William Tuttle: MGM Makeup Artist

Instantly I thought of William Tuttle during a recent conversation of what makes makeup artists valuable and the importance of collaboration, being that I graduate college next month and have been talking/thinking a lot about my career in makeup . Actor Tony Randall would say, “All of my preconceived notions on how I would play the characters vanished. As soon as Tuttle applied his makeup magic, I felt myself actually become these strange people.”  Many recite Tuttle as being the first makeup artist to be honored for his work long before a makeup category was even placed at the Oscars. But beyond any trivia, what defines the legacy that Tuttle left in film makeup?

Early life: William Tuttle was born on April 13, 1912 in Florida with an early life of responsibilities  because he supported his mother and little brother by performing in vaudeville. In 1930, he went to Los Angeles and that started the road to makeup.

Education: Tuttle dropped out of school as a teen but he did take art classes at University of Southern California while working at Twentieth Century Studios as an apprentice to makeup dept head, Jack Dawn. Dawn was amazed by Tuttle’s convincing bullet hole on Bela Lugosi for Mark of the Vampire (1935) and story goes that’s when Tuttle’s possible career as a makeup artist was quite certain. When Twentieth Century closed (remember this is before Twentieth Century and Fox would merge) he went to MGM with Dawn and learned his craft for 8 years before taking over Dawn’s job when he retired.

Style: Like a sculptor making a face cast, Tuttle would create molds of the actors he worked with which allowed him to develop makeup looks beforehand. This was particularly helpful when developing different types of prosthetics. I heard (and would like to assume) that University of Southern California still has a pretty good collection of these molds. Below is a video where Tuttle shows them in his workspace.

Legacy: Tuttle died in July 2007 at 95 years old. His skills allowed him to work in a variety of specialities from beauty to special fx, working in black and white and color films but also transitioning to television, although he is most remembered for his film contribution. He mentored college students at University of Southern California’s film school (can you imagine how amazingly fun it’d be to have a film class by him?!) and also developed his own line of makeup, Custom Color, which is still available today sold by his name than the original brand. Click here to take a look and purchase for your kit.

Mini Retrospective of Tuttle’s Work:


(Clockwise from far left) The bullet wound on Bela Lugosi in 1935 that started everything; Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion in Wizard of Oz (1939), an example of film makeup that still terrifies me as an adult, an American in Paris (1951) was one of the Vicente Minelli musicals Tuttle worked on, and Shirley MacLaine’s transformation to a hooker in Some Came Running (1958).


Kirk Douglas became Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) with the help of Tuttle, tanned Ava Gardner in Showboat (1958), brought the late 1920s to Gene Kelly and cast in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and faced the challenge of waterproof makeup for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).



Tony Randall as Medusa was one of the amazing transformations he made for Randall that earned Tuttle the Honorary Oscar of makeup for The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), Morlocks in the Time Machine (1960) were done with prosthetics, in Sweet Bird of Youth (1961) Geraldine Page became the flawed and troubled film star Alexandra Del Lago with Tuttle’s look of bold eyeshadow and strong red lip and gave Ann Margret strong coral lips and matching flush in Viva Las Vegas (1964). Seriously, watch the film and you’ll see proof that there’s a color of coral for everyone.  Tuttle also worked on other Elvis Presley films by the way.



Sophia Loren aged from 31 to 80 for certain scenes in Lady L (1965), for the Cincinnati Kid (1965) here’s Ann Margret and Tuesday Weld who are two different women in the film and have different looks to reflect that,  Debbie Reynolds in the Singing Nun(1966) and Young Frankenstein (1974) starring Gene Wilder.

In His Own Words:

“Actors today just aren’t as memorable [compared to the big stars of MGM] those people were people were big stars, there’s no two ways about it…It’s difficult to define beauty because the personality of a person influences you so much. I couldn’t say one [star] was more beautiful than the other. There are different types of beauty too–the glamorous type, the soft look or the wholesome beauty. [Recalling the era of Marlene Dietrich in the 30s] young starlets were walking around sucking their cheeks in and constantly asking me to shade the areas under their cheekbones to make them more prominent. Makeup was more obvious in the early days of movies, but it is a more faithful representation now. Makeup for films as in everyday life, just follows a fashion.”

–from April 30, 1973 for The Age


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