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John Chambers; ‘Apes’ Makeup Won an Oscar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lana Turner once dropped by his Burbank garage for a set of teeth. Howard Keel stopped in for an Indian nose. And Leonard Nimoy visited to be fitted for Mr. Spock’s trademark pointed ears.

John Chambers, an innovative and influential Hollywood special effects makeup artist who won an Academy Award for his ground-breaking efforts in the original “Planet of the Apes” and did much of his work in his home lab, where he trained and mentored young makeup artists, died Aug. 25 of complications from diabetes. He was 78.

Chambers died at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, where he had lived since 1991.

Throughout his 30-year career, Chambers worked on scores of movies and television shows, including the films “The List of Adrian Messenger” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and TV’s “The Outer Limits,” “The Munsters,” “Lost in Space” and “Mission: Impossible.”

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He served at various times as head of special makeup effects at Universal and 20th Century Fox, in addition to working independently with many other studios and production companies.

“John literally brought new techniques and materials to the motion picture business that are still being used today,” said Michael Westmore, makeup designer and supervisor for the “Star Trek” film and television franchise, who began apprenticing with Chambers at Universal in 1963.

Among Chambers’ innovations: a new technique for making “bald caps,” which give actors the appearance of being completely bald. Instead of using rubber, Chambers used liquid plastic, which he sprayed onto a metal form of an actor’s head. His bald caps are considered the most realistic and are the standard in the industry.

Then there was his technique for making veneer theatrical false teeth and the plastic-based material he created for making scars and wounds, which he called Scar ‘Em.

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“John Chambers is one of those few rare individuals that have taken an industry to a completely new level,” said Michael Key, editor in chief of Make-Up Artists Magazine. “John brought to Hollywood makeup the ability to create believable and compelling characters in a way that had never been done before.”

Veteran makeup artist Maurice Stein, another Chambers protege, said: “Everything John ever created started in his garage lab. That’s where all of us got our original training.”

For Burbank neighbors, it wasn’t unusual to see Marlon Brando or Mickey Rooney duck into Chambers’ garage for fittings.

Only Frank Sinatra refused an invitation, insisting that Chambers go to his apartment instead.

“He needed a life mask, but he couldn’t stand to have plaster or foam rubber on his face,” Chambers recalled in a 1969 Times interview. “He gave me a sculptured bust to use as a pattern. The bust was made in the 1940s and his face had changed so much it was useless.”

Chambers instead took photographs of Sinatra and made precise measurements of his features. He found a fellow makeup artist with the same facial dimensions as the singer and used his colleague’s face to make a life mask of Sinatra.

“When I tried the [mask] on Sinatra, everything fit perfect,” Chambers said. “Sinatra was so happy, he ordered 20 extra heads.”

At 20th Century Fox in the 1960s, Chambers faced one of his greatest career challenges: turning actors into monkeys for director Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 “Planet of the Apes.”

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Chambers told The Times he spent so much time with a notebook in front of the monkey cages at the Los Angeles Zoo that “people came to look at me instead of the monkeys. But it was the best way I could think of for capturing the elastic facial expressions of the apes.”

Thus familiarized, he began creating an orangutan’s face on a Neanderthal-type bust of a man. By working backward on the evolutionary scale, he reasoned, he could create a reasonably attractive animal face that wouldn’t repulse a movie audience.

In making the ape faces, Chambers decided the usual foam rubber used by makeup artists wouldn’t do: Trapped moisture under the thick foam was not only uncomfortable for the actors but caused the adhesive to peel off.

After weeks of experiments trying to create his own foam rubber compound, Chambers came up with an important breakthrough: facial appliances that allowed sweat to seep through the material’s pores.

Using his new foam rubber, Chambers designed eyebrows and lips that could quickly be applied to the actors’ faces. For the film’s stars, he made specially fitted simian appliances that looked realistic even in extreme close-ups.

To ready the stars and supporting cast members for each day’s shooting, Chambers had to hire and train nearly 100 makeup artists.

It was a time-consuming process, taking up to 5 1/2 hours to put the full-face ape makeup on each actor. To streamline the procedure, Chambers came up with a method of pre-blending the makeup on the ape features and installing parts of the hair beforehand, which allowed the makeup to be applied in 3 1/2 hours.

For his outstanding achievement, Chambers became only the second makeup artist to receive an honorary Academy Award. (The first was awarded to William Tuttle for “Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” in 1965; a competitive makeup award was established in 1981.)

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Chambers, whose honors also included an Emmy and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, created the artificial nose Lee Marvin wore in his Oscar-winning dual role in “Cat Ballou.” And Chambers once made a new set of heads, hands and feet for Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Born in Chicago, Chambers served as a dental technician in the Army during World War II. After gaining a knowledge of facial prosthetics--ears, noses, chins--while working with disfigured veterans after the war, Chambers began his Hollywood makeup career with NBC in 1953.

Few of his colleagues were aware of the many years he spent making prosthetics for indigent cancer victims.

“We are all here to help each other,” Chambers said of his sideline in 1969. “If I can do something to relieve other people’s suffering, why not?”

Better known among the Hollywood community was his penchant for nurturing young talent.

Before Chambers, Westmore said, “studios all had their own little, quiet labs. Nobody talked or interrelated” with one another, which slowed the development of new makeup techniques.

“Anybody [who] ever needed help, he’d spend his time giving them an answer,” Stein said. “The only thing he asked in return for those [who] he trained was that we be willing to do the same as him, that we pass it on to the newer generation.”

Chambers, who is survived by his wife, Joan, had no children.

“Their children were the kids like me and Mike [Westmore],” Stein said. “We’re the ones who used to come to his house and have bologna and cheese sandwiches with him and talk about our next project.”


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