On TV Today, Not Every Actor Who Looks Bald Is Bald




Balding actors who employ hair systems onscreen get a lot of attention. But not so much attention is paid to those actors who go the opposite route, employing a “bald cap” to disguise the fact that they have a head full of hair.

Essentially just a piece of very thing latex that fits over an actor’s head, bald caps are an invaluable tool of a make-up artist’s trade. As a matter of fact, some artists, such as Ed French or the late Richard Snell, are particularly well known for their skill with “balding down” an actor.
It’s a process that’s actually very complicated, as Eric Heinly of Premier Products, Inc. (PPI), which creates adhesives, solvents and specialty cosmetics for the hair care and hair replacement industries, can attest.

“The biggest challenge is getting the hair to lay down flat so the bald cap fits over it without bumps or bubbles,” Heinly says. In earlier times, a product called Gaffquat was utilized for this purpose, but it tended to make the hair unacceptably stiff and rigid. “Newer silicone-based adhesive products, such as Telesis, are used now, which do an excellent job of flattening the hair while keeping it soft.”

The bald cap: The challenges

Clearly, working with a bald cap is easier if the actor already has short hair rather than long. As Heinly explains, if the hair is too long, the best solution is to basically shoot around it. In these instances, the hair may be pulled into a ponytail, hanging on one side of the head. The bald cap is fitted snugly on, with the ponytail actually hanging out on that one side. A scene is then shot only from angles that don’t capture the ponytail. After that, the ponytail is moved to the opposite side, and the entire scene is shot again from a new angle.

“All bald caps today are custom fitted,” Heinly explains. “In the old days, say on the old ‘Carol Burnett Show,’ you might have a skit in which Harvey Korman or Tim Conway would appear with a bald cap, and it was just a stock cap, nothing especially made for them – and it looked terrible.”

Today, a make-up artist measures an actor’s head and has bald caps made to fit. That’s the easy part: the hard part is making it look natural and ensuring that no one can tell what’s a bald cap and what is the actor’s own skin. On PPI’s website, there is a Players section which features pictures of Richard Snell transforming an actor with a bald cap. The process is intensive, involving not just flattening the hair and fitting it on, but blending skin tone make-up and creating realistic hairlines, abrasions, or any other characteristics that will enhance its believability.

“It’s just like with a bad wig or toupee,” Heinly says of poorly done bald caps. “You can see them a mile away.”

And, of course, the process of creating the bald cap has to be repeated every day. “Bald caps are disposable,” Heinly reminds us. “Once you take one off, you really need a new one.”

Bald caps: Why not just shave the head?

So why does Hollywood go to all the trouble involved in taking a “haired” actor and “balding him down?” Why not just hire a bald actor in the first place? After all, talent is not confined to the hirsutely-headed. And a bald person brings the life experience of actually knowing what it’s like to live with hair loss.

Well, there’s the “star” factor. Say you’re a producer lining up this picture and you’ve found a brilliant bald actor who is totally unknown but is absolutely perfect for the part. Just before you sign him, you get a call from Brad Pitt telling you he’s dying to do this part. Who in his right mind is going to say, “Gee, Brad, I’d jump at the chance to work with you, if only you didn’t have all that hair”?

But what about non-star parts – which, let’s be realistic, is the category that most often includes bald characters? If the hero’s business colleague or the heroine’s uncle needs to be bald, why not limit it to the legitimately de-hair-inated?

First, because the director wants to get the person who comes closest to fulfilling all of the requirements of a role, some of which may be elusive and hard to define; hair status may not be very high on that list. And second, the film industry is all about creating illusion anyway, so altering an actor’s hairline is just another everyday sleight of the Hollywood hand.

But there’s another reason, as well: If a case can be made that only bald actors should be hired for bald parts, a case can equally be made that only those with hair should be hired for non-bald parts. In that scenario, hairless actors would no longer be able to don wigs and be considered for the wider range of parts thus available to them.

In theory, therefore, it all seems to even out: an actor is hired for a role based solely on his talent, and his physical appearance is altered to fit the demands of the part. But in practice, it doesn’t always work out that way. For whatever reason, it tends to be easier for producers and directors to imagine a “haired” actor as bald than a bald actor as “haired.”

That is, unless that bald actor can produce a $30 million opening weekend. Then we’ve got a different story.