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‘Argo’: John Chambers’ friends recall the renowned makeup man

Makeup artist John Chambers with actor Maurice Evans from "The Planet of the Apes."
(Make-Up Artist magazine)

Retired movie makeup artist Robert Sidell got chills when he met actor John Goodman at the party following the Beverly Hills premiere earlier this month of Ben Affleck’s acclaimed new film “Argo.” It was like seeing an old friend again.

Goodman plays real-life Oscar-winning movie makeup artist John Chambers, who created the makeup for the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes,” as well as Spock’s ears for the original “Star Trek” series. Chambers was one of the key players who helped CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) set up a phony film production company and movie in order to get six U.S. government workers out of Tehran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis.

“John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers,” said Sidell, 75, right up to capturing the legendary makeup man’s limp.

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Sidell is a big fan of “Argo,” even if it deviates from some of the facts of the matter. Sidell helped Chambers and Mendez create the “Argo” project; in the film, Chambers is aided by Lester Siegel, an old-time Hollywood producer played with great comic flair by Alan Arkin. Siegel is a composite character.

Sidell said he and his wife, Andi, who was the fake production company’s receptionist, and Chambers never really talked about those events even after the “Argo” project was declassified in 1997.

“We knew what we had done and it wasn’t to promote ourselves or take kudos,” said Sidell. “We just did what we did and it was successful.”

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“Argo” received some of the best reviews of the year when it opened a little over two weeks ago, and it has already taken in more than $43 million at the box office, a clear sign of the film’s unusually strong word of mouth. It’s viewed as a likely Oscar contender for best picture and other awards. The scenes involving Chambers, Siegel and the Hollywood contingent serve as a comic counterpoint to an otherwise tense hostage drama.

Those who worked with Chambers, who died in 2001 at age 77, remember him as a powerful influence who became a surrogate father to many of the young makeup artists he mentored. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, but he was a loyal friend and valuable ally in a fight, they say.

Makeup artist Tom Burman, 71, was Chamber’s apprentice at 20th Century Fox on “Planet of the Apes.” “We became really good friends,” said Burman, who earned an Oscar nomination for 1988’s “Scrooged.”

“I became like a son to him, probably closer than anybody,” recalled Burman, who still works in the industry. “He was right wing, but he loved to fight for the underdog. He was a tough Irish guy, so there was no room to make a mistake.”

Chambers earned special recognition from the CIA, including for his work for the agency in the early 1970s. Chambers had done some of the prosthetic makeup for the 1966-73 CBS spy series “Mission: Impossible.” Both Burman and makeup artist Michael Westmore worked with Chambers on the makeup project for the CIA that enabled operatives around the world to quickly change identities. (One of Chambers’ “Identity Transformation” field kits sold last year at a Profiles in History auction for $20,000).

Burman recalls visiting Chambers at the faux “Argo” production company on the Sunset Gower Studios lot. “He came up with the name ‘Argo’ because he loved knock-knock jokes.” (In the film, the title becomes an off-color joke).

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Westmore, who hails from a well-known Hollywood makeup family, was Chambers’ first apprentice on the 1963 John Huston thriller “The List of Adrian Messenger.” Chambers had been working since 1953 on the West Coast at NBC. His uncle Perc Westmore brought Chambers over from NBC to Universal to do “Adrian Messenger.”

“John had a reputation for being a very talented individual,” said Michael Westmore, 74, who is now retired from the business. “I was in my last year of my apprenticeship at Universal and John basically had knowledge of doing everything. John’s forte from working as a dental technician in the Army was teeth — he taught me how to make teeth. When I got the job supervising [‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’] I made all the alien teeth.”

“I was the only one who he was not tough with,” added Westmore, who won an Oscar for 1985’s “Mask.” “He would yell at other people. I know that Tom got his lashings.... Maybe since I was the first [apprentice], he was really going to be a teacher to me and not a drill instructor.”

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Film historian Scott Essman visited Chambers several times starting in 1996 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, where the makeup artist lived until his death. Essman noted that Chambers — whom he described as a “heavy patriot” — helped get a lot of people into the makeup union, which at that time was a closed shop.

“John Chambers described it to me as a nepotism that wouldn’t stop,” Essman recalled. “He hired people on ‘Planet of the Apes’ in key positions that had no business being there according to union rules.”

Though he never worked with him, makeup artist Craig Reardon, 59, said Chambers “still has a lot of residual goodwill in the community, particularly people like myself who went into prosthetic makeup. He was a very big figure for us in the 1960s when a lot of us were kids.”

Reardon was a confirmed monster fan at 14 when in 1967 he saw the copy of his family’s Life magazine with a big spread on the production of “Planet of the Apes.”

“I was just struck by the wonderful novelty of how interesting and convincing the makeup looked by the standards of that day,” recalled Reardon, who won Emmys for “The X-Files,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” “I went and banged him out a long-winded letter [on the typewriter]. I said I was amazed by what he had done and I couldn’t wait to see it.”

Reardon sent the letter off to 20th Century Fox and within a week he got a response from Chambers inviting him to come down to the set. Reardon’s mother drove him over to the lot. “He greeted me and gave me a little tour and the run of the place. I got to see the prepared appliances for the movie.”

Sidell worked on “E.T.” and myriad other film and TV projects, but he had gotten out of the business in the late 1980s to concentrate on his SilkSkin skin care line. Affleck, said Sidell, had never contacted him because the actor-director thought he was dead.

But that all changed when a story that ran before “Argo” opened featured an interview with Sidell. Warner Bros. then invited him and his wife to the premiere.

“When Affleck saw me at the after-party, he looked me up and down and said, ‘You are in pretty good shape for a dead man.’ I think what happened was Ben knew that John Chambers was dead and I think they made the assumption that I was too.”

Sidell believes Goodman is a shoo-in for a supporting actor Oscar nomination playing his old friend. “Johnny Chambers had a little bit of arthritis … he had a little bit of a limp in his left leg. John Goodman has the same limp — that was like the icing on the cake. He was John Chambers.”

susan.king@latimes.com

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