The Man Who Aged Me

April 27, 2006


The cake wasn't for me; I'd already celebrated in July, when the English and French crew sang "Happy Birthday" to me in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. Rather, in what must have been a divinely timed coincidence, I wrapped "The Da Vinci Code" on the same day Dan Striepeke, my makeup man for 19 years, turned 75.

Showbiz has always been full of inspired timing of this sort, supplied by a goddess I call Pelicula, who weaves her magic for everyone from hopeful actors and agents to animal trainers and gate guards. She turns ordinary moments into serendipitous ones, often propelling careers at the same time.

In 1986, when I was leaping from one film to another without the benefit of a filmmaking posse — a would-be Boy Wonder without a Batman — Pelicula must have been watching in the ripples of her celestial pond. For, Lo! I was cast in "Dragnet" as Detective Pep Streebeck and placed in Danny Striepeke's makeup chair for the first time, our rhyming names hinting at the rightness of our screenplay-formula cute meet.

Danny drove a beautiful vintage Mustang convertible back then. He lived in Marina del Rey with his wife, Carol, and spent weekends on his sailboat, so more often than not he was wearing deck shoes, some kind of rope belt and vinyl windbreakers in every color in nature.

Having had a heart scare, he kept in fighting trim with exercise and a diet featuring a lot of Granny Smith apples — "Damn good stuff for the heart," he'd say.

I had earned enough industry clout — and had learned enough — to choose as the keystone of my squad this 40-year veteran of moviemaking, who had given Elvis Presley his tan in "Viva Las Vegas" and Laurence Olivier his Roman nose in "Spartacus."

Most civilians — people who don't make movies for a living — think makeup men are little more than hovering sprites who powder noses. But they are true artists, often unsung, who imprint films with the soft touch of their brushes and the hard work of their craft. Their creation, which will be examined on the big screen for as many years as the film holds its audience, is the most physical manifestation of an actor's interpretation of his role.

Trust is required of both parties, in the instincts of the actor and in the skills of the makeup man. In a partnership any actor would envy, Danny protected the exterior finish of my characters so I could ponder my roles without having to explain things that can't be explained anyway.

Danny turned our makeup trailer into an oasis of order amid the chaos and oftentimes panic of the set. Well before my tardy clomp up the trailer steps, he would arrange his station, make coffee, tune in National Public Radio and sometimes put out a plate of breakfast delicacies.

My shaving tools would be at the ready — a Norelco razor, a stick of roll-on talc, a disposable blade for the tough whiskers. And then, with a ritualistic slap of Sea Breeze on my face, I'd declare, "Shave, where be thy sting?" and off to work we'd go.

On both movies that were fun ("Catch Me if You Can") and movies that were tough ("Turner & Hooch" — ridiculously tough), Danny juggled my mercurial attitudes and the condition of my skin, offering his ear for my complaints and altering my body chemistry when necessary with a new facial scrub, a homemade bran muffin or a glass of cabernet.

My makeup man and I worked around the world and at every studio in Hollywood. With my face as his canvas, he turned me into a cop, an astronaut, an Army Ranger, an F.B.I. agent, a Master of the Universe, a Slavic tourist and even Santa Claus.

Through a freezing Chicago winter on "Road to Perdition," he showed the violence of my character with a slightly broken nose and eyes framed by the harsh lines of my hat and mustache. "Cast Away" was all Danny and the hair stylist Kathy Blondell. As I lost weight to show four years of being marooned in the South Pacific, Danny created scars, sunburns, rashes, rotted teeth and seeping wounds. Hours before sunrise on the set in a Fijian paradise, I nodded back to sleep as Danny and his crew fought fatigue and the clock, deconstructing me in a frenzy equal to a Nascar pit crew getting a car back onto the track.

On "Forrest Gump," we worked a 27-day stretch without a day off, grabbing shots in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine before returning to South Carolina, all in one weekend. That's four states and three full-length beards in two days! Danny took me from a teenager to a Vietnam soldier to parenthood as Sally Field died of cancer, earning him and his team one of Gump's Academy Award nominations. Perhaps because few voters realized the makeup was there, he went home empty-handed.

We started our careers in California high schools — I in Oakland, he in Santa Rosa — separated by a generation but twinned in our love of the theater arts. I went east to become an actor. Danny packed his makeup boxes and headed south for Hollywood. Pelicula must have been watching his pilgrim's progress, for one autumn morning in the late 1940's she steered him down La Cienega Boulevard and smack into his fate.

The Century Players were rehearsing "The Fabulous Invalid" by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which Danny had done at Santa Rosa High School. He slipped into a seat in the back of the theater, and then approached the director, John Claar, during a break.

"You need a makeup artist. I'm your man."

"Yeah, kid?" Claar sipped a coffee and pointed to an actor. "Then turn him into Louis Wolheim from 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' "

Danny yanked his tools from the trunk of his '41 Plymouth and went to work with crepe hair and spirit gum, completing the job in 20 minutes.

Claar, it turned out, was a founder of KTTV, one of L.A.'s infant television stations, and he needed nonunion makeup artists. Danny was soon painting brown lipstick on Adele Jurgens and powdering the noses of the bandleader Freddy Martin and his vocalist, Merv Griffin.

From his perch at the makeup chair, Danny told of those and other moments in his career, dazzling me by the titles alone: "The Ten Commandments," "Kismet," "Giant," "Around the World in 80 Days," "The Sound of Music."

He'd tell of taking the shine off Pinky Lee and Tennessee Ernie Ford on live TV and having only a 90-second commercial break to make an old broken-down boxer out of a young, gorgeous Paul Newman. He told of how he earned his first screen credit on "The Magnificent Seven," and I asked, "How many did you do?"

"Four!" Danny ticked them off. "McQueen, Vaughn, Coburn, Brad Dexter and their stunt doubles, too."

I'd demand a story about Elvis, from one of the three epics he made with the King, and Danny would tell of Presley's gentlemanly manners and squirt-gun playfulness. I'd hear about the Memphis Mafia, Ann-Margret and how "Harum Scarum" was a big piece of junk.

After running the premiere season of "Mission: Impossible," Danny was tapped by Pelicula once more. Ben Nye, a makeup legend, was retiring as head of the makeup department at 20th Century Fox. He had been eyeing Danny's work for years and chose him as his successor.

The kid from Santa Rosa became a colleague of the likes of George Cukor, Gene Kelly and George C. Scott in "Patton," in a job that constantly tested him. His very first task in his new role at the studio was "Planet of the Apes." Danny kept the film on schedule and helped the movie's makeup designer, John Chambers, win an Academy Award, only the second Oscar given for makeup.

In 1994 I was so foolish as to write, direct and play a role in "That Thing You Do!" At least I was smart enough to hire Danny as makeup chief. But midway through production, he took a phone call and suddenly left the set. Carol had a brain tumor and would not survive the year.

When I saw him next in the postproduction offices eight months later, Danny was a widower. We threw our arms around each other and wept. After we wiped the tears from our eyes, he asked, "How is the picture going?" We wept again.

Since our meeting on "Dragnet" in the mid-80's, Danny has spent thousands of 15-hour days as my cosmetic consigliere. He's seen my kids grow up and my marriage grow long. We made deeply emotional journeys on "Saving Private Ryan" and had hilarious laugh attacks with the fake convicts and prison guards of "The Green Mile.

He shared the fresh albacore he caught off Catalina Island, and I served my own crockpot barbecue sandwiches during night shoots. He would find great restaurants for Team Hanks dinners in Moscow and Paris and not let me pick up the tab.

This past January, Danny called my office with news: he was done. Done, done. There would be no more 5 a.m. calls; no more night shoots in exotic locations like Moscow, Monument Valley or Stage 5 at Culver Studios. He had other things he wanted to do besides put goop on my face in an increasingly difficult effort to make me look good.

Through almost half of my life and nearly a quarter of his we had made 17 films, ending on a high note with "The Da Vinci Code." We told each other what wonderful adventures those years had given us, and how much we loved each other.

So here I am, with a void in my entourage once filled by one of the greatest makeup artists ever.

What do I do without Danny Striepeke?

Help me, Pelicula! I beseech ye!

By Tom Hanks

Source : The New York Times