Stuart Freeborn, a pioneering movie makeup artist behind creatures such as Yoda and Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films, died Tuesday in London from a combination of ailments due to his age. He was 98.
Lucasfilm confirmed that Freeborn had passed away, “leaving a legacy of unforgettable contributions.”
George Lucas said in a statement that Freeborn was “already a makeup legend” when he started working on “Star Wars.”
“He brought with him not only decades of experience but boundless creative energy,” Lucas said. “His artistry and craftsmanship will live on forever in the characters he created. His ‘Star Wars’ creatures may be reinterpreted in new forms by new generations, but at their heart, they continue to be what Stuart created for the original films.”
In his six-decade career Freeborn worked on many classic films, including Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
He began in film in the 1930s, working for director Alexander Korda and honing his makeup skills on stars including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh.
After air force service during WWII, he worked on British cinema classics including “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and David Lean’s 1948 version of “Oliver Twist.” His transformation of Alec Guinness into Fagin — complete with a large hooked nose — was criticized by some as anti-Semitic, a matter of regret for Freeborn, who said he was partly Jewish.
Freeborn later worked with Kubrick, transforming Peter Sellers into multiple characters for “Doctor Strangelove” before designing the apes for “2001’s” “Dawn of Man” sequence, in which primates react to a mysterious monolith.
But he will likely be best remembered for his work on “Star Wars” — creating characters such as the 7-foot-tall wookie Chewbacca and the slug-like Jabba the Hutt.
Lucasfilm said that Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” would “note that Freeborn quite literally put himself into Yoda, as the Jedi master’s inquisitive and mischievous elfin features had more than a passing resemblance to Freeborn himself.” (Yoda’s looks were also said to be partly inspired by Albert Einstein.)
Freeborn recalled being approached by “this young fellow” named George Lucas, who told him, “I’ve written a script for a film called ‘Star Wars.'”
“He was so genuine about it, I thought, well, young as he is, I believe in him. He’s got something. I’ll do what I can for him,” Freeborn told the BBC.
Born in London in 1914, Freeborn was the son of a Lloyds of London insurance broker.
Freeborn’s wife, Kay, died in 2012. Freeborn’s three sons also died before him.
He is survived by a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.