John Chambers was a legendary make-up artist who became a veteran in both television and film. One of the most imaginative and resourceful of makeup artists, Chambers was born in Chicago, Illinois of Irish background, and was a commercial art graduate who also studied and worked in sculpture and designed jewelry in his spare time. He entered the dental technician school at Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Denver during World War II, and was then transferred to Santa Maria, California, where he spent three years learning techniques in plastic and rubber chemistry for prosthetic work, creating artificial eyes, ears, noses, etc., for wounded soldiers. After some years of prosthetic lab work for the Illinois government, Chambers went to Hollywood and joined the budding NBC-TV studios make-up department in 1955, working on their Matinee Theatre and Lux Video Theatre anthology series on productions like ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, and even transforming Lon Chaney Jr into a monster who resided in a tower. He continued to do prosthesis work in his garage laboratory, and was involved with several hospitals and research centers in developing and lecturing on techniques of medical restoration. Known as the ghost laboratory man, he worked on many television series (often uncredited), including The Danny Thomas Show, The Outer Limits (the domed head for David McCallum in ‘The Sixth Finger’ episode, in collaboration with Fred Phillips), The Munsters, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek (designing the pointed ears worn by Leonard Nimoy), Mission: Impossible, I Spy, Lost In Space, The Invaders, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Night Gallery. In motion pictures, he created (under Bud Westmore of the reknowned Westmore brothers) the masks for The List Of Adrian Messenger (1963), Tony Curtis’ false nose in The Boston Strangler (1968), an artificial hand mutilated by John Wayne in True Grit (1969), Richard Harris’ false chest in A Man Called Horse (1970), and the dog’s head and plaster casts for The Mephisto Waltz (1971). Although he worked on some of the sleeper movies such as his first movie, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Halloween II (1981), his work became known worldwide in the Planet of the Apes series of movies, for which he won an Academy Award. 
John Chambers was not involved in the initial stages of the developement of the makeup for Planet of the Apes – the early screen test made to convince the board of 20th Century Fox of the viability of an Apes movie featured makeup by Fox’s Ben Nye, as Chambers recalled: “At Fox, they had done a little test with the first person who tried out, and that was Edward G. Robinson. He was fabulous as Zaius (Maurice Evans was marvelous in the final casting), and I loved the way he did it. The makeup was crude, but they had a semblance of what they wanted. That’s how the one concept was started.” “I was in Madrid, changing Bob Culp into a mandarin for I Spy, when Ben Nye called from Fox asking me to go to London to check out a system of making ape appliances which would allow facial manipulation. This was six months before the start of shooting. We then had to determine what the makeup concept would be.” Chambers told Nye that he planned to meet the Pope while in Europe, and so refused to commit to the project until after Christmas. “When I went into it, the producer (Arthur P. Jacobs) and his associate (Mort Abrahams), had a concept of a neanderthal type, where he was fringing more on the human than the animal.” “I read the script, and agreed with the director, Franklin Schaffner, that the apes should not be made to look like hair-faced human beings – they should be animals, apes, with perhaps some minor concessions here and there. In other words, we carried the evolutionary process only very slightly beyond what you might call ‘basic ape’. To arrive at our final concept for the three ape types – chimpanzee, orangutan, and gorilla – we resorted to a good deal of sculpture. We would take a basic human head in plaster, and then in clay, model on this head our ape variations. We came up with things looking like the Neanderthal Man and so forth, which we discarded. The concepts were too ambiguous – they lacked the strength of the animal face and personality. We needed the pleasantness, yet the strength, of the animal without being too grotesque.” Art director William Creber was told by Arthur Jacobs about the difficulties Chambers’ department were having with the designs, and managed to procure a live chimp which he brought to their lab for study.
Tom Burman, Chambers assistant during the planning of Planet of the Apes, claims he was working on a sculpture in a back room of the makeup lab when Fox executives were viewing John Chambers’ ape sculpts. Unhappy with Chambers’ presentation, they were leaving when they saw Burman’s work. He wasn’t very experienced at sculpting, and as a result it was a very ‘human-looking’ ape, but that was the look they liked. After banning Burman from the lab for a week, Chambers grudgingly allowed him to come back, and Chambers, Burman and Dan Striepeke decided that the fact that these apes had evolved beyond present-day apes was the reason they looked the way they did. Chambers began experimenting along lines that had been previously used by Jack Dawn when creating the characters for The Wizard Of Oz; to turn Bert Lahr into the ‘Cowardly Lion’ demanded that Lahr would still have complete use of his face for comedy effects, while the entire shape of his head was altered and exaggerated. Dawn had solved the problem by designing a single appliance that fitted over Lahr’s brow-ridge, nose and cheeks, enabling Dawn to insert freckles, whiskers, lion-like jowels and a cat-like nose all with one appliance. Chamber’s earliest efforts began with a series of life-masks. For some reason it was felt that oriental features would best fill Chamber’s requirements, and so the first actors he fitted were orientals. Over a life-mask, Chambers began to design, in clay, a single appliance much like that used by Jack Dawn. Chambers was the first makeup artist to budget a feature motion picture for $1,000,000.
Even with the backing of a major studio, Chambers was absolutely determined that the ape makeup should be as perfect as it could be, using his extraordinary attention to detail to avoid the possibility of it becoming a comedy sci-fi film. “We had to invent a manner of makeup which allowed the dialogue to sound natural – and not as though it was coming from a cavern somewhere inside the ape’s body. Our final concept involved our modifying the simian wrinkles so they did not appear too grotesque. It wasn’t that we wanted to beautify it, but also we did not want it so grotesque that it would distract from the story.” “When I sanctioned to do the first film, I had to have conditions… I felt there were areas where I had to maintain director and camera control. We had to confer if I felt the shot was not good for the makeup. If the acting or the shot, no matter how good it was, wasn’t done properly for the makeup, it would have to be redone. There were very few faults in the makeup on the first one because I was on the set every day.” “Before production, I was training people to [apply the makeup] in six hours, then five hours, down to three-to-three and a half. Then, I knew that anywhere from two-to-three hours, some of the makeup men would be finished, and I said, three hours for each makeup. If I saw anyone rushing, they had to curtail that. I maintained quality as much as I could in the first one. I kept an eagle-eye control.”
On Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Chambers had the extra task of creating the makeup of the radiation-scarred mutant humans. Director Ted Post was apparently responsible for the final makeup concept for the mutants in the film. After the studio spending thousands of dollars and several artists trying to find the right look for the mutants, Post remembered a drawing from a medical text entitled ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, in which was printed a vivid picture of a man’s head, with the top layer of epidermis removed. For some reason, he never forgot that picture and suggested the idea to Dan Striepeke and John Chambers, who said: “This was a full, soft foam-rubber head appliance, and I used silicone adhesives to blend it out. In the ape appliances, there were small pieces, a chin, a muzzle, and a forehead, and the rest was face hair and a wig. It took more time to blend the edges there, but the mutants were already made up, and the only extra makeup we used was around the eyes and mouth. So we took two hours, average, on those.” Chambers also worked on Escape from the Planet of the Apes and supervised the re-making of the appliance molds and the hiring of make-up technicians on the final two Apes movies, and although his involvement with the Apes projects was minimal after Beneath the Planet of the Apes, he continued to be credited as ‘Creative Makeup Designer’ and to play a promotional role.
Chambers was among those suspected of creating the Sasquatch in the famous Patterson/Gimlin ‘Bigfoot’ film from October 1967, but he denied this. The rumours seem to have originated with actor/director John Landis, who briefly appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Landis started out as a mail boy at Fox and used to visit Chambers in his lab, and he then cast Chambers in his sci-fi spoof directorial debut movie Schlock (1973). Chambers had a cameo in one scene playing a captain of the National Guard, while future Planet of the Apes makeup artist Rick Baker played one of the many National Guardsmen. Baker impressed Chambers with his makeup work on that movie, where he created the ape-like ‘Schlockthropus’, played by Landis himself. Chambers did in fact create the ‘Burbank Bigfoot’ – a large plaster prop intended to imitate a real Bigfoot-like creature for showman Jerry Malone’s carnival tour – from a body-cast of actor Richard Kiel while working in partnership with ‘Don Post Studios’ in the 1960s. He also advised showman Frank Hansen to take his ‘Ice Man’ concept to Howard Ball and Werner Keppler, and engineered and designed a gorilla for a wax museum in Canada during this time, all of which may have contributed to the well-known rumour. Rick Baker, a close friend of John Landis, was also known to have informed people that Chambers was responsible for the Patterson/Gimlin ‘Bigfoot’ but has more recently admitted he was probably mistaken. (See also: ape costume expert Janos Prohaska’s opinion of the famous footage.)
John Chambers was creative make-up designer on Dan Striepeke’s snake horror project Sssssss (1973), and also worked on Patton (1970, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner), The Questor Tapes (1974), Embryo (1974), Futureworld (1976), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977, directed by Don Taylor) and Father Damien: The Leper Priest (1980). He earned the first of four Emmy Award nominations from the 1971 Night Gallery episode ‘Pickman’s Model’ (starring Bradford Dillman and introduced by Rod Serling), for the design of ‘the Ghoul’ (played by Janos Prohaska’s son, Robert), and with Tom Burman designed the makeup for the David Wolper Productions/ABC-TV four-part documentary series ‘Primal Man’, about prehistoric man’s struggle for survival. Fellow-Apes makeup artists Ellis Burman Jr., Werner Kepler, Ken Chase, Ed Butterworth and Fred Blau all worked on the series, while Janos Prohaska and his son Robert designed the costumes. During filming of the final episode, on March 13 1974, some of the cast and crew boarded a chartered plane to return to Los Angeles, but it crashed into a mountain, killing all 36 people on board, including Janos and Robert Prohaska. The ‘Primal Man’ project was re-named and aired in 1974 as the acclaimed series ‘Up from the Ape’, including the footage already shot and recovered from the plane wreckage. Chambers won an Emmy for the ‘Survival’ segment of the series. Tom Burman eventually bought The John Chambers Studio when John retired, and made it The Burman Studio.
For his work in movies, Chambers has a ‘Star’ on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first awarded to a makeup artist. He was also given the ‘Medal of Merit’ – the highest civilian award from the CIA – for his help with numerous transformations, and some of his work can be seen at the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. Chambers first became involved with the CIA in the early 1970s, thanks to his work in TV and movies. Operating under the code-name ‘Jerome Calloway’, he disguised American agents during the end of the Vietnam War, and CIA disguise trainees would sometimes work undercover with his crew on movies to learn techniques and lower suspicions. The 2012 movie Argo related an elaborate real-life attempt by US and Canadian operatives to rescue six American diplomats trapped in Iran in January 1980 by posing as members of a Hollywood film crew with help from disguise expert Chambers (played by John Goodman). According to the head CIA operative Antonio Mendez, the name ‘Argo’ was thought up by Chambers himself after his favorite knock-knock joke (“Who’s there?” “Argo.” “Argo who?” “Argo f**k yourself!”), while the fake film used concept drawings by Jack Kirby from an aborted project based on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction theme park novel Lord of Light. John Chambers died August 12, 2001 in Woodland Hills, California.