Dick Smith, makeup artist of 'The Godfather,' 'The Exorcist': A tribute
Years ago, I asked The Walking Dead‘s zombie makeup maestro Greg Nicotero for his fake blood recipe. He said, “I’ve always based my blood on Dick Smith’s formula. His blood has always been the staple of the industry. It’s one of those things where if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Dick Smith, the Oscar-winning makeup effects legend behind The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather, who passed away on July 30 at age 92, was more than just Hollywood’s sanguine Colonel Sanders with a secret recipe for plasma that became a cinematic standard. He was a magician—a Houdini armed with foam latex, food coloring, and Karo syrup.
In an era before CGI made the impossible feel pedestrian, his dazzling practical effects made us all feel like co-conspirators in some of the most horrifying and mystifying shared illusions to be found on the silver screen. He may have been famous for his signature blood cocktail, but it was the far more diverse array of miracles that made him a creative life force that pulsed through the veins of his industry for the past four decades. Not for nothing did Quentin Tarantino call him “The God of Gods” in the world of movie makeup.
Smith, a New York native who originally thought he would become a dentist (something that, no doubt, came in handy in his work on 1976’s The Marathon Man), began his conjuring career as the head of the makeup department at NBC in the mid-1940s. There, he quickly displayed his knack for innovation by producing less cumbersome facial prosthetics which allowed actors to show a wider array of emotions than they’d previously been able to. He was always impatiently searching for ways to make the fantastic more believable. Still, it was his career in movies for which he’ll be best remembered.
In 1970’s Little Big Man, director Arthur Penn tapped Smith to age his 32-year-old star Dustin Hoffman into the 121-year-old Jack Crabbe, a white man raised by Native Americans who looks back on his incident-packed life. In 1972’s The Godfather, Smith turned Marlon Brando into the bulldog-jowled Don Corleone and riddled his heir apparent, Sonny (James Caan), with a rat-a-tat hail of bullets in a bloody toll-station shootout. In 1973’s The Exorcist, Smith transformed 14-year-old actress Linda Blair into a possessed, pea-soup-vomiting demon from hell whose head spins a blood-curdling 360 degrees—a bit of old-school trickery that Smith spent ages perfecting.
Then, in 1976, Smith collaborated with Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver. In one of the most memorable moments in the film—a climactic gunfight between Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle and some lowlifes in a squalid tenement—Smith proved to be too good at his job. Using the old Dick Smith formula, he soaked the scene in gasp-inducing buckets of blood (not to mention severed fingers). The gory tableau was so shocking, so realistic, that Scorsese had to desaturate the colors of Smith’s blood, making it less red in order to secure an R rating. It didn’t matter; 38 years later, the scene is still sickeningly visceral.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, in films like The Deer Hunter, Altered States, Scanners, The Hunger, and Starman, Smith put his indelible stamp on movie history. But it was 1984’s Amadeus, which finally earned “The Godfather of Makeup” his first Oscar (he shared the award with Paul LeBlanc). In Milos Forman’s Best Picture winner about the precocious young Austrian musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his bitter, envious adversary Antonio Salieri, Smith turned 44-year-old F. Murray Abraham into the wrinkly 73-year-old Salieri. Recalling his youthful rivalry with Mozart in old age, Abraham’s Salieri seems to be a prisoner in his Sharpei-like skin. It’s been said that in old age we all get the faces we deserve. In Smith’s magical hands, the scheming Salieri earned a haunting death mask—a relief map of jealousy and anguish.
In 2012, Smith received an Honorary Oscar from the Academy to serve as a bookend companion to his Amadeus statuette. I suspect that for a lot of even the most knowledgeable movie lovers, that award was the first time they learned the extent and sweep of Smith’s legacy. But to his colleagues and disciples—the generations of filmmakers and Fangoria readers who revered his illusions—he was, is, and will continue to be a bloody giant.