Universal Monsters Universe has been running a series called “Meet the Monsters,” which features profiles on the actors and actresses who have portrayed the classic monsters on the big screen. There is more to a monster than just the man or woman playing them. There are the make-up artists who put in hours of work to get the look just right and believable. Our first artist is Jack Pierce, the man who would turn Boris Karloff into Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney, Jr. into The Wolf Man.
Jack Pierce was born Janus Piccoula on May 5, 1889 in Greece. He came to the United States as a teenager and tried many careers including an attempt at professional baseball. In the 1920s, he embarked on a career in film. He held jobs as a cinema manager, stuntman, actor and assistant director. He would find his niche in make-up where he would become famous. The first film he did make-up for was 1926’s The Monkey Talks, where he worked on actor Jacques Lernier. The look of Lernier won over Carl Laemmle, head of Universal. In 1928, Pierce was taken on by Universal to do make-up.
In 1931, Pierce would embark on turning Boris Karloff into Frankenstein’s monster. It would take four hours to apply the make-up which consisted of cotton, collodion, gum and green greasepaint. Pierce was not the easiest person to get along with but he and Karloff worked very well together. They would team up once again in 1932’s The Mummy. Pierce made up Karloff head to toe as The Mummy but it is only Karloff’s head and hands that appear on screen. Pierce then made up Karloff as Ardeth Bay, making him appear old and wrinkled, which is how he is seen throughout the movie.
Jack Pierce would also work with Lon Chaney, Jr., whose own father was famous for elaborate make-up. Pierce was the man behind Lon’s Wolf Man and his three appearances as The Mummy. The Wolf Man make-up consisted of yak hair glued to his face then signed. Chaney suffered allergic reactions and was burned during prep which did not help the two to get along. While the common belief has been Chaney and Pierce did not get along at all, according to the two men while their relationship wasn’t very friendly, it was not as terrible as people made it. Chaney praised Pierce’s work and compared him to Lon Chaney Sr.
Jack Pierce would become famous for his work in the Universal Monsters franchise. He was fired from the company in 1946 after he refused to adapt to new make-up techniques like using more latex. The company had also been heading in a new direction which included global expansion. Pierce would go on to do make-up for movies and TV shows here and there but he did not get the work he had been getting for Universal. He died in 1968 from uremia.
Universal Studios has a copyright on Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up until 2026.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)