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Makeup Artist Baker Is the Man of a Thousand Faces

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s been a big week for Eddie Murphy, with “The Nutty Professor” doing hefty box office and garnering belly laughs from critics and the public-at-large. And while it’s Murphy’s ample performance as the overweight academic Sherman Klump that gives the movie its comedic weight, no small amount of credit for the film’s success must also go to the person who plumped Murphy into a convincing big man to begin with--makeup effects artist Rick Baker.

Baker, long recognized as one of Hollywood’s most outstanding makeup talents, has earned Oscars for his work on “An American Werewolf in London,” “Harry and the Hendersons” and, most recently, “Ed Wood.” He also received a nomination for his work in turning Murphy and Arsenio Hall into a variety of characters for 1988’s “Coming to America.”

He’s turned men into wolves, Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi, and Tommy Lee Jones into Batman foe Two-Face, but, for all his formidable skills, Baker says the challenge of turning Murphy into the obese title character of “The Nutty Professor” was particularly daunting.

“It’s the hardest kind of makeup to do,” Baker explains, relaxing at his San Fernando Valley home a day before heading to New York to craft some extraterrestrials for the forthcoming sci-fi film “Men in Black.”

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“It’s one thing to do animal-men or aliens. People are more accepting of what they see--if the foam rubber on an alien’s head is oddly shaped, who’s to say that’s not what an alien’s head looks like? But if there’s a hole in the middle of a fat guy’s face--something’s obviously wrong. I also definitely felt the pressure of doing this makeup for the title character--if it didn’t work, the movie wasn’t going to work.”

Murphy’s transformation into professor Klump began at Baker’s Glendale shop, where a number of head-to-toe life casts were taken of the actor. Sculptors began designing face makeup, applying generous quantities of clay to the reproductions of Murphy’s head, and modeling it into what became the face of Klump. At the same time, others of Baker’s crew were experimenting with silicon, foam rubber and liquid-filled bladders to create a “fat-suit” that would give Murphy’s body believable, jiggling bulk.

While Baker quickly came to believe that the makeup would be a sizable success, the film’s production staff had its doubts. “At one point, it was debated whether it was a mistake to make Sherman overweight,” Baker says. “There was fear that it would be offensive. I said, ‘Did you read the script I did? The overweight guy’s the hero.’ But I was told, ‘Unless you can prove that the fat makeup can be funny, we won’t do it.’ ”

Baker accepted the challenge, pulled together a Klump prototype and called Murphy in to the shop for a makeup test. “Eddie was amazing--he instantly figured out what he could do in the makeup, and just became this other person. I pointed a video camera at him and he took off. It was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen.”

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That footage convinced the film’s producers that Sherman should remain large, but debate turned to Murphy’s desire to play multiple characters in Klump family dinner scenes. The chance to transform Murphy into a variety of characters had been one of the main attractions to the project for Baker, so when grumbling began over the added costs the additional makeup would add, he acted quickly.

“I got Eddie back to the shop and did a test makeup of him as the professor’s mother. He looked great again, but he said, ‘I’m not sure what to do.’ I turned on the video camera and said, ‘Tell me about your son Sherman.’ That’s all it took to get an hour of hysterical mother material. The next day he came in and did Sherman’s dirty-talking grandmother and we got two hours of material out of that. We put a tape together and sent it to the producers and said, ‘Are you sure you want to cut this out?’ Their response was, ‘OK, OK--we get it.’ ”

In addition to Sherman, Mother and Grandmother Klump, the finished film has Murphy playing Sherman’s brother, his father and a white exercise guru bearing a striking resemblance to Richard Simmons. He also plays, without help from Baker, Sherman’s alter ego, the lean, testosterone-drenched Buddy Love.

For 70 days of the film’s production schedule, Murphy spent 3 1/2 hours in the makeup chair every morning before filming, and an additional hour in the chair at the end of the day for safe removal. “I love makeup,” Baker says, “but even I wouldn’t want to sit in a chair for 70 days with people poking me in the face. Eddie was always in great spirits. The only thing he wouldn’t do was shave his mustache, which made the mother and the grandmother a bit more of a challenge. But all in all he was a joy to work with.”

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Because he could only be made up as one character each day, the Klump dinner scenes were filmed with Murphy acting and reacting alone, with some trick photography turning the separate performances into the raucous, gassy tours de force audiences see in the film.

“It was pretty amazing,” Baker says with a laugh. “Once you get Eddie started, it’s hard to stop him. The makeup and photography and the lights were usually fine, but a lot of takes were ruined because Eddie got the crew laughing too hard.”

In addition to the laughs, Murphy also evokes pathos in his touching portrayal of the kindly, romantically frustrated Sherman. Baker says that while on the set of the film, he came to think of the rotund professor as a close acquaintance quite apart from Murphy.

“Most of the time I spent with Eddie, I was really with Sherman. The first thing I’d do is get Eddie into Sherman makeup, and that’s the way I’d see him all day. We were with Sherman so much, we really thought of him as a person. When we realized one day that it was the last Sherman day of the shoot, we were really sad. It was like losing a friend.”

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Baker’s handiwork can next be seen in “Escape From L.A.,” for which he designed faces for characters who’ve suffered a variety of plastic surgery mishaps. His shop is busier than ever, building everything from animatronic puppets to rubber monster suits for a wide range of projects. But Baker says that in the wake of his “Nutty” experience, he’s considering a change in his career path.

“I’m thinking of working only with Eddie Murphy,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll just let him play everybody in every movie he does, and I’ll make him as many rubber faces as it takes.”


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