Rick Baker – WTF Happened to This Horror Celebrity?

WTF Happened to This Horror Celebrity looks at the life and career of legendary, Oscar-winning FX artist Rick Baker

The term wizard can be thrown around a lot. Wizards make magic, can create life from the ether, and conjure things that are beautiful and sometimes monstrous. There aren’t many wizards out in the world these days, but I know of one by name and that name is Rick Baker. Baker is a master of the monsters and a wizard of special effects. He’s an artist and a visionary who made some of the most memorable creatures and effects to grace movie and TV screens of the last few decades. He’s also an unabashed Monster Kid who has never lost his love and fascination for the classics. On todays episode of What Happened To This Horror Celebrity we’re meeting a wizard of the wicked and magician of monsters (no really, he’s here to talk to us) as we reveal what happened to Rick Baker.

Rick Baker was born in 1950 to Doris and Ralph Baker in New York. Baker was an only child and due to this was a bit more withdrawn growing up. The family moved to California when Baker was very young, and it was there that Baker started his love affair with monsters. As a child, Baker loved movies and his parents were supportive of his creative interests. And when he was a child, his eyes beheld the first issue he would see of Famous Monster of Filmland. For those who may not realize it, Famous Monsters was a key component of the childhood of many of our movie magicians. Forest J Ackerman gave an outlet to monster kids over the 60s and 70s, much like Fangoria would through the late 70s and 80s. Baker was hooked. And upon watching films like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man starring Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr as well as Lon Chaney Sr.’s turns in Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, he found a calling.

As a teenager Baker would start creating make ups and effects, doing small projects like Octaman and The Thing With Two Heads, eventually becoming an assistant to the legendary Dick Smith while making The Exorcist. Baker would work for the first time with John Landis on the b-movie man in suit classic Schlock. He’d follow this up in 1974 with the legendary Larry Cohen by creating the terrifying mutated baby in It’s Alive. Baker actually had his then girlfriend wear the baby suit he’d created. He also made a puppet of the creature for reaction scenes. The same year he was making monster babies, Baker would create alongside Stan Winston the make up for the CBS made for TV Movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The duo would go on to win an Emmy for their work on the film.

It's Alive Rick Baker

Two years later Baker worked with Carlo Rambaldi on the remake of the classic King Kong. The film had a star-studded cast and was the introduction to many to Jessica Lange. It co-starred Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin and would have a 24-million-dollar budget, releasing in December of 1976. Kong in this version would be a man in a suit as well as an animatronic. Due to numerous issues with the animatronic, the film would eventually have Kong mainly be a suited actor. That actor wound up being Baker himself. This version of the story would have Kong climbing not the Empire State Building but the World Trade Center.

King Kong 1976 Rick Baker

Baker would continue honing his craft and working on various projects over the 70s. This would include one of my phobia movies, Squirm, Track of the Moon Beast, and the gooey and oh so wrong The Incredible Melting Man. In 1977 Baker would join up with an up-and-coming filmmaker on a little project called Star Wars. The following year he’d work with another icon of cinema, Brian De Palma, on the psychokinetic horror film The Fury which starred Kirk Douglas as a father who has a psychically gifted son, he’s trying to save from a government agency who is trying to turn psychic children into weapons.

Following a return to Star Wars with Empire Strikes Back, Baker would create one of the monsters he is most well-known for and with it a film that has gone down as one of the best horror movies ever made. American Werewolf in London in 1981 would reunite Baker with John Landis who would write and direct the film about two unlucky Americans who meet their fates on the moor. Baker’s take on the classic werewolf was beyond anything ever seen at the time in cinema. The transformation sequence and the effects make up still to this day are effective. None of this was digital and the artistry is evident in every shot. Baker would win the first ever academy award for Best Make Up (the first for him but not the last) for the movie. Some of the stories of the shoot for American Werewolf are as legendary as the film itself. Most of them are true from what I’ve gathered. If you ever run into Steve Johnson who also worked on the project, he can tell you a few great ones including the fact the build for the Kessler Wolf actually fell on his arm during a late-night design session and bit him.

An American Werewolf in London

That wouldn’t be the only werewolf film he would work on that year. He’d also consult on the Joe Dante classic The Howling. 1981 was a great year for werewolves obviously.

The 80s were a busy decade for Rick Baker. He’d work with yet another horror legend in Tobe Hooper on The Funhouse, David Cronenberg on Videodrome and then in 1983 cross into an entirely new world of entertainment with what was surely one of my favorite moments growing up.

The absolute king of pop, Michael Jackson, joined forces with John Landis and Rick Baker to create a long form music video that was a nod to various classic horror films including I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Night of the Living Dead. Thriller would incorporate the work of 40 makeup artists and would also include a rap sequence by one of the kings of horror, Vincent Price. Baker would even show up in the video as one of the zombies rising from the grave.

Thriller

Thriller would become a phenomenon and a touchstone of the 80s. It also helped turn the record of the same name into one of the biggest LP’s of all time and would have a making of documentary as well. It would receive multiple award nominations and wins. And of course, today, there are still flash mobs of fans going around breaking into the entire dance sequence without warning. The same year that Thriller would hit, Baker would also create the special effects make up for the madman of metal, Ozzy Osbourne’s epic music video Bark at the Moon. Once again, Baker would be turning a man into a monster.

1984, Rick Baker would work with yet another horror legend in John Carpenter where each would go into the science fiction genre realm with Starman. He’d also return to the land of apes with his work on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan where he would help create the apes that would become Tarzan’s new family. In 1985, Baker would join Landis again, this time on screen, in the Jeff Goldblum starring Into the Night, which would also have David Cronenberg and Dan Aykroyd as part of the cast. The fortuitous casting would be a big one for Rick Baker, not for the role itself but for the fact he would meet his future wife Silvia on the set where she was working as a hair stylist.

Through the mid and late 80s, Rick Baker continued, including working again with Michael Jackson on the epic Disney ride Captain EO. In 1987, he’d design the iconic bigfoot Harry for Harry and the Hendersons, one of his favorite creations. Baker would snag another Oscar for the movie.

Harry and the Hendersons Rick Baker

That same year Baker would work on two of my favorite television series. Werewolf was one of the original Fox networks shows and would last for only two seasons. But the series has continued to be a favorite amongst horror fans due to it having amazing creature effects for a weekly tv show and having a compelling storyline that was similar to the 70s Incredible Hulk. Baker would also create and design the iconic lion like make up for Ron Perlman’s Vincent in Beauty and the Beast. The job description was, per Baker, “we need him to be a beast, you know a monster…but attractive to women.” Baker went with a feline appearance and rock star hair/mane. He also wanted to be a part of the casting as the person who was in the role would be wearing this make-up every day while filming. When Ron Perlman showed up Baker knew he’d be the right fit, knowing he’d already done film work in makeup prior. After the series started it was clear, even from Perlman’s agent… all the ladies loved Vincent.

In 1988, Baker would get another Oscar nomination for his work on the comedy Coming to America. He’d also create another variety of ape in the biopic Gorillas in the Mist. In 1990, he’d team up with Joe Dante again for the sequel to Gremlins, not only as an effects artist but also a co-producer in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. In 1994, Baker would work with Tim Burton on what many consider Burton’s best film and it’s certainly one of my favorites: Rick Baker brought back to life Bela Lugosi in the form of Martin Landau in Ed Wood. The combination of Baker’s make up and Landau’s performance was uncanny. And it would win Baker another Oscar.

Over the course of the 90s, Baker would continue being a part of major film releases and snagging two more Oscars with The Nutty Professor and Men in Black. He’d also work with Peter Jackson in 1996 on the very much “needs more love” The Frighteners. He’d partner with John Carpenter that same year on Escape from LA. In 1997, he’d reteam with Michael Jackson on another supernatural entry into the king of pops videography with Ghosts. In 1998, he’d add to his repertoire of gorillas with the remake of Mighty Joe Young. In the 2000s, Baker started things off with a bang with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, creating the iconic make up and designs for Jim Carrey’s The Grinch and the residence of Whoville. One of which is Baker himself in a cameo. Again, Baker would take home a well-deserved Oscar for the film.

In 2001 Baker, joined back up with Tim Burton on the remake of Planet of the Apes where he designed some of the most beautiful ape make ups and creature work of the decade. He’d once again be a part of the on screen cast as well.

Planet of the Apes 2001

Throughout the early 2000s Baker was working on major releases. This included Disney’s The Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy (with whom he worked a number of times,) taking down King Kong as a pilot in Peter Jackson’s remake and working with Ron Perlman again on the 2004 Hellboy. In 2005, Baker returned to the werewolf genre, working with another horror legend in the form of Wes Craven for Cursed. In 2008, he’d score another Oscar nomination, again working with Eddie Murphy, on the comedy Norbit. That same year, Baker would transform Robert Downey Jr. into Kirk Lazarus, an actor committed to his role as Lincoln Osiris for the over-the-top insanity that will forever be Tropic Thunder.

In 2010, Baker would follow directly in the footsteps of his hero Jack Pierce when he joined the retelling by Universal Studios of their classic monster story The Wolfman. This time Benecio del Toro would play the tortured and cursed Lawrence Talbot with Anthony Hopkins as his equally cursed father. Personally this is one of my favorite things Rick Baker has ever done and it’s one of the most beautiful werewolf make ups I’ve ever seen. It’s a bloody, beautiful and amazing film that seems to be the baby of a Universal Classic with a Hammer horror film. Baker gets gloriously murdered in it as well. The Academy appeared to agree with my assessment as that year Baker took home his 7th Oscar for his work. The following year he’d present his mentor and friend Dick Smith with an honorary Oscar.

The Wolfman Rick Baker

After The Wolfman, Baker worked on two more projects for Disney, Tron: Legacy and the designer for Angelina Jolie’s devilish fairy Maleficent. In 2012, he’d return to Men in Black’s universe for Men in Black 3. That same year, Rick Baker would get his own Hollywood Walk of Fame star.

In 2015, Rick Baker retired from working on films as a special effects artist but not as an actor. He would appear in Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain as a victim of the vampires and in 2017 would appear in The Ring sequel Rings. He continues to appear in other projects and contributes to documentaries and commentaries. These days, Baker is happy in retirement, creating amazing art and masks that he shares with fans on his Instagram. In 2020, Baker put together a massive tome of a book called Metamorphosis which chronicles his work and career of around 40 plus years. It’s a 2-volume set and is packed with images and behind the scenes photos from his film projects and work.

Baker has two daughters, Veronica and Rebecca, with his wife Silvia. The family that plays together, slays together and boy do they ever on Halloween. The Bakers all come together for the holiday in various states of monsterdom thanks to Rick’s skill and many hours of preparation. You really are missing out if you don’t follow Rick Baker on Instagram.

So that’s what happened to Rick Baker, a monster kid forever. Rick Baker may have retired from the movies but he’s never ever going to retire from the monsters. He continues to make them and celebrate them everyday. He is still a wizard and we’re lucky enough that he sat down with us to discuss a bit of his history.

A couple previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Celebrity? can be viewed below. To see more, click over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jessica was raised on a diet of Dark Shadows, Doctor Who, and a lot of things she saw way too young. She’s been writing for nearly a quarter of a century about the world of entertainment and her own fiction (and that sound you heard was her bones turning to dust.) Jessica loves being a JoBro as well as creating content for her site/channel/Podcast Fangirl Magazine/Fangirl Radio. Her favorite things are writing, movies/tv, video games, reading, and trying to summon the ghost of Vincent Price.