Dick Smith: An Appreciation

by William Burns

Cinema has lost a true pioneer with the death of make up artist Dick Smith. Smith’s list of credits include a litany of modern cinema classics: Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Amadeus (for which he won an Oscar), The Deer Hunter, Marathon Man, and Little Big Man. But it is for his contributions to genre films that his legacy will forever be remembered as he made the supernatural and the otherworldly very real (almost too real) for viewers. Smith began his career in television working for Dan Curtis on the cult T.V. series Dark Shadows and Curtis’s TV adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (where he specifically worked on Jack Palance’s transformation make up) before moving onto the big screen, creating horrifyingly beautiful work for House of Dark Shadows, The Sentinel, Exorcist II, Ghost Story, The Hunger, Poltergeist III,  Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, Death Becomes Her, and the remake of House on Haunted Hill. Smith’s extraordinary creations for The Exorcist, Altered States, and Scanners revolutionized the art and craft of makeup for horror and science fiction films. Smith’s ability to believably transform human anatomy into forms that should not exist in reality was his specialty, and he succeeded where few have. Perhaps only Lon Chaney’s work has had the same impact on the appreciation of the importance of make up for film and the realization that innovations in make up are more about wonder and artistry than technology and mass production. His contributions to these genres cannot be over-exaggerated, especially to the Fangoria generation of horror fanatics who watched in awe of Smith’s creations.  Smith’s influence on and mentoring of genre make-up artists such as Rick Baker and Rob Bottin inspired such classic films as An American Werewolf in London and John Carpenter’s The Thing.  All horror fans owe a debt of gratitude to Dick Smith’s imagination, creativity, and brilliance, which elevated the aesthetics of horror to the level of true art.  


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