Bigfoot Encounters

An Appreciation of JOHN CHAMBERS
Makeup Master and Mentor

by Scott Essman

Born: September 12, 1922 --Died: August 25, 2001

With few exceptions, no one was more influential in the modern world of special makeup effects than John Chambers, who died on August 25 at the age of 78. From his work in television's crucial first decades through groundbreaking cinematic triumphs as pivotal as Planet of the Apes, Chambers' 30-year career in Hollywood solidified his legacy as both a technical master and mentor to a legion of young artists who followed him. Though he had been retired for more than a decade, Chambers' impact is still felt in the industry today.

Undoubtedly, Chambers' cornerstone achievement was the realization of makeup characters in the original Planet of the Apes. Released in 1968, Apes was the first widely recognized film to successfully display prosthetically-produced makeups on a large scale. Chambers' designs for Apes were unprecedented and his methodology in churning out the countless ape makeup pieces was fastidious. Forced to pioneer many assembly-line production techniques to meet the demands of such a large-scale makeup show, Chambers claimed, "We innovated everything."

The proportions of the film, by any standard, were enormous: there were often as many as sixty make-up artists and more than forty hairdressers working every day of production; on select shooting days, there were nearly forty principal ape actors and 160 extras with background masks on. Ken Chase, a makeup artist on Apes who went on to notoriety for his age makeup work in Back to the Future, The Color Purple, and Mr.Holland's Opus claimed of Apes, "John designed those makeups, invented the technology, and taught the application skills to all of us."

One of Chambers' protégés, Tom Burman, a makeup and creature artist whose thirty-plus years of credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Cat People, was Chambers' right-hand man on Apes. "John introduced technical skills to the field of makeup in Hollywood," Burman said. "Before, most artists had learned their craft from plaster-shop people."

With a virtual army of makeup people to train for Apes, Chambers stubbornly bent the rules in order to allow vital newcomers into the business. "In those days," Chase stated, "when you went to work at the studios, there were makeup labs, and those doors were closed. It was very secretive. John changed that. There was never a question of him sharing information and opening up the business to new people."

Born in Chicago in 1922, Chambers first became involved in prosthetics during WWII by creating handmade medical appliances for veterans who had suffered war injuries. He moved to Los Angeles in 1953 where he landed a job with the fledgling NBC television network, doing makeup for countless TV programs before moving onto feature films. After six years, Chambers left NBC for Universal where he worked in the makeup lab under department head Bud Westmore. In 1963, he created striking disguises for Kirk Douglas in the film The List of Adrian Messenger, his first widely recognized makeup success on film.

A year later, Chambers developed the key makeups for the monster comedy series The Munsters. A young Michael Westmore, Star Trek's current film and television makeup supervisor, had come to Universal to apprentice for his uncle Bud and soon fell under Chambers' tutelage on these projects. Of those early makeup-oriented challenges, Westmore recalled that "there weren't any other makeup people on the West Coast who had the knowledge that John did in terms of his usage of prosthetic materials."

By the mid-1960s, after six years at Universal, Chambers' superb craftsmanship became well known in Hollywood. Sensing this, he started his own freelance business run out of his Burbank home in a separate garage building that he converted into a full-service makeup lab. It was from there that Chambers was called upon by a constant stream of film and television producers from all over town to create everything from eye bags to noses to ears for various shows. During this time, Chambers was responsible for the makeup work in shows including I Spy, in which Chambers once created a memorable Oriental appliance makeup for star Robert Culp; Mission: Impossible, for which he created a series of mask disguises for Martin Landau; and The Outer Limits, whose rapid production pace necessitated Chambers to crank out "a monster every week" (one example: David McCallum's memorable character, "The Sixth Finger"). A largely unknown bit of trivia is that Chambers designed and created Leonard Nimoy's original Spock ears for the first Star Trek TV series.

In the 1970s, Chambers undertook a variety of film projects, including a retelling of The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Michael York, which featured his "Humanimal" character designs. Chambers retired in the 1980s but for the rest of his life, he remained a valuable source of information to new artists who entered the field. Dozens of top makeup people today claim that John Chambers helped to forward their careers.

In 1997, after a twelve-year absence from the industry, nearly 100 of Chambers' colleagues,
protégés, and friends gathered at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills for a surprise 75th birthday party. Though his health had been failing, the experience was said to have enlivened Chambers by making him aware of his impact on the industry and the people working in it now. "I trained many of these younger people," Chambers said at the time. "I see all of them creating fine things now and I'm very proud. Some of these artists are doing fabulous work."

The late Roddy McDowall's sister, Virginia, said of the news of Chambers' passing, "John was the bravest man I've ever known. When he had his first stroke in 1996, he worked so hard in his physical therapy. Then, in his wheelchair, he spent all of his time going to other patients' rooms and encouraging them in his gentle, friendly, generous way."

Before he died in 1998, Roddy McDowall, who played a chimpanzee character in four of the five Apes films, summarized Chambers' accomplishments. "John actually created the platform which has allowed all of the makeup sophistication of today," he said. "He sparked the imagination of an army of kids who are now eminent in the field. As humble as John is, I'm afraid that he has to settle for the reality that he is an icon."

Chambers is one of only two makeup artists given an honorary Academy Award and is one of three to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. On Thursday, August 30, a memorial service for Chambers took place at the Motion Picture & Television Fund's Frances Goldwyn Lodge where Chambers had lived since 1991. He is survived by his wife Joan.

© Scott Essman, Visionary Media, Glendora, California with permission.
- - Scott Essman wrote this tribute to Chambers for the Los Angeles Times. It appears on other websites and in other publications. Essman has been writing about makeup artistry since 1995.

His publication about the subject, "Creature People," is due later this year. ......Bobbie Short

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