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Remembering Dick Smith, Hollywood's 'Godfather of Make-up'


Make-up can brighten your eyes or define a sultry pout. It can also make those same eyes terrifying, those same lips cracked and bloody. It can make teeth yellow with decay, ready to spew, say, pea soup. The gruesome look of the girl in "The Exorcist" was the work of Dick Smith. He died this week in Los Angeles at the age 92. Smith loved make-up, but pretty was not his thing. He gave Robert De Niro the famous mohawk in "Taxi Driver." Each bit of hair was glued onto the plastic cap individually.


DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) You talking to me?

SHAPIRO: And he transformed Marlon Brando into the jowly godfather.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I'm going to make an offer he can't refuse.

SHAPIRO: Dick Smith was also called the Godfather - the godfather of makeup. To learn more about him, we've called Susan Cabral-Ebert. She's president of the Make-up Artists and Hairstylists Guild. Welcome to the program.

SUSAN CABRAL-EBERT: It's a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: I understand Mr. Smith revolutionized the make-up industry with his technique. Can you describe the kind of impact he had on movies?

CABRAL-EBERT: He started out at NBC in television in 1945 - about that time. But when he started working in feature films - everything that he did back then is now the basis of where we start today. And every prosthetic make-up - everything that has to do with aging, coloring the appliances - has all been based on the lessons that Dick Smith brought forward to us.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned aging. He won an Oscar for his work on the movie "Amadeus." He took a forty-something actor, F. Murray Abraham, and transformed him into a 70-something-year-old senior citizen. Talk about what that kind of transmission requires.

CABRAL-EBERT: It requires stretching of the skin and layering it with latex. It's called stretch and stipple. It's something that we all, as makeup artists that work in film and television, learn. And basically, we learned new techniques from Dick Smith.

SHAPIRO: What was his approach to inventing these new techniques? How did he find these ways of doing things that nobody else had found before?

CABRAL-EBERT: He was a smart man, first of all. He was Yale-educated. He had wanted to go into dentistry, originally. So he knew a great deal about the human body, and he just experimented. He wanted to find new ways to make things move more realistically. Before Dick, most of the appliance work had been in one piece, whereas he would cut it up into six or seven pieces so that it would move according to the way the face moved.

SHAPIRO: You've said that he always kept his phone number listed. Explain why and what that says that about him?

CABRAL-EBERT: Dick was probably the best-known make-up artist and the most revered make-up artist in our real history. He always wanted to be open to anyone who had a question - morning, noon and night. If you were a kid in Japan, and you had question of how to - how to either sculpt something or how to make something bend and work and what kind of formula - he kept his phone number in the phone book, so that anybody around the world could call information and find him.

SHAPIRO: So much of Dick Smith's work came before computers and technology allowed people to create special effects that they can now do with the flip of switch. Do you think his legacy will endure, or is it at risk of being eclipsed by computer technology?

CABRAL-EBERT: There is a lot of CGI done. However, it is all based on the real make-ups. And there are a lot of directors who want to have their actors be in a practical make-up. His techniques were keep living on and on. I don't think CGI is going to take our artistry away.

SHAPIRO: That's Susan Cabral-Ebert talking about Academy Award-winning artist Dick Smith, who died this week at age 92. Thanks so much.

CABRAL-EBERT: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.