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'Argo': John Chambers' friends recall the renowned makeup man

In 'Argo,' real-life makeup artist and CIA collaborator John Chambers is played by John Goodman. Chambers' friend Robert Sidell says Goodman nails it.

October 23, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Makeup artist John Chambers with actor Maurice Evans from "The Planet of the Apes."
Makeup artist John Chambers with actor Maurice Evans from "The Planet… (Make-Up Artist magazine )

Retired movie makeup artist Robert Sidell got chills when he met actor John Goodman at the party following the Beverly Hills premiere earlier this month of Ben Affleck's acclaimed new film "Argo." It was like seeing an old friend again.

Goodman plays real-life Oscar-winning movie makeup artist John Chambers, who created the makeup for the 1968 classic "Planet of the Apes," as well as Spock's ears for the original "Star Trek" series. Chambers was one of the key players who helped CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) set up a phony film production company and movie in order to get six U.S. government workers out of Tehran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis.

"John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers," said Sidell, 75, right up to capturing the legendary makeup man's limp.

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Sidell is a big fan of "Argo," even if it deviates from some of the facts of the matter. Sidell helped Chambers and Mendez create the "Argo" project; in the film, Chambers is aided by Lester Siegel, an old-time Hollywood producer played with great comic flair by Alan Arkin. Siegel is a composite character.

Sidell said he and his wife, Andi, who was the fake production company's receptionist, and Chambers never really talked about those events even after the "Argo" project was declassified in 1997.

"We knew what we had done and it wasn't to promote ourselves or take kudos," said Sidell. "We just did what we did and it was successful."

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"Argo" received some of the best reviews of the year when it opened a little over two weeks ago, and it has already taken in more than $43 million at the box office, a clear sign of the film's unusually strong word of mouth. It's viewed as a likely Oscar contender for best picture and other awards. The scenes involving Chambers, Siegel and the Hollywood contingent serve as a comic counterpoint to an otherwise tense hostage drama.

Those who worked with Chambers, who died in 2001 at age 77, remember him as a powerful influence who became a surrogate father to many of the young makeup artists he mentored. He didn't suffer fools lightly, but he was a loyal friend and valuable ally in a fight, they say.

Makeup artist Tom Burman, 71, was Chamber's apprentice at 20th Century Fox on "Planet of the Apes." "We became really good friends," said Burman, who earned an Oscar nomination for 1988's "Scrooged."

"I became like a son to him, probably closer than anybody," recalled Burman, who still works in the industry. "He was right wing, but he loved to fight for the underdog. He was a tough Irish guy, so there was no room to make a mistake."

Chambers earned special recognition from the CIA, including for his work for the agency in the early 1970s. Chambers had done some of the prosthetic makeup for the 1966-73 CBS spy series "Mission: Impossible." Both Burman and makeup artist Michael Westmore worked with Chambers on the makeup project for the CIA that enabled operatives around the world to quickly change identities. (One of Chambers' "Identity Transformation" field kits sold last year at a Profiles in History auction for $20,000).

Burman recalls visiting Chambers at the faux "Argo" production company on the Sunset Gower Studios lot. "He came up with the name 'Argo' because he loved knock-knock jokes." (In the film, the title becomes an off-color joke).

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Westmore, who hails from a well-known Hollywood makeup family, was Chambers' first apprentice on the 1963 John Huston thriller "The List of Adrian Messenger." Chambers had been working since 1953 on the West Coast at NBC. His uncle Perc Westmore brought Chambers over from NBC to Universal to do "Adrian Messenger."

"John had a reputation for being a very talented individual," said Michael Westmore, 74, who is now retired from the business. "I was in my last year of my apprenticeship at Universal and John basically had knowledge of doing everything. John's forte from working as a dental technician in the Army was teeth — he taught me how to make teeth. When I got the job supervising ['Star Trek: The Next Generation'] I made all the alien teeth."

"I was the only one who he was not tough with," added Westmore, who won an Oscar for 1985's "Mask." "He would yell at other people. I know that Tom got his lashings.... Maybe since I was the first [apprentice], he was really going to be a teacher to me and not a drill instructor."

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Film historian Scott Essman visited Chambers several times starting in 1996 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, where the makeup artist lived until his death. Essman noted that Chambers — whom he described as a "heavy patriot" — helped get a lot of people into the makeup union, which at that time was a closed shop.

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