FOXNEWS.COM: Meet the Real Grandpa Behind the Oscar-Nominated "Bad Grandpa"

Meet the Real Grandpa Behind the Oscar-nominated “Bad Grandpa”

Johnny Knoxville’s elderly character in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” was based on an actual person, says the film’s makeup effects designer Tony Gardner, whose company's work in the film has been nominated for an Academy Award this year.
“It’s true,” Gardner stated, “Johnny Knoxville’s character, ‘Irving Zisman,’ was based on a real person…someone from Cleveland, Ohio, actually. It’s important to state up-front though that the person we referenced for “Bad Grandpa” was referenced more for their looks than their antics.” Gardner added, “Our reference model was definitely a character, but not enough of one to join the lineup at a strip club or get up close and personal with a soda machine like Irving did.”

Johnny Knoxville's old man character first sprang to life in 2001 on the "Jackass" television series as more of a disguise for Johnny Knoxville's antics. “Then, when Johnny was paired up with an elderly actress named Dottie Barnett as his character’s wife for the first film, we decided to lighten up the old man's look, and actually re-sculpted several of his facial prosthetics with less intense features. For the finale sequence of the first feature, 'Jackass: The Movie,’ we were tasked with putting all nine of the cast members into old age prosthetics as elderly versions of themselves, including Johnny, so we ended up altering Johnny’s prosthetic makeup yet again so that the new version was more of a physical match to Johnny’s features."“'Irving Zisman proper' was actually created in 2006 for ‘Jackass Number Two,'" said Gardner. "Johnny was up for going into prosthetics again for the sequel to the first film, and Producer Spike Jonze wanted to get involved in the antics as an old lady, so ... the characters of Irving Zisman and his lady friend Gloria were born.”The intent with Irving for ‘Jackass Number Two’ was to revise him to make him a kindler, gentler Grandpa figure, but one that was doing things that weren’t so kind.  One of the skits for the 2006 film (titled appropriately “Bad Grandpa,”, involved Grandpa and a child actor out and about town, messing with the unsuspecting public as grandfather and grandson, so the goal was to make Irving even friendlier than he'd been so far. The need for a solid, softer Irving for "Jackass Number Two" was where the real-life Grandpa reference came into play.

“The Grandfather that we referenced for Irving back then was my own Grandfather, actually,” admitted Gardner. “Mr. Fred Cooke from Fairview Park, Ohio….my mother’s father. We had his photos around the shop back then, and used them as character reference for Irving. We used him for so many elements, really... the mustache, the glasses, high collared shirt, the receding hairline, length of sideburns, the shape of the nose, the jawline....the only changes that differed from our reference material were minor. We whitened up his hair and messed it up, gave him rosacea, and turned his mustache into more of a handlebar mustache … little character traits, really, with the hope that people would notice and focus more on those aspects than on the fact  that they were interacting with a thirty-something actor wearing prosthetic makeup.”

Irving and Gloria were a big hit in “Jackass Number Two,” which meant they'd be back for the next film, and their appearances would need to be altered yet again, but for different reasons. It had only been two years since “Jackass Number Two” had been released, and "Number Two's" version of Irving was all over the Internet. “The whole point originally was to make Johnny unrecognizable so that he could blend in with real people and prank them, and now all of a sudden we had to disguise these fictional characters from looking like the last public incarnation of  these same fictional characters. So, Gloria gained about 200 pounds, and Irving’s cheekbones and chin were built out to make his face more angular, his skin texture was roughened up, and we made him a bit better groomed overall."

"Cut to six years later, and we’re getting ready to start work on what would become 'Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,' knowing that we have to change up Irving’s look yet again, to 'disguise Irving from being recognizable as Irving.' Without intending so, by reducing the mass of the makeup overall, we really fell back into the “Jackass Number Two” / Fred Cooke look for the character."

"My intent was to alter the broad shapes of his silhouette, but also bring the makeup in closer to his real features everywhere else so that it could be thinner and Johnny could be more expressive. The ears would be bigger and the hair altered so that his outline was different from the front, and altering his nose and hairline would change his appearance in profile.  Smaller things were tweaked a bit as well, like widening the base of his nose."

“Once we had our first makeup (and only) makeup test at Alterian, we all agreed to thin out Irving’s hair as one more way to make the character look different from his previous incarnations. I had done a test makeup on a bust of Johnny Knoxville in advance of our makeup test on the actor just for peace of mind, and once we had that new thinner wig, I put it on the bust …and well, Fred Cooke just kind of jumped back out of the design again.”

“I think that subconsciously maybe I was steering the ”Bad Grandpa” character in that direction as we were putting him together. The hair, the style of glasses, widening the nose, all of that. By the time it all came together you’d only need to darken the hair and add a bolo tie to channel Fred Cooke...or at least his brother. Then on set our lead artist on this character, Steve Prouty, gave Irving a bit of a tan and slicked his hair down a bit flatter too, which made him appear even more like our original reference material. We weren't trying to create a likeness makeup of Fred, obviously, but from certain angles he'd show up every now and then.”

“What would make more sense than to base a “grandfatherly” character on your own grandparent, right?" Gardner recalls, "I remember during ‘Jackass Number Two’ not wanting to clue my mother into what I was doing with the Irving character, as being part of a Jackass movie didn’t seem like the best way to honor the memory of her father. But now that the makeup in “Bad Grandpa” has been nominated for an Academy Award for Makeup & Hair Styling, I think it’s okay to fess up, and I’m hoping that maybe she’ll see things aren’t so bad after all."

THE INDEPENDENT: Bad Grandpa: When Jackass was nominated for an Oscar...

Bad Grandpa: When Jackass was nominated for an Oscar...

The make-up and hair team of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa have been nominated for an Oscar

Tim Walker

“The producer overheard a 10-year-old kid saying, ‘Dad, that’s Johnny Knoxville.’ His dad didn’t believe him. It turned out the dad was a doctor!” Bryan Christensen

In Bad Grandpa, the latest movie from the Jackass stable, an 86-year-old named Irving Zisman takes a kooky, cross-country road trip with his young grandson. Along the way, the pair shock, unnerve and offend a succession of unsuspecting bystanders, before making a subversive appearance at a child beauty pageant. So far, so Little Miss Sunshine.

Yet what sets the former film apart from its  influences is that the witnesses to its wacky set-pieces are not actors but real people, and Zisman is played not by a real eightysomething, but by Johnny Knoxville, who is 42. That his  elderly disguise was so convincing explains why Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is this year’s most unlikely Oscar nominee, in the Make-up and Hairstyling category.

Tony Gardner, one of the make-up special- effects specialists behind Zisman, says, “If  the make-up doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. Most of the time comedies aren’t recognised [by the Academy Awards]. But the platform that this film’s make-up stands on is the fact that the character worked in the real world, in real light, in front of real people.”

The named nominee is Steve Prouty, who worked with Gardner’s firm Alterian to create Zisman’s face, and then applied it to Knoxville’s head in daily two-hour, 45-minute make-up  sessions. “What an honour,” said Knoxville of the nomination.  “Am I as stunned as everyone else we didn’t get the nod for Best Picture? Well, of course, duh. But I won’t let that take away from my happiness for Steve, Tony Gardner and our whole make-up team. Wahoo!”

Alterian’s HQ is a warehouse on a non-descript industrial estate in the unremarkable LA suburb of Irwindale. But hidden behind its beige facade is a workshop filled with weird creations coming to life, and an office decorated with previous  on-screen triumphs: a dog in a full-body plaster cast from There’s Something About Mary; John Travolta’s female fat-suit from Hairspray; the  titular robot from the sci-fi dramedy Robot & Frank. One memento sadly missing is a 14-foot replica of David Hasselhoff that the firm made for The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie – now being used as the base of a glass-top table at the Hoff’s home.

Turning heads: Tony Gardner and Lilo Tauvao work on ideas for ‘Bad Grandpa’ (Bryan Christensen)

Irving Zisman’s features were based in large part on Gardner’s grandfather, Fred. The face was made from silicone, paper-thin and translucent. The ears and the back of the head were latex. Then there was the wig, the eyebrows, the moustache, the dental veneers, and the liver-spotted backs of his hands. The team also made a  wrinkled torso for Knoxville to wear in scenes where he removed his shirt, as well as some other anatomical items that it would be inappropriate to describe in the pages of a family newspaper. Each make-up element had to be mass-produced so that Knoxville could be disguised anew for every day of the 60-day shoot.

Remarkably, his cover was rarely blown. “There was a scene when he went to a Jacuzzi and dropped a colostomy bag in the water,” Gardner explains. “The producer overheard a 10-year-old kid turning to his dad and saying, ‘Dad, that’s Johnny Knoxville.’ His dad didn’t believe him –  he said: ‘Look at all the wrinkles on his stomach. It’s a real guy.’ It turned out the dad was a doctor!”

Gardner, who is 50, grew up in Ohio but moved to California in the 1980s to study film at USC. Ostensibly as part of his studies, he engineered a meeting with legendary special-effects man Rick Baker, who offered him a four-week job as a  production runner. “Four weeks turned into four years,” Gardner says. He subsequently worked with Baker on projects as varied as the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Gorillas in the Mist, and established his own company while working on the cult horror The Return of the Living Dead in 1985.

One of the key members of the Jackass gang is writer-director Spike Jonze, whom Gardner met while working on David O Russell’s Gulf War movie Three Kings, in 1999. “Spike was one of the people I was doing make-up on,” Gardner recalls. “He kept saying, ‘I’ve got to get back and edit my movie.’ I was like, ‘Oh God, this is one of those actors who wants to be a director.’ But we really hit it off, and it turned out later that he was in the middle of editing Being John Malkovich.”

Gardner worked on Jonze’s second film, Adaptation, and then Jonze introduced him to Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, better known as the enigmatic French dance duo Daft Punk. Alterian was instrumental in the design of the helmets worn by the band for their public appearances. Gardner and Bangalter bonded over a shared love for the 1950s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the  helmets were influenced by the Gort, that movie’s alien robot.

Bart Mixon works on Johnny Knoxville’s make-up (Sean Cliver)

Alterian recently completed work on the comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To, though the firm’s relationship with gross-out auteurs the Farrelly Brothers stretches back to There’s Something About Mary in 1998. “I had little kids at the time and I was taking phone-calls at home that involved asking people things like, ‘The sperm on Ben Stiller’s ear: is it clear or white? How long is it? Is it chunky? The boobs: do you want her nipples out or down? The balls in the zipper: do you want veins?’ These are not conversations you want your kids to hear!”

Today, the SFX industry is under threat from the rise of its rival, VFX, and Gardner explains that where Alterian might once have made creature suits for actors, film-makers now just cover their actors in coloured dots and add the creatures as post-production CGI. Though the company specialises in overweight and old-age make-up such as Zisman’s, even that business is being usurped. “There are films being shot as we speak, with younger actors playing older, and they’re experimenting with dots and digital make-up  instead of physical.”

For the real-life survival drama 127 Hours, Alterian made the fake arm that James Franco sawed off using a blunt penknife. The prosthetic was so anatomically convincing that Gardner has started a side business creating life-like babies and combat wounds to help train emergency room doctors and army medics.

And yet, he says, manufacturing believable make-up is only half the battle. “Half the success of make-up is the person wearing it. With James Franco, the arm was great, but if he hadn’t made it real, you wouldn’t have bought it. We can make Johnny Knoxville look 80-something, but if he doesn’t own it and sell you on it, you’re not going to buy it. It’s a collaboration.”