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Rick Baker, The Monster Maker Of Hollywood

Rick Baker sculpts a puppet head for the 1981 film <em>An American Werewolf in London</em>. Now retired, Baker's work has been collected in the two-volume collection <em>Metamorphosis.</em>
Elaine Baker
Courtesy of Cameron Books
Rick Baker sculpts a puppet head for the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London. Now retired, Baker's work has been collected in the two-volume collection Metamorphosis.

An American Werewolf in London. The zombies from Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Bela Lugosi's Dracula from Ed Wood. The dark fairy Maleficent.

They're all the work of Rick Baker, who created some of the most memorable movie monsters and creatures of the last four decades. Baker is retired now, having won seven Oscars for makeup. But he's chronicled his long career in a new two-volume illustrated book titled Metamorphosis.

In the LA enclave Toluca Lake, Baker answers the door to his house-turned-studio wearing a t-shirt that says "I'd Rather Be Making Monsters." Inside, the building is packed with gorilla skull casts, monster sculptures, masks of gruesome victims. There's a mysterious room that looks from a distance like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. ("Uh, that's a room you probably shouldn't go in," Baker says, with a wink.)

His massive book documents his long career, starting when he was a 10-year-old kid making monster masks in his bedroom. His parents encouraged his passion, which included his fascination with the 1931 Frankenstein movie starring Boris Karloff.

"I wasn't afraid of him," Baker says. "I felt a sympathy for the monster. And he didn't ask to be made. It was kind of like a kid. A misfit kid."

When Rick Baker got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro called Rick Baker the greatest monster kid ever to be born. The creature designer/makeup artist went from making his own Super 8 movies, to working on the 1970s Claymation TV show Davey and Goliath, to helping with special effects on The Exorcist in 1973, to creating the giant gorilla for the 1976 film King Kong. (Baker even wore the suit to play the part of King Kong, though his acting was not credited.)

Rick Baker poses at his studio.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
Rick Baker poses at his studio.

Baker says he had to fight to get into Hollywood's makeup union.

"The business rep of the union told me to give up," he says. "He said, 'You're never gonna get in. You have to be born into this. You're not a Westmore.' I mean, it was discouraging, but it was like: 'You know what? I'm going to show these guys.'"

Baker's talent and persistence paid off. In 1982, he won the first-ever Academy Award for best makeup and hairstyling for An American Werewolf in London.

"The big payoff was seeing his face stretch out and change you know, right before your eyes," he says.

The film's director, John Landis, had been impressed with Baker since Baker was a kid. Landis has often talked about having visited him at his parents' house, where his bedroom was filled with his monstrous creations.

Landis first hired Baker for his 1973 film Schlock. A decade later, after An American Werewolf in London, he got Baker to create the makeup for the now-classic "Thriller" video.

Baker turned Michael Jackson and his dancers into creatures of the night. He and his crew also were featured zombies.

"I'm one of them who comes out of a tomb," Baker says. "How amazing it was watching this amazing dance happen."

Over the years, Baker lent his gorilla-making talents to many movies, including the 1988's Gorillas in the Mist, Tim Burton's 2001 Planet of the Apes, and even the sasquatch in 1987's Harry and the Hendersons. Baker remembers using some creature masks he had laying around his studio for the cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie in 1977.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld worked with Baker on the first three Men in Black movies and Wild Wild West. "Rick thinks like a filmmaker and not exclusively like a creature designer or a brilliant makeup artist," Sonnenfeld says. "He creates back stories for these aliens so that they're not just arbitrary."

Vincent D'Onofrio played a giant alien bug in <em>Men in Black</em>, barely contained within a human skin.
David Anderson / Courtesy of Cameron Books
Courtesy of Cameron Books
Vincent D'Onofrio played a giant alien bug in Men in Black, barely contained within a human skin.

Actor Vincent D'Onofrio says Baker spent months with him preparing his role as an alien bug disguised as a human in Men in Black. He sat in Baker's makeup chair for up to eight hours before and after each shooting day.

"He was bending my face, he was attaching threads to my cheeks and stretching my face upwards and gluing it into positions," D'Onofrio says. "You know, we were really trying to do all these kind of far-out things. He will always go down as simply the best makeup artist ever."

At age 68 and retired, Rick Baker is still busy making monsters.

"This is how I have fun. This is how I entertain myself," he says. "And I'm going to do this as long as I can. That's one of the reasons I retired. I have things I want to make for myself."

Just wait till the neighbors see what he has in store this Halloween.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.