Hollywood Make-Up Legends: Jack Pierce

Jack Pierce, Head of Make-up at Universal Studios 1928

Jack Pierce was probably the first Monster Maker I ever became aware of. Not so much as a person, but certainly as a creator of arguably the most famous of all monster designs… that of “The Monster” played by Boris Karloff in Universal Studios’ 1931 film Frankenstein. I had likenesses of his Frankenstein Monster on posters, lunchboxes, puzzles, action figures, model kits, patches, stickers, and just about everything else imaginable all the time I was growing up. I was a certified “Monster Kid” raised on Uncle Forry’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland”. Even as a kid, I was amazed to learn more about the creator behind the creator of the most famous monster of all.

Jack Pierce and assistant build the makeup for Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster.

Jack Pierce (born Janus Piccuola May 5, 1889 in Greece) worked just about every station in film from stuntman to Assistant Director. It was on the 1926 film The Monkey Talks that he first showed the chops we know so well by creating the makeup for the talking simian played by Jaques Lernier. It was this makeup that drew the attention of Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. It was his first known makeup, but would not be his crowning achievement.

Jack Pierce's makeup from The Monkey Talks

His next creation is worth noting not only because of the merit of the movie itself and the fantastic performance of its star Conrad Veidt, but also that it is this character that Jerry Robinson (via Bob Kane) saw as inspiration in his creation of Batman’s most famous rival, The Joker!

Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs. Makeup created by Jack Pierce

But it was only after the untimely death of the Father of Prosthetic Makeup, Lon Chaney, Sr., that Jack Pierce’s position in makeup was firmly anchored at Universal. Chaney was originally contracted to play the title character in Universal’s Dracula, but died before it’s production began. It was then that Jack Pierce, now full-time at Universal Studios, experienced his first bit of Hollywood disappointment when, after designing a subtle but very particular makeup for Bela Lugosi, the star insisted on doing his own makeup… a makeup he perfected in his many stage performances as Dracula for the legitimate theater. Hints of Pierce’s contributions to the makeup remained including the lace widow’s peak Lugosi wore not only in 1931’s Dracula, but also 1932’s White Zombie. Lugosi later mused that Pierce got his revenge when he later designed and applied such torturous makeups as Ygor and even the Frankenstein Monster itself in later films!

Bela Lugosi as the broken graverobber, Ygor (Son of Frankenstein/Ghost of Frankenstein)

Truly, it was his followup to Dracula’s unused makeup that Pierce found his greatest success. The Monster in James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein was key in establishing Pierce as a makeup master. Whale supposedly sketched a few drawings on some napkins and presented these ideas to Jack Pierce for fleshing out. What came of that collaboration was one of cinema’s most phenomenal and easily most recognizable monsters ever. Pierce designed the makeup to mesh seamlessly with Karloff’s own gaunt anatomy, even incorporating his hollow cheek, the result of the removal of a partial dental bridge! The flat-top head is something of an interesting story…It was Pierce’s assumption that Dr. Frankenstein being a hasty physician, would simply cut the skull across the top and pull the skin back over the cranium like a tent flap. Most film historians argue that this may have been studio talking points as it makes no sense that a surgeon that could reattach nerves, blood supply, and tissue would make the call to simply pull the skin back over the gaping skull.  And clamp it in place to boot!  No, it is more likely that Pierce had a specific design in mind when creating the iconic look of Karloff’s monster, stretched arms and all!

The iconic Frankenstein Monster played by Boris Karloff

Certainly, sequels weren’t far behind and Pierce would duplicate his makeup, FROM SCRATCH, every day of filming! Pierce never used molds much to the chagrin of his victims. He would create every brow, every scar, and every stitch over and over again taking almost 5 hours for the makeup application alone. Then Karloff would have to act a full day only to have to endure several hours in the removal process. It has been written that Karloff would eat and even sleep in the monster makeup just to avoid having to endure its application the next morning. He even bore the scars of the neck bolts until the day he passed from this world to the next!

Many actors and actresses suffered that same fate for the sake of art. Some were not as tolerant of Pierce’s obsessive attention to detail as Karloff was. Lon Chaney, Jr. nearly came to blows with the man and accused him of purposely burning him with the curling iron used to singe and curl the yak and crepe hair used on Chaney in 1941’s The Wolfman.

Pierce and Lon Chaney, Jr. in fighting stance!

By the time he worked on The Wolfman in 1941, Pierce had reluctantly begun using latex rubber nosetips to somewhat shorten an arduous application process, but even at a time when most makeup men were beginning to abandon out-of-the-kit monster making, Pierce was adamant. He held on to the old world craft of the art. It was this unwavering rigidity that caused his demise at Universal Studios. After creating so many icons of horror, Pierce was unceremoniously released and replaced by Bud Westmore as Head of Makeup at Universal Studios.

Jack Pierce’s last official credits were for his work on television’s Mr. Ed.  He worked on the show from 1961 to 1964.  He died of kidney failure at the age of seventy-eight years old in 1968. Though he remained friends with Boris Karloff, even appearing on an episode of This is Your Life featuring the star, his stern-natured (some would even say bitter) personality made few other friends in Hollywood.

That is, except for those who would come after him. You could ask any Hollywood special effects makeup artist their inspiration and most would name Jack Pierce in the top three. Among them, seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker.

Rick Baker and his life-sized Karloff Frankenstein Monster

Without a Jack Pierce to inspire them, the Monster Kids of the 60’s and 70’s may not have been at all. His creations are iconic, inventive, and downright frightening. Mostly because they are so realistic.  Posthumously, Pierce was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hollywood Make-Up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild.

Jack Pierce’s contributions to motion pictures have endured the test of time and continue to inspire generations of special effects make-up artists. I count him as one of my first, and favorite, of my childhood. To me, Jack Pierce will always hold a special place in my heart, regardless of his reputation. I have learned many things from Mr. Pierce…especially how to treat the talent. Or how not to anyway!

Until next time, keep howling!



About Scott C. Fensterer

I am a freelance commercial artist (and have been so for the past two decades!) who has recently been accepted to the Dick Smith Advanced Professional Make-Up Course! This blog is a chronicle of sorts that will take my friends, family, and colleagues along for the ride and keep you abreast of my progress. It may sometimes veer off into other topics of interest such as movies, products, collectibles, and other fun elements of the day! Other than my professional endeavors, I am the father of two wonderful girls and have been married to my highschool sweetheart for seventeen years! She is my muse and assistant, my biggest fan and my harshest critic. She is my rock and my safe place. Without her, I would still be in commercial insurance.
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12 Responses to Hollywood Make-Up Legends: Jack Pierce

  1. TT says:

    His monkey looks better than the ones from the new Planet of the Apes… thanks for the history!

  2. Hans says:

    Genius work on Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein” .

  3. steve em says:

    Jack was a family member by marriage(his wife a first cousin to my grandfather) and we used to visit him at his home in Sherman Oaks. Bu Abbot lived across the street. Jack used t keep a head made from a life mask of Boris Karloff in his garage in a glass case with the Frankenstein makeup..Funny thing grandpa and his kin were tall like the men 6’5 the women 6’0.
    Uncle Jack as we called him used to tell us he had real eyes from the morgue in it.(yuk yuk) I have an old Polaroid of him and myself and cousin in front of our car when we were about nine. He was great to kids a nice guy,I do not know how he was to coworkers. I know he was bitter about Westmore though.. I know Robert Young my mOms pla from high school (she used to date the old cowboy Actor Bob Steele)said something about Jack having a reputaion as being a handfull

    Oddly enough I became freinds with Allan Young,s(WIburrrrrrr) son Allan Jr in the sixties shortly before Jack died.

    • That is an amazing story!! Thank you so much for sharing it with us! Jack has been and will always be a major reason I do what I do… I would’ve loved to know him personally and been able to share my admiration for the man face-to-face! It was a different generation, one that could never be respected enough for all they contributed to the craft!

      Thank you again for sharing some of your personal memories of Jack Pierce! It would seem we have Hollywood royalty in the house!!! LOL! It must’ve been amazing growing up and interacting in that environment… Just an amazing story!

    • Hello!!
      It’s an amazing story. I was led to this great blog (by the way great writing about Pierce’s work Scott C.Fensterer) because i am writing a paper about Jack Pierce’s life and work. Would you be interested in receiving a questionnaire (kind of an interview) and/or tell me some more information about Jack’s life? Thank you very much!

      Thanks again Scott for a great article.

    • Evi Kokori says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this to learn some for the legend Jack Pierce or John Pikoulas . Jack Pierce was a family member from my father Panagiotis Kokoris the son of Argiro Kokori Pikoulas one of the five sisters of Jack Pierce we learn about him right now and we are exciting to learn about a legend like Jack.

  4. neil says:

    Interesting about jack. I have numerous images of Jack with applying latex makeup and I doubt the “stories” he was old fashioned and stubborn when it came to applying make up. The guy was on the cutting edge and I’m certain would want to learn all the tricks and apply them More likely is that Westmore simply wanted him out of the picture and saved Universal a bundle in benefits by terminating him. Westmore was known to steal ideas like the monster make up for Creature of the Black Lagoon which was designed by a woman.

  5. Jack Pierce or Gianni’s Pikoulas was a Greek man born in Porto HellI in Greece from Greek parents Petro & Eugenia Pikoulas he had five sisters one of them was my grandmother Argiro Kokori Pikoulas we are very proude for him for the legend of Jack Pierce!!!

  6. George says:

    The great Jack Pierce was also uncle of the late actor Ted Sorel (Theodore Eliopoulos) who played Dr. Pretorious in the horror movie From Beyond. If you haven’t seen it, enjoy!

  7. Uncle Jack as he was referred to and his wife Auntie Blanche were really nice people.Blanche and her sister Beverly Craven were both actors mostly i community and some professional theater. Jack had told me that the original make up used for the Wolfman series was designed for Henry Hull in the Werewolf of London but the studio though it was too much. If I remember correctly j he had two daughters that did body makeup(Legs Arms etc during the Busby Berkeley era of musicals. The time lapse Werewolf transition sequence took 12 hours tro shoot and Jack was a bit of a stickler for no movement something that led him and Lon Jr to get into it a bit..
    he was still friends with Lugosi who had small apartment in Santa Monica as I remember,Bela’s son is an attorney keeping up the Blood sucking tradition I guess.
    I often wonder what ever happened to all those photos and momentous in particular the Frankenstein Head in the glass case. Somehow I suspect it ended up with Ackermann. it was a nice shade of green by the way. Jack was a very short man barely five foot his wife was much taller.

  8. Pingback: Adaptation Gone Wrong – Adapting the Classics

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