Say the name, Jack P. Pierce, and what comes to mind? An athlete? A whiskey company? A Greek immigrant whose make-up creations scared every generation since the 1920s, and are known throughout the world?
Jack P. Pierce was born Janus Piccoula on May 5, 1889 in Valdetsyou, Greece, and immigrated to the United States as a young teenager. He tried being a baseball player, movie actor, stunt man, and even an assistant director, but his real talent lay in make-up. After a few small movies that he worked on, the door opened wide for Pierce when Lon Chaney died (known for creating his his own make-up) and he was hired permanently by Universal.
His first big break came when he designed the special green greasepaint for Bela Lagosi in the movie, Dracula but his most celebrated creation was the make-up on Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Karloff endured over 4 hours each day while Pierce applied the make-up. Karloff called him “the greatest make-up man in the business.”
Peirce became head of Universal’s make-up department and went on to create the make-up for Karloff in the Mummy and Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man (the mask worn by Chaney in The Mummy’s Curse, is Pierce’s only surviving one). He also did the make-up in Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. He was well-known for using a “widow’s peak” hairline for his characters and shaved Lagosi’s hair to get it just right.
Pierce also created the make-up for Claude Rains in the 1943 classic, Phantom of the Opera. His original concept was too gruesome and he was asked to tone it down. It was the only monster movie that Pierce worked on that was in color.
Molded foam latex appliances, which were cheap and easy to apply, became the standard movie make-up in the 1940s and by the 1950s, the movie companies, afraid of competition from the new television broadcasting, began to cut their more expensive departments and Pierce was eventually let go. Although he continued in movies, his final credit as a make-up artist was for the TV show Mister Ed from 1961 to 1964. He died July 19, 1968 in Hollywood California.
On February 25, 2003, the United States Postal Service issued a sheet of 10 USA 37¢ commemorative postage stamps honoring make-up artists, which showed Karloff being transformed into Frankenstein. Pierce’s hand appears on one of the stamps in the sheet. He was recognized by the Hollywood Make-Up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild with a lifetime achievement award in 2003.
Pierce’s creations have singed into our collective minds what Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, Wolf Man, and all of the classic movie monster look like and should look like. During his lifetime, he was never given his due and sometimes was not credited in the films, but Jack Pierce was a great innovator who inspired many that came after him and scared the bee-gee-bees out of us all.
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