I don’t really know how to start this Blog Post. To say I am heartbroken is putting it mildly. Obviously, I knew that Dick Smith was getting older and that eventually this day would come but I don’t think I ever really prepared myself. I awoke this morning to the sad news that the legendary “Godfather” of Special Makeup Effects, Dick Smith, has passed at the age of 92.
When I was a kid, I loved, and I do mean LOVED, horror and sci-fi movies. I watched, and still watch, movies with a very analytical, critical eye. I wanted to know how those guys made all those amazing things happen on screen. Now, this was before CGI came onto the scene, and practical effects were all that most filmmakers had to work with. I was enthralled and began reading every magazine I could find on the industry of special effects makeup. I spend hours making lifecasts, mixing up latex, and even one Halloween had people knocking on the door of my home asking if they could pay me to make them up as zombies or ghouls. I watched various TV programs on the art of Makeup Effects, and one name that was ALWAYS mentioned was that of Dick Smith. One night in 1992 the sixteen-year-old me decided I HAD to meet Dick Smith!
My first phone call was to the home of Special Effects Makeup Artist Tom Savini. Tom is a Pittsburgh native, and since I lived in PA, I figured “Hey, he’ll probably be really nice to me since we’re from the same state”. Ah, the sixteen-year-old brain… In any event, Tom was very gracious over the phone and suggested I get in touch with Dick Smith, and gave me his PHONE NUMBER! I remember not being nervous at all about calling Dick Smith at home. I was more excited than anything. This was a man that I idolized in his field of work. In my eyes, a genius in the effects industry.
Dick’s wife picked up the phone and I asked if “Mr. Smith was available”. Without hesitation, the phone was handed over and the voice on the other end was that of Dick Smith! We spoke for a bit and then Dick said something to me that I couldn’t even believe. He said, “Why don’t you come to my home in New York, and we can spend some time talking about Makeup Effects and I can answer all of your questions.” This was beyond exciting. This was the Godfather inviting a kid to hang out with him! I immediately made plans to travel from PA to Dick’s home in New York.
A few days later I arrived at Dick Smith’s home in New York, my art portfolio in hand, walked up to his front door, and was warmly greeted by him. We retreated to his basement studio, and he gave me the grand tour. Wide-eyed, I gazed at lifecasts of Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Linda Blair, etc… and there it was…the Best Makeup Oscar for “Amadeus“! Dick noticed me looking at the Oscar statuette and with a chuckle commented to me “Go ahead and pick it up. It’s heavier than it looks.”
After the tour, Dick sat me down and said, “Okay then, ask me anything you want.” I did so. For the next four hours, we talked about all the Makeup Effects work Dick has created from his time at NBC to his work on “The Godfather“, “The Exorcist” and “Taxi Driver“. We spoke about actors and actresses, how to create just the right color of blood, techniques for sculpting and lifecasting, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin, and the dawn of CGI. Dick mentioned to me that he had recently returned from a visit to Stan Winston’s studio, were they were building a full-size, animatronic T-Rex for “Jurassic Park“. Dick said, “Go see Jurassic Park when it comes out. That movie is going to change FX work forever.” Around noon, after a multitude of questions and a slideshow, Dick offered to take me to lunch and then we would come back to the studio and chat some more.
After lunch, we returned to Dick’s home where I spent another few hours before moving on to the Museum of The Moving Image to see some of Dick’s work displayed. Before we parted ways, Dick instilled in me to always keep creating. “Don’t ever stop imagining and drawing, painting, creating work. You only get better through practice.” were Dick’s words to me. With that, Dick Smith shook my hand and thanked me for visiting.
I have never forgotten my day with Dick Smith and I recall it with vivid clarity even all these years later. Dick inspired me to continue doing what I love and for that I am beyond thankful. I am not embarrassed to say that as I read of his passing this morning tears welled up in my eyes. I treasure the day I spent with The Godfather of Special Makeup Effects, and I have a feeling that Dick was aware of how much meeting him meant to a sixteen-year-old kid. Rest in peace, Dick Smith. You’re a true legend and I count myself lucky to have known you.
***All images in this Blog post were captured by me at Dick Smith’s home/studio in New York, as well as a few at The Museum of The Moving Image***