Driving through the town of Covina, Calif., circa 1960, you might have spotted seemingly healthy children in the distance playing on small lawns of modest homes. As you approached, you would have seen their wounds--the gashes in their faces and the bullet holes in the sides of their heads. And they would have kept on playing, oblivious to your horror.
You would not have entered the Twilight Zone. You would simply have caught young Rick Baker having fun. "I liked people to believe the makeup I did was real," recalls Baker, a horror-movie fan who at the age of 10 scrapped his plan to become a doctor for the dream of becoming a Hollywood makeup artist. "There was one guy I made up with this horrible burn. He went home, and his father was hysterical."
Four decades and five Oscars later, Baker, 49, is still making the impossible believable. In this week's Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Baker again transforms Eddie Murphy into the Klump clan. In November he helps Jim Carrey give a Bronx cheer to the holidays in Ron Howard's live-action comedy Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Next year Baker creates an entire simian society in a remake of Planet of the Apes, with Mark Wahlberg. Baker calls it "a film I was born to do."
At Cinovation, Baker's makeup-effects company in Glendale, Calif., corpses dangle from the ceiling and a towering grim reaper stands guard outside his office, holding a sword. Baker is famously stubborn ("extremely committed to his artistic belief system" is how Nutty II producer Brian Grazer puts it), wears his hair in a ponytail and absolutely loves apes. He wore his own monkey suits in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and the remakes of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. He designed the primates in Gorillas in the Mist and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
Baker's convincing apes, in fact, are what distinguish him most in Hollywood's special-makeup-effects field (just try to discern which ones are real and which are Baker-generated in Gorillas in the Mist). He also has a knack for working in comedy, which is rare among his peers and which has served him well in lighter fare, such as Harry and the Hendersons, two Batman movies and his work with Murphy. He has other makeup skills beyond the dreams of Max Factor: old age (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), space aliens (the first Star Wars and Men in Black), lycanthropes (Wolf and An American Werewolf in London) and dead movie stars. Using a chin cleft and extended ears, he helped Martin Landau turn into Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Both won Oscars. "Without Rick's makeup, I couldn't have done it," says Landau.
Murphy, who worked with Baker on both Nutty films as well as Coming to America and last year's Life--and who hates doing interviews for print--issued this statement to TIME: "Rick Baker is a genius. He's the most innovative makeup artist Hollywood has ever known."