The complex make-up required for the main character in The Elephant Man was almost the undoing of that celebrated 1980 film. Its director, David Lynch, was the first to design viable prosthetics. “But when I tried a part of John Hurt,” Lynch recalled, “he couldn’t move and he said, ‘A valiant effort, David.’ Lynch was in despair, certain his film would be a disaster, until British make-up artist Christopher Tucker came to the rescue. But the application of the resulting designs, which had been modeled after a cast of the real Joseph Merrick, whose story the film told, fell to make-up artist Walter Schneiderman.
Schneiderman, who died at the age of 98, called the film “one of the most difficult films I had to make.” It took seven hours each day to put the makeup on Hurt, and another two to remove it again. “Everything was so precise,” he said. “There were 14 pieces, not including the head, and they had to be applied exactly, every day for continuity. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. “Schneiderman was acclaimed for his work on the film, which was nominated for eight Oscars. The lack of official recognition for Tucker and Schneiderman caused a furor, leading to the implementation the following year of a new Oscar category for best makeup.
Known to his friends as Wally, Schneiderman was born in London to Chaim Baruch and Boobie Rose, who were tailors. His father died when Wally was 10 years old. Four years later, Wally left the Kensington Bayswater Jewish School (later the Solomon Woolfson School) and began working as a barber’s apprentice. At 18, he joined the RAF and served as a gunner during WWII.
After being demobilized, he enrolled at the London Gentlemen’s Hairdressing Academy. When the senior makeup supervisor at Shepperton Film Studios called to find barbers willing to train as makeup artists, Schneiderman volunteered. His first visit to a film set was in 1947, when he saw Alexander Korda directing An Ideal Husband, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play.
The first uncredited works came his way in Anna Karenina (1948), starring Vivien Leigh, and Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman (1951). However, with the industry offering only short contracts and meager salaries, when business was tight, Schneiderman would return to the salon to make ends meet.
However, starting in the mid-1950s, he began to find a more stable job. He spent five years, first as a makeup artist and then as a makeup supervisor, on the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). He went on to work more in film with The Guns of Navarone (1961), I Could Go On Singing (1963), with Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde, One Million Years BC (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Isadora (1968) was the first of several films he made with Vanessa Redgrave, one of the many actors who began to stipulate him as their preferred makeup artist.
After Fiddler on the Roof (1971), he acquired an agent and landed work on blockbusters such as Juggernaut (1974) and Rollerball (1975). For the television movie A Woman Called Golda (1982), she helped turn Ingrid Bergman and Judy Davis into elder and younger Golda Meir respectively, cleverly creating continuity between the two performers. An extended period working for Barbra Streisand on her period musical Yentl (1983) prevented her from accepting an offer from Robert De Niro, who met him personally to request his services for the vital aging makeup that would be required in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time. . in America (1984).
Schneiderman was a makeup supervisor on the fantasy Labyrinth (1986), starring David Bowie as the flamboyant Goblin King. His final assignments included two films directed by Richard Attenborough: the apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987), starring Denzel Washington as anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, and Chaplin (1992), in which Schneiderman oversaw the aging process of Robert Downey Jr, then 26, aged 19 to 83 in the title role.
Although he was an inventive and resourceful practitioner, he was always practical. “Directors think you open your box and pop the magic,” he said. “It does. But you have to know how to apply it.” After his retirement, he went on to create and sell a line of commercial products under the name Make-Up International. Among them are Quick Action Powder Blood, Bruise Simulation Gel, and Omaha Action Mud.
His wife, Ruby, whom he married in 1943, died in 2001. He is survived by his daughters, Beryl and Karen.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism