making posters for an event which I remember today as only being a day or so away. So my friend and I stayed up all night and made the posters, printed them up at the local Staples, and covered the campus.
Lo and behold, the next day Dick Smith showed up (on his own dime, might I mention!), and held a colloquium for about 100 students and faculty.
If I told you it was an amazing moment, I would not be doing the night justice. Mr. Smith arrived with props, slides, and a whole tutorial on his work.
To say this man is a legend within his field or in film itself, would a complete understatement.
Dick Smith pioneered what we take for granted in cinema nowadays regarding make up and make-up effects. Along with Jack Pierce (the legend that originated all the Universal movie monster make up) and Lon Chaney Sr., Smith basically invented the techniques and equipment that are used today. He invented foam latex and using it in make-up effects—a huge advancement, because now skin and the body could breathe and sweat through the appliance, meaning it could stay on longer and was more comfortable to wear. It also looked almost identical to human skin, advancing the believability of what was being created. But that was just the tip of the iceberg; every film he worked on advanced make-up effects within the industry.
Requiem For a Heavyweight, The Stepford Wives, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Little Big Man, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, The Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Altered States, Scanners, Starman, and Death Becomes Her are just some of the examples of his work that has taken make-up effects to greater heights.
But that wasn’t the best thing about Dick Smith. The best thing about Dick Smith was that he didn’t hide his advances and techniques—he taught them to his colleagues and students. Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and Tom Savini all credit Smith with teaching them what they know, and single him out as the man that pioneered their industry; without him, make-up effects would be still in the dark ages.
Mr. Smith went through all his films with us, showing slides of his effects, explaining what he did differently from what was commonplace at the time and how it evolved the industry. Before The Godfather, audiences had never seen a bullet explode on human skin, let alone an exit wound with a cloud of bloody mist around it.
How about old age make-up? He made Dustin Hoffman look 100, and rumor has it that he made Max Von Sydow look so good as the elderly priest in The Exorcist that von Sydow couldn’t get work for the next ten years because casting agents thought he was indeed that old.
While he was going through his slides and explanations, he passed a very scary photo of a eyeless monster with long hair underwater, and told us it was a piece of make-up that he had done years ago that was going to be used in the then-upcoming remake of House on Haunted Hill.
It was an amazing night. Do I have any pictures? Of course not. Back then, who would have had the foresight to bring a camera along to document the event? Mr. Smith was a scholar and a gentlemen, answered each question posed to him by the audience, and since the venue was so small he stuck around to chat with whoever wanted to after.
My last memory of that evening was of two old friends, Dick Smith and Howard Enders, walking out shoulder to shoulder, looking funnily enough like brothers from the same mother. I was told that not long after they had another falling out, which I hope was patched up before Mr. Ender’s passing in 2010 at age 83.
But for a moment, they put their differences aside and got back together to do what they both loved, teaching. It will be a night that will live with me until the end of my days.
Thank you Mr. Smith, and thank you Howard.