Peggy the Chimp starred alongside future president Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo and of course, the Tarzan movies made a superstar out of Cheeta the Chimp. But for me the best moving picture primates were actors dressed up in monkey masks.
Long before computer generated special effects made digital apes like the ones featured in this weekend’s The Rise of the Planet of the Apes possible, a makeup artist named John Chambers pioneered primate makeup. His work on the original Planet of the Apes was based on a technique he developed during World War II to give disfigured veterans a natural look.
Later, his makeup work earned him a special Academy Award (his statue was presented by a tuxedo-clad chimpanzee) but before the movie rolled he had to persuade the studio his techniques would look convincing. To do so he shot a test scene with actor Edward G Robinson, who found the makeup sessions too gruelling and left the movie as a result. Won over, the studio approved the makeup budget — an astronomical, for the time, $1 million — almost one sixth of the entire budget.
Chambers put together a team of more than 80 people, delaying several other movies by causing a shortage of makeup artists in Hollywood.
On location in the Arizona desert, the lead actors spent three to four hours in the makeup chair every day. Because the applications took so long to apply the actors couldn’t take them off until the very end of the day. Since they were encased in makeup 12 to 18 hours at a stretch they had to “eat” liquefied meals through straws, and, as star Roddy McDowell found out, they couldn’t sneeze. He achoo-ed one day and blew half his chimp face off.
The makeup process was so intense that Kim Hunter, who played chimpanzee psychologist and veterinarian Zira, had to be prescribed valium to keep her calm during the sessions. She spent so much time made up that when her co-star Charlton Heston saw her sans make-up for the first time he didn’t recognize her.
Some of the actors had fun with the makeup, however. McDowell liked driving home still made up just to see the surprised faces of the drivers on the freeway.
The following four Apes sequels featured actors in makeup, but for me, the original contains the best monkey business.