A great Hollywood makeup artist can transform an actor into almost anything, but the legendary John Chambers was so good at his craft — he created Spock’s pointy ears — that the CIA sought him out to help rescue American hostages. Now that’s talent.
In Argo, John Goodman plays the role of Chambers, the special effects makeup artist who helps CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) devise the cover story for a high-stakes rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis. “He was the first makeup artist to win the Academy Award and he had a side career. He had a hobby,” Goodman said of his character — who moonlighted as a disguise expert for the CIA — during a recent appearance on Good Morning America. “I was very attracted to the whole double life aspect… You couldn’t make [the story] up.”
Chambers stumbled into what would become his career during World War II where, during his stint as a dental technician in a veterans hospital, he learned the techniques involved in creating prosthetics while working with wounded soldiers. In the early ’50s, he relocated to Hollywood, landing a job as a makeup artist at NBC.
Over the next 30 years, Chambers (who died in 2001) became known as a pioneer in makeup design for both TV and film, creating the pointy Vulcan ears for Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series, perfecting the simian look for 1968’s Planet of the Apes, and developing a new technique for making bald caps that is still used today.
Chambers’ groundbreaking work won him an honorary Oscar in 1969 (the Academy didn’t officially designate a category for hair and makeup until 1981) and also earned him four Emmy nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was also awarded the highest civilian honor by the CIA, and examples of his work are on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Argo is in theaters now.