Tim Lawrence shows the zombie teeth he created and wore in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. photo by BOB SELF/The Times-Union
Roger Bull - Jacksonville.com
Tim Lawrence has spent just about all his life playing some serious make-believe. He calls it “character design,” but it’s really just make-believe.
He helped turn Michael Jackson into a zombie and played one of those who rose from the dead in “Thriller.”
He made T-Rex models for “Jurassic Park.” He was in on the original work to figure out exactly what Shrek would look like.
When Bigfoot broke into that big grin in “Harry and the Hendersons,” that was Lawrence operating his mouth.
Or how about this: In “Caddyshack II,” Lawrence was the puppeteer who moved the arms of what is probably the most famous gopher in movie history.
Lawrence is 50 now. He came back home to Jacksonville a few years ago to take care of his ailing parents in their last years. Now he’s working on starting a new career — writing and illustrating children’s books.
But he’s got a scrapbook and a couple of decades of Hollywood memories. Of “Beetlejuice” and “Shrek,” of “Ghostbusters II,” “Aliens” and even “Howard the Duck.”
It started early for him in his Murray Hill neighborhood.
“As a kid, I had a small circle of friends from elementary to high school,” he said. “We were geeks, but we were movie geeks. More specifically, we were movie monster geeks.”
So the group of them — Lawrence, Kenneth Hall, Cleve Hall, Steven Sleap and Richard Sykes — started making stuff on their own. Godzilla suits, spaceships, stop motion models.
“It was a matter of ‘I want to make a dragon, what do I have in my garage?’ And once we got rubber and molded latex, we could really go.”
Even before he graduated from The Bolles School (on scholarship, he points out) they created a little business they called Imagimation and put on shows at the old Alexander Brest Planetarium. Halloween shows, of course.
Someone at the Times-Union heard about them, wrote a story and Sally Industries gave him a call. That’s where he started designing, sculpting and programming animated characters.
In 1981, he got a job in California, making animatronics for restaurants. “Like Chuck E. Cheese,” he said, “only more
Tim Lawrence works on a fiberglass injection mold for Michael Jackson's "Change-o" head for the "Thriller" video in 1983.
And then came the call that really changed his life. He’d met Rick Baker, who was already well on his way to becoming Hollywood’s leading craftsman with special effects makeup.
Baker was going to make a music video, one that was expected to be kind of special. Did Lawrence want in on it? Yes, he did.
So Lawrence joined the crew that spent eight weeks creating zombies for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“We didn’t know who the dancers were going to be,” he said, “so we had to make all the masks and acrylic teeth ahead of time, then fit them when the dancers got there.
“Michael was there all the time,” he said. “He was very polite, the consummate professional. But he’d be off in the corner by himself, working out moves.”
The five or six in the makeup crew also got to turn themselves into non-dancing zombies. Watch the video and you’ll see Lawrence. He’s the heavy bald one patterned after Tor Johnson in the cult classic “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” (Watch the music video.)
The video went on to change music videos, Michael Jackson went on to become … Michael Jackson, and Lawrence went on to work in a long list of movies, TV shows and commercials.
Sometimes it was still monsters, but for other films it was something as benign as stars twinkling in the night sky for “Mystic Pizza.”
Through all his work, though, Lawrence is always careful not to simply say “I did that.”
“There were too many people involved in anything for one person to get credit,” he said. “You start off working small and fast. We’d make clay models for Shrek, and Jeffrey Katzenberg [the producer] would walk by saying ‘No, no, no, that’s one’s close.’
Tim Lawrence makes plaster impressions of the paw of M'Shoni's, a 350-pound lion at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
“And then we’d start again.”
There were the Scoleri Brothers, the dead criminals in “Ghostbusters II.” He was asked to come up with what they looked like, but the only description he got was a script that said “Big in life, bigger in death, the Scoleri Brothers erupt into the courtroom.”
“I knew that Dan Aykroyd wrote it for him and John Belushi,” Lawrence said. “So I figured I’d made one tall and thin and the other short and fat.”
If you’ve seen the film, it looks like the ghostly brothers were completely animated, but Lawrence said they were actually actors filmed and special-effected into looking like ghosts. And he was the short, fat one — under 80 pounds of costume, of course.
He’s taken part in some movies that he hasn’t even seen.
“The first 10 years,” he said, “I went to the movies four or five times a week to see my work and everyone else’s. But after a while, you quit. You’re the magician; you know the tricks. And all you can see are the faults.”
And when his mother started dying from breast cancer, and then his father struggled with Alzheimer’s, Lawrence came home.
“When the folks get sick,” he said, “there’s not a whole lot you can do. I shut down my operation there and came home. But it was worth it. My father got hot meals every day and got to stay in his home.”
He still thinks he may go back. In the meantime, he’s teaching himself new skills on the computer, and he’s working on his children’s books.
And he still puts some of his old skills to work, volunteering at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. When an animal is knocked out for some other medical procedure, he drives up and takes a plaster casting of its paws or its ears. In time, the zoo will make bronze castings of them to put out around the zoo.
“There’s nothing like putting your head next to the chest of a 300-pound lion,” Lawrence said, “and hearing its heart.”
And that is not make- believe.