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PINON HILLS — After working with the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise some 40 years ago, Bill Blake is hoping Hollywood has a part for him in the next movie.
“I can still do the makeup and walk on my knuckles,” said Blake, a Phelan resident. “People have always been fascinated by apes because we are so much like them, and they are so much like us.”
Blake said the digital technology used in the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (which was released this week) is fantastic.
“I wish we had that technology back then,” Blake said. “But then again, that would have put me out of the makeup and special effects job.”
Fresh out of high school in the Philadelphia area, Blake was invited to California to do apprentice work for “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” the fourth movie in the original series.
“I had a chance to meet Roddy McDowall, who played the talking ape Cornelius, and Cornelius’ son, Caesar, in a later movie,” said Blake, 62. “‘Planet of the Apes’ was fresh and it was a huge hit with the people. It was a wonderful time to be in Hollywood.”
Blake said he was invited to work on the movie franchise after he mailed a letter to John Chambers, the legendary makeup artist who won an Academy Award. Chambers saw the passion and potential in the young makeup student and took him under his wing.
As a boy, Blake said he was fascinated by the technical aspects of sci-fi, horror and fantasy movies, and began honing his filming, makeup and prop-building skills.
“My dad was a machinist and we had all these tools and machines in the basement,” Blake said. “By the time I was 8 years old, I was reinventing my Radio Flyer Wagon into a camera dolly to shoot movies. My parents allowed me to express my creativity.”
After shooting his first movie, “Presto the Magician,” and reading Dick Smith’s “Monster Makeup Handbook,” Blake began assistant teaching in the art department of Eastern Region High School as a student.
Blake said he would take a group of students out to the woods with a camera, makeup and some props, and return a few hours later with a movie that had his young audience mesmerized.
Blake said he left college after Gene London, the host of a long-running, local Philadelphia children's show “Cartoon Corners,” asked him to work for him.
“I was on the streets of Philadelphia with my ape makeup and a TV news station picked me up,” Blake said. “Next thing I know, I’m in their basement filming makeup demonstrations. That’s when Gene London found me.”
Since then, Blake has earned 130 movie credits, including “Independence Day,” “Logan’s Run,” “Escape From New York” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
In the 1970s, Blake toured the country with stuntwoman Paula Crist as the duo entertained fans with their “Zira and Cornelius” live performance. Blake and Crist also filmed a demo reel in 1976 as part of a pitch for a sixth “Planet of the Apes” movie, “Salvation for the Planet of the Apes.”
Blake auditioned to perform the voice of the ape Cornelius in a cartoon series, but he was turned down because he sounded too much like Roddy McDowall (the actor who portrayed the ape in the early films), according to planetoftheapes.wikia.com.
Blake said he’d love to do voice work on a “Planet of the Apes” parody should Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated “Family Guy” show, decide to produce one.
In September, Blake is scheduled to speak at the Desert Rocks Film and Music Event in Hesperia, which will include independent films, music videos, workshops, up-and-coming rock musicians and comedians.
Blake said he’s also teaching a maker movement-based class at Serrano High School with Mike Osborne. The maker movement is the umbrella term for independent creators, designers and inventors who blend the worlds of modern computer technology and traditional artistry.
“We need to teach the next generation about creating things with their hands,” Blake said. “We’ll always need props and makeup, especially for live theatrical productions.”
Blake said he is excited that the “Planet of the Apes” franchise is alive and well, and creating new fans with every movie released.
“Just like ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Planet of the Apes’ has inserted itself into our modern culture,” Blake said. “After almost 50 years, people are still going ape for the movies.”
Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227, RDeLa Cruz@VVDailyPress.com or on Twitter@DP_ReneDeLaCruz.