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.”