Stuart Freeborn, ‘Star Wars’ Makeup Artist, Dies at 98

By: New York Times Email
By: New York Times Email
Stuart Freeborn, a movie makeup artist whose alchemy helped shape the outlandish space creatures that stalk the “Star Wars” films died on Tuesday in London. He was 98.

Stuart Freeborn with Yoda, one of his “Star Wars” creations.

(New York Times) - Stuart Freeborn, a movie makeup artist whose alchemy helped shape the outlandish space creatures that stalk the “Star Wars” films — including the big-eared, big-brained little Yoda, whom he modeled after himself and Albert Einstein — died on Tuesday in London. He was 98.

Mr. Freeborn worked on more than 75 movies, creating the makeup for stars like Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster, Vivien Leigh and Gregory Peck. He created the looks of the three characters — Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake of the Royal Air Force, President Muffley and the paraplegic ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove — Peter Sellers played in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Mr. Kubrick so liked the “Strangelove” work that he asked Mr. Freeborn to create the apelike hominids in “The Dawn of Man” sequence in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The project, taking two years for Mr. Freeborn to complete, involved crafting masks with lips and tongues that moved, realistic-looking simian teeth and body suits made from human, yak and horsehair.

Mr. Lucas was so impressed with his “Space Odyssey” work that he asked Mr. Freeborn to handle makeup duties for “Star Wars.” He accepted the job but not before questioning whether the movie would be a box-office success. (The “Star Wars” series has made over $4 billion.) His inspiration for the look of Yoda, a puppet, came when he looked in the mirror and saw the lumps and bumps on his own face. To convey the mental power of this master of the Jedi Order, an ancient monastic peacekeeping organization in the “Star Wars” universe, he hit on the notion of using Einstein’s eye wrinkles. Yoda’s big ears popped out of Mr. Freeborn’s imagination.

Still, he said in an interview in 2008, he had remained nervous about his idea. “I had never modeled anything so quick,” he said. “It’s going to be a load of rubbish.”

Mr. Lucas demanded to see Yoda immediately. When Mr. Freeborn removed the cloth covering his model, he recalled, Mr. Lucas exclaimed, “That’s it! That’s just what I want!” Mr. Freeborn also made Chewbacca, the furry 7-foot-3 co-pilot of the hero Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford. (Peter Mayhew played Chewbacca.) He made Jabba the Hutt, a large, sluglike alien that required three puppeteers to operate, for the third film in the original series, “Return of the Jedi.” To create the bizarre crowd of extraterrestrials who gather at the “Star Wars” cantina, Mr. Freeborn recruited his wife, Kay, and son, Graham, both makeup artists, to help.

Mrs. Freeborn died last year. Mr. Freeborn’s sons, Graham, Roger and Ray, also died before him. He is survived by seven grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.

Stuart Freeborn was born in London on Sept. 5, 1914. Even as a teenager, he yearned to work in the movie business and practiced making himself up to look like different characters. He studied chemistry to learn how to use different kinds of plastic without harming human skin.

Shrugging off his father’s pleas that he follow him into the insurance business, Mr. Freeborn repeatedly applied to studios, sometimes even sneaking into them hoping to demonstrate his skills. At 25, he devised a bolder scheme: he called studio executives and the newspapers to tell the lie that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was driving around Mr. Freeborn’s London suburb. The emperor was in fact Mr. Freeborn wearing a fake beard and nose. He was detained by the police but not hired by the studios.

Undaunted, he sent photos of his work to the director Alexander Korda, a leader in the British film industry. Mr. Korda hired him, and he was soon doing makeup for costume dramas and period pieces.

One of his earliest credited jobs was for David Lean’s 1948 film classic, “Oliver Twist.” For the villain Fagin — Dickens frequently referred to him in the novel as “the Jew” — Mr. Freeborn offered two different noses: one cartoonishly hooked, the other of the more conventional variety. His bosses chose the hooked nose for the actor in the role, Alec Guinness, evoking an anti-Semitic stereotype and prompting accusations of anti-Semitism. The film was not shown in the United States until 1951. Mr. Freeborn said he deeply regretted the use of the image, not least, he said, because he was part Jewish.

Mr. Freeborn immodestly said that there was little he could not do when it came to transforming actors into credible-looking characters. He said he more than once enlarged actresses’ breasts for nude scenes. But he was never nominated for an Academy Award.

His friends thought his best chance for an Oscar was for his work in “2001,” but only “Planet of the Apes” was recognized at the 1969 ceremony: an honorary Academy Award for its makeup artist, John Chambers. Mr. Freeborn’s supporters speculated that his apes were so realistic that the Oscar’s judges may have thought they were real.


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