His parents hoped he might grow up to be a physician. And in a way, Oscar-winning makeup and creature-effects artist Rick Baker came close last week with the $84 million debut of Men in Black. After all, it was Baker who oversaw the birth of the little bundle of alien joy that Will Smith’s Agent J helps deliver in the movie. And like some demented obstetrician, Baker made sure that this gurgling, tentacled, big-eyed baby arrived in robust shape. He built the creature so it could spit up just like a real infant, delivering a projectile spew made of methylcellulose and — say Aaah! — oatmeal.
”I loved going to the doctor as a kid,” says Baker, 46. ”I’d watch everything he did and he’d give me all the instruments. But I realized at about 10 that I didn’t want to be a regular doctor. I wanted to be Dr. Frankenstein.”
Give my creation life, cried that infamous M.D. — and that’s been more or less Baker’s credo throughout his 25-year career. (Fortunately, his supportive parents never sent him to a shrink, even though his dad, Ralph, says that ”when Rick first started getting Famous Monsters magazine, I wasn’t sure whether he would be a sadist or a masochist.”) Baker learned a lot from those pages, turning out oodles of aliens and monsters since his debut creature in 1971’s Octaman, pulled together for a $500 fee when he was a second-year college student at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. He’s done faux simians, playing King Kong for Dino De Laurentiis in 1976, then letting others wear the monkey suits on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and Harry and the Hendersons (1987). He’s also done celebrity re-creations (Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in 1994’s Ed Wood), old-age getups of all sorts (starting with Cicely Tyson in the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which Baker won an Emmy), and staggering ”facial appliance” and bodysuit transformations (his work on Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor brought him his sixth Academy Award nomination and his fourth statuette last March).
Of course, when the work involves rebuilding an actor’s face, it helps to find a performer with rubbery features. And that’s what Baker got with MiB’s Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays a farmer whose skin is shucked off and used as a sort of costume by an interstellar insect. D’Onofrio’s own hide has been remarkably malleable ever since 1987, when he gained and lost 70 pounds playing a surly Marine in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. That was a good thing, since Baker tugged the actor’s features violently askew in a six-hours-each-day operation that required swatches of silk glued to his cheeks and tied around his cranium. ”We put Vincent through hell,” says Baker. ”His eyelids were glued shut all day.”
But it wasn’t just D’Onofrio who found himself stretched to the limit. ”We did more [preliminary] drawings on this movie than I did in my whole career,” says Baker, who often felt bewildered by conflicting feedback from MiB director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) and executive producer Steven Spielberg. ”You had to send everything to Steven and everything had to be approved, every wrinkle…. Barry was in the middle of Get Shorty, and I think his brain was elsewhere…. It was like, ‘Steven likes the head on this one and Barry really likes the body on this one, so why don’t you do a mix and match?’ And I’d say, because it wouldn’t make any sense.”