“He was the Beatles to me.”

by J.J. Abrams


As an aspiring and chubby student filmmaker in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was obsessed with movies, notably monster, science fiction and horror films.

I would spend my weekends making Super 8 movies using any technique I could to kill my friends and blow things up with sheer and utter realism.

But in that era, technique was hard to come by.

Before the Internet and DVD special features demystified pretty much everything about the process, movies were sort of like crop circles.

How the hell did they get there? How the hell did they do that?

Avenues to unlocking the secrets of filmmaking were few and far between.

And getting professional replies to critically important questions like, “How do you make someone bleed from the eyeballs?” was not easy.

It was in 1981 as a 9th grader and, how do I say this, an insanely rabid Dick Smith fan after admiring his work from The Exorcist to Scanners, The Godfather and Altered States, I wrote the man a fan letter — never expecting to hear back.

I came home from school one day and found a cardboard box addressed to me. The return address was Dick Smith, Larchmont, New York.

My heart pounded as I opened the box.

The enclosed note read, “Dear J.J., Here’s an old, but clean, tongue from The Exorcist. Put peanut butter inside it, to stick it on. Or moisten inside and put dental-plated adhesive powder inside it. Yours, Dick.”

My mother was very concerned.

“Who is this man named Dick sending you tongues?”

One night later that year, I was in New York visiting my grandparents at the airport, waiting at the luggage carousel when I spotted a man waiting for his bags.

I had seen pictures of Dick Smith before, and holy shit, that looked like Dick Smith. But how could I be sure?

Ah, ha. I remembered Mr. Smith has four fingers on his left hand. It was like a Ludlum novel. I slowly walked around the carousel trying to get a glimpse of his left hand. And there I saw it.

I was never happier to see a missing digit in my life. I was in a room with my hero.

He was The Beatles to me, and no one in the terminal had a clue.

I approached him and introduced myself. He was, if this is possible, even kinder in person.

He gave me a pre-release issue of Cinefantastique magazine. Dick Smith was on the cover. They were featuring his work on Altered States.

He signed the magazine and encouraged me to stay creative, keep making movies, and continue (if I wanted to) to keep writing to him. My correspondence with Dick Smith went on for years.

A typical letter reads:

Dear J.J.,

I’ve just returned from Czechoslovakia doing an age makeup for Amadeus.

The Hunger comes out April 29.

Yes, I like Savini’s book and his work on Creepshow.

Yes, cable is attached to plunger in large syringe instead of lever — bicycle cable. Keep up the good work.

Best,

Dick

One night at dinner 20 years ago, Dick introduced me to another young filmmaker from Mexico who he thought was an actual genius.

I met Guillermo del Toro that night, and our friendship was sealed through mutual reverence of a makeup artist who blew our minds.

First, with brilliant talent. Then, with brilliant kindness.

It’s easy to lavish praise on a man who created iconic images using human faces as his canvas: godfathers and demons, creatures and horrors.

A man who attempted on-camera transformations long before any one of us had ever heard of a pixel.

But the praise must also be given to a man who shared his secrets, encouraged the husky Jewish boy with the Super 8 camera, the Mexican wizard with his journals full of doodles, the legions of fans and colleagues who came to Dick Smith with only the hope of one day being able to entertain people who asked, “How did you do that?”

It was Dick Smith who gave us the answers.

Thank you, Dick.

Oscar-winning makeup artist Dick Smith (left) and writer/producer J.J. Abrams during the reception preceding “A Tribute to Dick Smith: the Godfather of Special Makeup Effects,” on June 17, 2009.

This is J.J. Abrams’ tribute to makeup artist Dick Smith from the Academy’s 2011 Governors Awards.