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The Man Behind the Rubber Masks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Makeup wizard Rick Baker is at a slight disadvantage as he settles into a chair in the Gothic abbey sanctuary of his Glendale-based studio, Cinovation, to talk about “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” for which he once more transformed Eddie Murphy into an obese college professor and his entire family. For one thing, Baker, whose credits include “Star Wars,” “Harry and the Hendersons” and “Men in Black,” had not yet seen the film, a follow-up to the 1996 hit “The Nutty Professor” (which in turn was a remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis opus). What’s more, Baker is having to shift gears from the project that is currently consuming his time and imagination, 20th Century Fox’s remake of “Planet of the Apes.”

But even without the benefit of gauging audience or industry reaction, Baker is satisfied that the five character “makeups” on Murphy are successful, because for the five-time Oscar winner (one of those was for the first “Nutty Professor”) the true test is how something looks on the set. “I want something that I can look at in person and think it looks real. I make stuff for my own eye,” says Baker, who has spent 30 of his 49 years creating all manner of monsters, aliens and gorillas, as well as an occasional, stunningly rendered human. One example: his Oscar-winning transformation of Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi for 1994’s “Ed Wood,” directed by Tim Burton, who’s also at the helm of the “Apes” remake.

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What audiences will see in “Nutty II” are five distinct characters: sweet-natured and heavyset Sherman Klump, his doting mother, his coarse but loving father, his slightly dangerous brother and his outrageously randy grandmother (and even though they have names, the characters are invariably referred to as “Papa,” “Mama,” “the Brother” and “Granny,” lending them an air of familiarity and a fairy-tale edge).

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In addition to these characters, the protean Murphy also appears sans special makeup as Sherman’s Mr. Hyde, the demonically hip Buddy Love, and as a younger version of Papa Klump. But whereas in the first film the family scene was staged more as a gimmick, “Nutty II” is fueled by the relationships among the Klump family, requiring them to be absolutely believable and distinct. Rarely before has a film’s success been so tied to the effectiveness of the characters’ makeup.

How convincing are the makeups Baker created for Murphy? Peter Segal, director of “Nutty II,” can attest to their reality.

“After the first movie, I said to some people, ‘That’s really cool that [Murphy] played all those characters at the table, but why did they get an actor to play that brother? Why didn’t Eddie play him?’ ” Segal recalls. “And somebody said, ‘No, you idiot, that is Eddie!’ I swear to God I was completely fooled.” (The only Klump Murphy does not play is Sherman’s nephew, who is portrayed by young Jamal Mixon.)

Segal was not alone in his amazement over the transformations. Visitors to the “Nutty Professor” set would often gape at Murphy, much to the actor’s discomfort. “It wouldn’t be, ‘Hi, Eddie, how ya doin’?’ They would look at him and go, ‘Where do you end and where’s the makeup begin?’ ” Baker recalls. “Eddie always said to me, ‘Do you know what that [feels] like to have somebody staring at you like that, looking at the corner of your mouth? I’m a person, here, man!’ And I’d say, ‘No, you’re somebody to hang rubber on.’ ”

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Baker has nothing but praise for Murphy during the shoots of both “Nutty” films, as well as “Coming to America” and “Life,” for which Baker also created the makeups. “I love the guy,” he says. “He has fun with the makeup. Some actors, if you put an appliance on them, they freak out because it’s not their face, but Eddie experiments with it. You could put the same makeup on a lesser actor and have it be a complete failure, but he makes my work look good.”

Segal wholeheartedly concurs. “What Eddie does to that makeup brings it to life,” he says. “When he is between takes with the makeup he looks completely different, it just hangs, and he pumps it up like a tire into shape when the camera rolls.”

Because the materials used for special prosthetic makeup decompose, none of the molds from the first “Nutty” could be reused. But this also gave Baker and his crew a chance to improve things. Granny, in particular, underwent a total re-sculpt. "[Baker] added subtle details to these characters’ faces that for me put it over the top,” Segal says.

Originally, Baker started with Sherman, making clay sketches over a life mask of Murphy until he was satisfied with the distribution of weight on the face. Papa Klump was the result of Baker taking Sherman’s face and altering it digitally on a computer. Mama Klump, meanwhile, was patterned after a gospel singer Baker happened to catch on a TV show one night, and Granny was partly inspired by the late comedian Moms Mabley. As far as the designs went, Murphy offered no input. “He’d say, ‘No, you make the face and I’ll make it work. I’ll find the voice that sounds right coming out of it,’ ” Baker says.

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Once the facial designs were finalized, they were sculpted in Plasticine over a cast of Murphy’s face, from which the molds were made. The Plasticine was then removed, whipped liquid rubber was poured in, and the mold was baked. The result was a foam-rubber appliance that contoured perfectly to Murphy’s face but bore the outer shape of the sculpture.

It is a time-consuming process. “You run one set a day,” Baker says, “but the success rate is something like 1 in 5, which means for every five baked attempts, only one is good enough to use.”

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To turn the slender Murphy into a 300-pound dough-man, Baker crafted a suit of polyurethane foam, which was carved into the proper shape, hollowed and then covered with spandex. The suit, which was fitted with strategically placed water-filled latex bladders or balloons for scenes in which bounce and jiggle were needed, weighed an estimated 10 pounds. To complete the effect of heft, Murphy wore oversized but delicate, glove-like rubber hands.

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Unlike the first “Nutty,” Baker did not actually apply the makeup to Murphy for “Nutty II.” Instead he turned the job over to David Leroy Anderson, his assistant on the first film, which allowed Baker to work on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at the same time (both “Grinch” and “Nutty II” were produced for Universal by Imagine Entertainment). Still, for what he calls “everybody’s peace of mind, including myself,” Baker was present in the makeup room for the first few times to oversee the application of the makeups.

For “Nutty II,” Murphy spent 75 days in makeup, playing a different character each day (one day each week was reserved for Buddy Love, to allow Murphy’s face to breathe). The makeups took from three to five hours a day to apply, with the maximum time spent on Granny, the most complicated makeup, which was made even more complicated by Anderson’s having to work around Murphy’s mustache. To relieve the tedium, Murphy listened to tapes, watched videos or channel-surfed. Baker says he was amazed by the actor’s patience, and even made mention of it in his Oscar acceptance speech for the first film.

Growing up in Hollywood, Baker was all of 10 when he decided he wanted to be “the guy who made monsters for the movies.” Inspired by Forrest Ackerman’s legendary fan magazine “Famous Monsters of Filmland” (“When I was in Famous Monsters as ‘Rick Baker, Monster Maker,’ I’d made it, that was the most famous I ever felt,” he says) and blessed with extremely supportive parents, Baker began creating homemade prosthetics in his early teens, baking them in the family oven, often to the detriment of the family’s meals.

While still an art major at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., Baker began working on such cheapies as 1971’s “Octaman,” for which he built an octopus on a budget of $500, and “Schlock,” the first film of director John Landis, who also cavorted on screen in Baker’s first ape suit.

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Under the mentorship of makeup legend Dick Smith, the artist quickly graduated to much bigger productions, such as the 1973 James Bond film “Live and Let Die.” In 1981 he won the first competitive makeup Oscar for “An American Werewolf in London.”

Baker also became known as Hollywood’s premier gorilla maker, not only building but also performing inside a gorilla suit for the 1976 remake of “King Kong” and creating the ape costumes and effects makeup for 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” 1988’s “Gorillas in the Mist” and 1998’s “Mighty Joe Young.” In the process he branched out into the field of animatronics, a specialty that is now endangered through the proliferation of computer-generated creatures (“I’m glad I still have the makeup skills,” Baker says with a laugh). Endangered, but not extinct: “Nutty II” features a 7-foot animatronic monster hamster created by Baker.

A flash of the former teenage monster “geek” bubbles up when Baker describes the day when Murphy, in full Sherman Klump makeup, visited Jim Carrey in complete Grinch regalia on the set of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“When Sherman came to visit Whoville, and we had 90 people made up as Whos and Jim was made up as the Grinch, and here were these two giants of comedy and big film stars, both in these rubber faces I’d made, standing there talking to each other, and I was just sitting there with the biggest grin on my face looking at these two guys.

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“It was just such a cool day!” Baker says, shedding 35 years in an instant, without benefit of any makeup.


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