Stuart Freeborn, a pioneering movie makeup artist behind creatures such as Yoda and Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films, has died. He was 98.
LucasFilm confirmed Wednesday that Freeborn had passed away, “leaving a legacy of unforgettable contributions.”
“Star Wars” director George Lucas said in a statement that Freeborn was “already a makeup legend” when he started working on “Star Wars.”
“He brought with him not only decades of experience, but boundless creative energy,” Lucas said. “His artistry and craftsmanship will live on forever in the characters he created. His “Star Wars” creatures may be reinterpreted in new forms by new generations, but at their heart, they continue to be what Stuart created for the original films.”
Freeborn’s granddaughter, Michelle Freeborn, said he died Tuesday in London from a combination of ailments due to his age. Michelle Freeborn, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand, said her grandfather was “like a hero” to her and inspired her and her late father to get into the movie business, too.
“He was a really fun and imaginative individual.” she said. “He gave you the feeling that if you wanted to achieve something, you should just get on and do it, and don’t ever use excuses. He enjoyed life and the amazing world we live in.”
Freeborn’s six-decade career led him to work on many classics, including Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Born in London in 1914, Freeborn was the son of a Lloyds of London insurance broker. He told a BBC documentary last year that he resisted pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps, because “I felt I was different.”
He began his film career in the 1930s, working for Hungarian-born director Alexander Korda, and honing his makeup skills on stars including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh.
After air force service during World War II, he worked on British cinema classics including “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and David Lean’s 1948 version of “Oliver Twist.” His transformation of Alec Guinness into Fagin —complete with a large hooked nose — was criticized by some as anti-Semitic, a matter of regret for Freeborn, who said he was partly Jewish.
Freeborn later worked with Kubrick, transforming Peter Sellers into multiple characters for “Doctor Strangelove” before designing the apes for “2001”’s “Dawn of Man” sequence, in which primates react to a mysterious monolith.
But he will likely be best remembered for his work on “Star Wars” — creating characters such as the 7-foot-tall wookie Chewbacca and the slug-like Jabba the Hutt.
LucasFilm said that Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” would “note that Freeborn quite literally put himself into Yoda, as the Jedi master’s inquisitive and mischievous elfin features had more than a passing resemblance to Freeborn himself.” (Yoda’s looks were also said to be partly inspired by Albert Einstein.)
Freeborn recalled being approached by “this young fellow” named George Lucas, who told him, “I’ve written a script for a film called ‘Star Wars.'”
“He was so genuine about it, I thought, well, young as he is, I believe in him. He’s got something. I’ll do what I can for him,” Freeborn told the BBC.
Nick Maley, a makeup artist who worked with Freeborn in the 1970s, called him a mentor who “ran his department like a headmaster.”
“It was my years working with him that helped me learn how to think, how to solve problems, how to not take the most obvious path,” Maley said. “Everybody will remember him for ‘Star Wars,’ but he did so much more than that. No one should overlook the groundbreaking work he did on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ That was really the forerunner of ‘Star Wars’ and used a lot of the same technology.”
Freeborn’s wife, Kay, died in 2012. Freeborn’s three sons — Roger, Ray and Graham — also died before him.
In addition to Michelle, Freeborn is survived by six grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.