A self-taught makeup artist, Smith sent photos of his work to Hollywood, but got no interest. He was living in New York, so his father suggested he apply in the newly emerging medium of television. He was quickly snapped up by WNBC. He continued developing special “looks” in his basement, but was looked down upon by leaders in the field, who refused to tell anyone their “secrets.” His major innovation was to make masks in multiple pieces, rather than in one, which was the style at the time. That allowed actors to move their faces more easily, allowing them to perform though the mask. In 1959, Smith created leprosy makeup for Laurence Olivier for the TV version of The Moon and Sixpence. Olivier was so satisfied that he exclaimed, “Dick, it does the acting for me!”
Smith went on to create a number of memorable looks for actors, such as turning Hal Holbrook into Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight! (1967), the 121-year-old version of Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970), Marlon Brando’s Godfather (1972), Linda Blair’s Exorcist character in 1973, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976), and the aged F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus (1984), for which he won an Academy Award. (Oscars weren’t given for makeup work until 1982). “Once I looked into a mirror, at my face, I felt like it was completely convincing,” Abraham said later; he also won an Academy Award for the film. “Even when the characters were fantastically weird, I always tried to make them believable,” Smith once said. “Actors have to feel like they are the person they are portraying. I think my work has helped many to achieve that.” Hollywood makeup artist Rick Baker says Smith is “the greatest makeup artist who ever lived.” And he shared his secrets. “He was so generous in spirit that he would share every secret he knew with every makeup artist,” says Susan Cabral-Ebert, president of the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, “whether they were in a village in India, or if they were one of the biggest makeup artists in the world.” Richard Emerson “Dick” Smith died July 30 from complications of a broken hip. He was 92.