Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Werewolf in London (1935). What do these movies all have in common? Two things: their iconic characters that have been imitated countless times, and the fact that they were all brought to life by legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce.
Most people have never heard the name before, but for horror junkies and any makeup artist who has ever played with prosthetics, Jack Pierce is that one person who’s name brings forth a wave of respect and admiration.
Pierce is to special effects makeup what Steve Jobs is to technology, or what Henry Ford is to the automobile industry. When there was no such field as makeup artistry, Pierce paved the way for the artists that came after him and achieved every artist’s dreams: creating timeless characters that will outlive the artist’s natural life.
Janus Piccoulas, later “Jack Pierce”, was born in 1889 in Greece. He emigrated to the United States and attempted to play baseball on a semi-professional team. He then worked on a few motion pictures at Universal Studios, which, at the time had only been in business for three years and was a very tiny studio.
According to IMDB, “Universal was the home to many silent shorts in the 1910s, several of which featured the talents of an unknown actor named Lon Chaney, who got work by creating his own unique makeups, transforming his entire face and body in the process.”
Pierce drifted from camera man and manager to acting, then to makeup. Once Chaney left the business, Pierce was named head of the makeup department where he worked on the last of the silent films made at the studio.
IMDB states, “from 1930-1947 Pierce created some of cinema history’s most distinguishable screen characters.” The first was Dracula. Bela Lugosi actually refused to let Pierce apply his makeup because Lugosi always did his own, but Pierce still stylized the character.
The success of “Dracula” called for the production of a follow-up, “Frankenstein.” Pierce applied the iconic character makeup to Boris Karloff, the star of the film, for four uncomfortable hours. The makeup of the time was very toxic, and required many layers of padding and build up to create the memorable squared head shape.
“Pierce and Karloff teamed the following year to create “The Mummy.” Though the actual creature is only seen for a matter of seconds, it was another unforgettable achievement in cinema horror when “In-Ho-Tep” came alive and paraded across an unearthed Egyptian tomb,” according to IMDB.
In a documentary on makeup artists, Rick Baker, 7 time Oscar-winning makeup artist noted for films like “Men in Black” and “Hellboy,” cites Pierce’s monsters as the reason he became interested in makeup.
“At a very early age I was fascinated with monsters. I would watch monster movies on TV whenever they would come on and just decided that would be a really cool thing to do – to make a monster.”
Baker is just one of many modern day makeup artists who began their craft because they were inspired by Pierce’s work.
According to IMDB, Pierce has worked as a makeup artist or supervisor in the makeup department for 158 titles. Jack Pierce’s work spans from the 20s to the 60s, with his last project being the 60s television show Mister Ed. He worked on Mister Ed up until his death in 1968.