Rick Baker is one of those guys whose work is so consistently brilliant you kind of forget how awesome he is. As the make-up designer and creature creator behind everything from the dancing zombies in Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” music video to Martin Landau‘s Bela Lugosi make-up in Tim Burton‘s “Ed Wood” (which won him his third – of seven – Academy Awards) to Robert Downey, Jr.‘s black-face in “Tropic Thunder,” Baker is a living legend, able to conjure all sorts of creatures and characters solely from his fertile imagination. What’s so startling about the footage of Baker dug up from an early ’80s CBS special on monsters (this was at the peak of horror’s cultural resurgence — via Reddit), is how in command of his craft Baker seems to be at such a young age.
At the time of the special, which doesn’t have a time stamp but identifies “An American Werewolf in London” as Baker’s most recent film, putting him in his early thirties, he was still starting out. He had established himself by providing the make-up for a number of key films and, as the segment notes, both designing and performing the titular creature from the limp Dino De Laurentiis remake of “King Kong,” but he wasn’t yet the figure whose mere presence can send an entire horror convention into hushed silence.
The segment finds Baker working in his creature factory, sculpting a clay model while his confederates busy themselves on similar tasks – making false teeth for a mask, designing some demonic creature. Host Charles Osgood, who is still on television with “CBS News Sunday Morning,” asks Baker about his nightmares, to which Baker curtly replies that he doesn’t have nightmares, man, these babies are all from his imagination.
A couple of things are striking, too, about the brief segment – one, that the special doesn’t place all that much emphasis on his work on “An American Werewolf in London,” even though it had just come out and nobody (and we mean nobody) had ever seen a full-body man-to-wolf transformation like Baker (and director/frequent Baker collaborator John Landis) had achieved. Now it’s seen as one of the defining make-up effects of the last couple of decades (if not all time), but the special treated the effect and the movie like just another horror romp. There’s also a great moment when Baker puts on a latex mask to show how an actor brings something to the role, and the mask, while fairly flat, looks uncannily like a character Baker would create, almost a decade later, for Disney‘s profoundly underrated “Captain America” prototype “The Rocketeer.” It goes to show you that good ideas never die, they just sit around a dusty warehouse surrounded by monsters.