A Make-Up Test Evokes A Memory
Bearding around with a member of the famed Westmore clan
By Ed Goldman
When I was 16 years old two improbable things happened:
- I was cast in the title role of John Drinkwater’s poetic and historically dubious play “Abraham Lincoln.” My casting was also dubious since I was barely six feet tall whereas the play’s eponymous subject was six-foot-four. Predictably, I was provided with stacked boots to wear that made me about six-three and so clumsy that I tumbled down the backstage stairs during the final dress rehearsal. The stairs were made of concrete (which is made, as you know, with cement) and I was made of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous (and zero cement). I still went on opening night. After all, I was still young, fairly pliable and there was no understudy.
- My drama teacher/director, Milton J. McMenamin, arranged for Mike Westmore to create my beard right on my face at a theatrical makeup demonstration in the auditorium of Cerritos Junior College in the Southern California town of the same name.
Mike was (and remains) a member of the legendary Westmore family of makeup artists, who date back more than a century. His grandpa, George Westmore, kickstarted the family business by launching the first makeup department in a movie studio 105 years ago.
When he pieced together my Lincoln beard in front of a capacity crowd, human follicle by follicle, Mike was about 28 (he’s now 83). He was 17 years away from winning an Oscar for his work on “Mask” (in 1985) and, over the years, taking home a staggering nine Emmy Awards.
While I’d go on to appear in high school, college and a handful of professional plays (provided your hand has five fingers), this was my first experience with a genuine makeup artist. He certainly had his work cut out for him. Other than having dark brown hair at the time and that oxygen/phosphorous combo mentioned above, I shared zero physical characteristics with the man I already thought, and continue to feel, was the greatest U.S. president. Maybe Mike and my teacher knew that and lowered their expectations by doing only the beard. The audience didn’t seem to mind as Mike worked and explained every step of the process. This included more-or-less smearing my lower face with spirit gum, a cousin of Krazy Glue but, fortunately, not nearly as unforgiving. Had it been more of an adherent I’d still be wearing that scraggly beard 55 years later—and probably a portion of many meals since then.
As you perhaps remember, especially if you’re phenomenally old, Lincoln’s beard covered only his cheeks and chin; he didn’t wear a mustache. He could have passed as a member of the Amish community or, more currently, a hipster.
Since Mike didn’t need to create a mustache, the job went pretty quickly and I was afraid the audience was going to be disappointed that they’d come all this way on a Tuesday evening for a 45-minute demo. But when Mike finished piecing the hairs onto my face, he, the audience and I enjoyed a ta-da moment: He gently pulled an entire beard off my face. From the applause, you’d think he’d sawed a woman in half or revealed how much of their life savings people could hang onto by retiring to Costa Rica.
I wore that beard through the entire one-weekend run of “Abraham Lincoln” at Lakewood High School. I was afraid before and after every performance, when I smoothed it on or gently pulled it off, that it would dissolve in my hands, as many a biscotti has done in the years since. But it held up as a beard far better than my subsequent, mercifully brief career as an actor.
Along those lines, what I most enjoyed was a comment a woman made to me as she’d left Mike’s demo: “You’re a very good actor.” I had said not a single word during the entire session. I’m surprised I didn’t leave for Paris immediately to find work as a mime. But, as I may have mentioned, it was a school night.