Rick Baker, makeup genius -- How the man behind the many transformations of Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, and others got his start

By Steve Daly
Updated January 26, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Shy, quiet little Rick Baker, an only child, spent most of his adolescence feverishly developing his amateur monster-makeup skills. He honed them on himself, on his parents, and on other kids in the sleepy, lower-middle-class suburban town of Covina, Calif., about 20 miles east of L.A. One broiling day in the mid-1960s, Baker had a breakthrough. He decided to give a boy who lived nearby a huge, ghastly fake burn all down the side of his face. Excited about how real it looked even though it was just congealed latex, he wondered if the kid’s family would be fooled. ”So we went to his house,” Baker says, folding one leg up under himself like he’s still 12 years old. (He’s 56 now, and sports a more-salt-than-pepper beard and ponytail.) ”The kid’s father was watching TV. He was lying on the floor in his boxer shorts because it was so hot. And the kid came in running and screaming, acting like he’d really been burned.”

At that moment, Baker discovered just what a gifted makeup artist he’d become, and what a very bad child. ”The father jumped up and immediately started crying hysterically,” he says. Baker explained the trick as fast as he could, but the dad was inconsolable. ”I stood there going, ‘Oh, noooo, ”’ says Baker. ”’I think I did a bad thing. I should never do this again.”’

Fortunately for fans of physical make-believe, Baker only swore off practical jokes, not the art of trick makeup. In fact, that was just the beginning of his obsession with using all kinds of materials — chief among them molded latex and silicone — to make perfectly normal people look injured, ancient, animalistic, grossly overweight, or monstrously deformed. Though his parents lovingly cheered him on, most others didn’t. ”I can’t tell you,” he recalls with a satisfied grin, ”how many people would say to me as a teenager, ‘Why don’t you grow up and start thinking about getting a real job?”’

Baker showed them. By the time he was in college, he’d turned his hobby into a burgeoning career in and around Hollywood, where everyone was so much more interesting than the drones in Covina. He apprenticed with the innovative makeup artist Dick Smith for 1973’s The Exorcist, getting a master class in rubber-mask prosthetics and projectile bodily-fluid emissions. He helped turn Cicely Tyson into an old woman for the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which he won an Emmy (along with Stan Winston, another makeup-and-prosthetics prodigy). He ran around in an ape suit of his own design for Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong remake (1976), populated the Star Wars cantina (1977) with some of its aliens, and blew up a dummy body for Brian De Palma’s telekinesis thriller The Fury (1978). It was all fine work. But none of it had the career-boosting impact of An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 horror comedy for which Baker created the most mind-blowing, detailed, and convincing man-into-lycanthrope metamorphosis anybody had yet seen — and copped his first Oscar.

”Was it really 25 years ago?” Baker asks, stroking his carefully groomed whiskers. ”No wonder my beard’s white.”

Baker toiled nearly a year on the movie’s complicated part-makeup, part-animatronics trickery, lavishing on it what was then a huge budget of roughly half a million dollars. During production, he wasn’t sure if writer-director John Landis’ mix of gore, nudity, and laughs would play with audiences, or that the effects would look convincing. It wasn’t until Baker took some of his very young backup crew to see the finished film that he knew they’d pulled off something extraordinary. ”People stood up and cheered when the transformation stuff happened,” he recalls. ”I was like, ‘Okay. We did it.”’ Looking back, Baker finds the movie crude compared to his later work. ”None of the stuff was terribly sophisticated,” he says. ”It was a bunch of kids inventing a new way to do something. But it was different enough that you bought it.”

Half a world away in New Zealand, a young movie nut named Peter Jackson was among the people dazzled. ”Before American Werewolf, horror makeup had basically been limited to something you stuck on an actor’s face in a makeup room,” says the Lord of the Rings auteur. ”You maybe dissolved in and out to show a transformation, with the actor absolutely still on screen. Rick took that and pushed it much further. He designed a whole sequence around a transformation with the guy thrashing all about.” For Jackson, it was a geek epiphany.

Box office money and critical accolades for American Werewolf poured in, triggering a new level of media attention for Baker’s groundbreaking makeup effects. LIFE and TIME weighed in with splashy features, building excitement not just for Werewolf but for a widening circle of films showcasing extraordinary makeup, including Altered States, The Elephant Man, and even Raging Bull, which doused its boxing matches in new heights of graphic blood-spurting. Amid the buzz, the Academy decided to create a separate, permanent Best Makeup award starting with 1981 films. (Previously, makeup artists had been singled out only twice with special-award citations, for 1964’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and 1968’s Planet of the Apes.)

Yet in finally giving makeup more recognition, the Oscar elders created a new problem. According to Baker, some of his peers in this small community — there are about 120 Academy members in the hair and makeup ranks, though final nominations are typically spearheaded by roughly a quarter of that group — argued at the time that there should be three awards. One would cover so-called ”beauty” makeup; another, hairstyling; and a third would honor effects makeup of the sort that Baker and others were pioneering, which combines glued-on rubber ”appliances” with innovations like remote-controlled muscles, animatronics, and, by the mid-1980s, computer-graphic images — advancements that slop over into a gray area between makeup and visual effects. While the Academy stuck with just one prize, even tripling the categories would leave no clear place for ugly-makeover cases, like Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours (neither of which earned a makeup nomination, though both women won Best Actress trophies).

After Baker won the inaugural makeup Oscar for American Werewolf in March 1982 (besting Stan Winston for Heartbeeps, a dud romantic comedy starring Bernadette Peters and Andy Kaufman as lovebird androids), the debate among artists in the field raged behind the scenes. ”I got hate mail, actually,” Baker says. ”In a lot of people’s minds, what I did wasn’t makeup…. A lot of the straight-makeup people could see right away that they weren’t going to be winning these awards because of the flashier stuff we do.” At various times over the years, Baker says, sundry rules have been proposed to disqualify films from makeup consideration if they contain computer graphics or animatronics?but the restrictions haven’t stuck, since recent makeup winners include the Lord of the Rings films and The Chronicles of Narnia, which feature plenty of CG and high-tech mechanical dummies.

Happily for Baker, the internal politicking hasn’t kept his inventive work out of the spotlight. Werewolf made him a star, and high-profile assignments have followed steadily. He tries hard not to work on more than one or two films a year, as a quality-control safeguard. (He’ll also take the occasional non-feature project, like Michael Jackson’s seminal 1983 music-video mini-movie, Thriller, for which Baker outfitted a graveyard’s worth of dancing zombies.) Yet in less than three decades, Baker’s pick-and-choose ethos has yielded a record six Best Makeup Oscars on nine nominations, covering an astonishing range of creations.

Baker’s lifelong obsession with realistic ape suits, fueled by his childhood conviction that simians were the closest things in nature to fantastical monsters, brought him a statuette for 1987’s ape-man opus Harry and the Hendersons and a nomination for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). His alien designs scored a win for Men in Black (1997). And with Eddie Murphy, he’s created a gallery of outlandish, prosthetics-driven characters, securing nominations for Coming to America (1988) and Life (1999), as well as another win for sad-sack teacher Sherman and the flatulent Klump family in The Nutty Professor (1996). (Baker and Murphy team up again in February’s comedy Norbit.)

Baker finds it odd that his collaborations with Murphy have scored a trio of makeup nominations, but none for the star’s acting. ”Everybody’s talking about Eddie in Dreamgirls, ” says Baker. ”I saw it, and he’s great. But I’m sorry, it doesn’t compare to what he did in Nutty Professor. ” Of course, there were really two great performance artists behind all those Klumps. One is a natural at comedic timing, pantomime, and vocal mimicry. The other is a master of foam-rubber faces, convincingly withered old skin, and the most alive-looking fat suits the world has ever known.