In the history of maquillage, few names echo more loudly than that of Dan Striepeke, who has earned a pair of Oscar nominations for his work with Tom Hanks on “Forrest Gump” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
A mixture of psychologist and painter, sculptor and actor’s best friend, Striepeke (pronounced STREE-peck), was born in 1930 and began his face-fixing career with a “walk-in” at L.A.’s Civic Playhouse. Perfectly re-creating Louis Wolheim’s character from “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 19-year-old was hired instantly.
Transitioning to early television on “McMahon’s Minstrels,” “The Jack Rourke Show” and local news, Striepeke soon
got work on major films such as 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Giant,” attending bit-players after gaining his union card. On that same year’s “The Ten Commandments,” he applied sodden makeup on 400 extras playing slaves in the brick pit scenes, and placed real-hair beards on everyone after Cecil B. DeMille spotted cheap, hook-on chin warmers in the dailies and shut down production. Striepeke incorporated six different whisker designs to please the demanding director.
His craft chops grew amid the showbiz growth spurt of the ’50s. Striepeke worked on “Maverick,” “Playhouse 90,” “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” and “The Pinky Lee Show.” He obtained journeyman status on “The Red Skelton Show,” “The Jack Benny Program” and “Can-Can.” By 1959, the 30-year-old was anointed head of Universal’s prosthetic makeup department by makeup legend Bud Westmore.
For 1960’s “Spartacus,” his first project, Striepeke created Laurence Olivier’s requisite Roman nose. On location for “The Magnificent Seven,” it was dark makeup and mustaches and beards for bandits.
Teaming up with John Chambers in 1966 for the CBS TV show “Mission: Impossible,” the pair devised the franchise’s signature face peel. Carrying the mask concept to extremes two years later, they applied their latex science to another effects benchmark, “Planet of the Apes,” where they figured out ways to allow the actors beneath the heavy makeup to articulate the simians’ faces.
Striepeke discovered Hollywood’s trend-setting power when he came up with the idea for Robert Redford’s Fu Manchu mustache in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He tried various looks, but it was the actor’s own facial fur that made the grade. Within six weeks of the film’s opening, the Sunset Strip was full of men sporting the look.
The following year, for “Patton,” he had to be more hands-on in transforming George C. Scott’s gnarled sniffer into the general’s aquiline nose; he crafted a support system that pulled the snout straight.
For the infamous Russian roulette scenes in 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” Striepeke created the look of the point-blank head wounds by fabricating malleable shields that held explosive squibs and affixing them to the actors’ scalps. Upon detonation, “blood” splattered and mock bone shattered. Audiences gasped at the realism of the effect.
By 1989, the makeup maven went freelance, continuing a relationship with Tom Hanks that proved to be his most enduring in the craft. They had first bonded on 1987’s “Dragnet” and went on to collaborate on “The ’Burbs,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Forrest Gump” (where Striepeke earned his first acting role, playing an assistant college football coach).
“Saving Private Ryan,” “The Green Mile,” “Cast Away” and the performance-capture-based animated film “The Polar Express” followed, and took their work together to the next level, each film incorporating proprietary makeup looks for the A-list actor.
Striepeke proudest moment came not when he was nominated for Oscars but when he received an ovation from the crew upon revealing the look of Tom Hanks’ Santa Claus on “Polar Express.” He tearfully considers that peer appreciation beyond words. “At that moment,” he says, “I knew I had created a work of art.”
Striepeke retired after working with Hanks on 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code.” He lives in West Los Angeles, writes, sculpts and continues to mentor others in the industry.