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Groundbreaking makeup artist dies

Linda Blair is shown in a scene in "The Exorcist," one of the movies in which Dick Smith's innovative makeup work stunned audiences. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Linda Blair is shown in a scene in “The Exorcist,” one of the movies in which Dick Smith’s innovative makeup work stunned audiences. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment)

LOS ANGELES – As the grandmaster of special-effects makeup, Dick Smith broke ground in the movies in the early 1970s when he transformed Dustin Hoffman into a 120-year-old for “Little Big Man” and an adolescent Linda Blair into a diabolical demon in “The Exorcist.”

When he received an Academy Award in 1985 for aging F. Murray Abraham into an elderly composer in the film “Amadeus,” many industry observers wondered: What took so long?

Noted Hollywood makeup artist Rick Baker saluted his mentor as “the greatest makeup artist who ever lived” when Smith received an honorary Oscar in 2011 in recognition of his pioneering role in the industry.


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Smith, whose career began in the early days of television and spanned six decades, died Wednesday night in Los Angeles of complications from a broken hip, said his son David. He was 92.

“Collectively, our hearts are broken,” Susan Cabral-Ebert, president of the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, said Thursday. “To every special-effects makeup artist he was their mentor, an iconic person they most looked up to. He was so generous in spirit that he would share every secret he knew with every makeup artist, whether they were in a village in India, or if they were one of the biggest makeup artists in the world.”

On “Little Big Man,” Smith made a historic and creative leap when he did away with one-piece masks in favor of overlapping prosthetic devices to drastically age Hoffman, then in his early 30s. Smith glued on each piece individually – such as a nose, chin and neck – in a painstaking process with an immense payoff: Actors could still control their facial muscles.

The breakthrough became the industry standard that is still used today.

Smith’s cutting-edge work on “The Exorcist” was a turning point for makeup special effects because he “showed that makeup wasn’t just about making people look scary or old, but had many applications,” Baker, who began his career as Smith’s assistant on the film, told The Washington Post in 2007.

In one of the most famous scenes in “The Exorcist,” Blair’s head appears to spin because of a mechanical dummy constructed by Smith. He made welts seem to swell up on her stomach and was responsible for another hallmark of the movie when he created some of the most famous regurgitation scenes of all time.

Self-taught as a makeup artist, Smith stumbled upon his life’s calling while a premed student at Yale when he pulled a “magical book” about stage makeup out of a bookstore’s half-price bin. He was soon roaming the campus at night in monster makeup of his own design.

When he graduated from Yale in 1943, it would have been unthinkable for him to pursue a career in makeup, Smith often said, but he reconsidered his future while serving in the Army during World War II. The seriousness of war made him question “what I really wanted to do, not what was expected of me, which is the way I was brought up,” Smith said in a 2008 interview.