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Chemist Gary Zeller Wins An Academy Award for Playing (Safely) with Fire

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His name means “forethought,” but the Greek god Prometheus obviously wasn’t thinking far enough ahead when he gave mankind the gift of fire. Sure, it worked for toasting wild boar or warding off frostbite. But as a cinematic special-effects tool, it proved problematic. Until the mid-1970s, if a director wanted characters engulfed in flames, he was forced to swathe his stuntmen in bulky hoods and layers of asbestos clothing—and even then burns remained a risk.

Enter Gary Zeller, mere mortal. In the late ’60s Zeller, a chemist and special-effects coordinator, decided there was a burning need for a salve that could protect skin during fire stunts. “With the old layering technique,” he says, “it was impossible for stuntmen to be fluid in their movements, and they couldn’t face the camera because they were wearing this big facial hood.” Zeller, 47, consulted Haitian voodoo doctors, magicians and the manufacturers of flame retardants and spent hours in the lab before presenting the world with Zel-Jel, a gooey composite of 60 “secret” ingredients that prevents burning for up to three minutes. Since he began using it in 1975, Zel-Jel has allowed dozens of film characters to go safely up in flames. At this week’s Oscar ceremonies, Zeller was to receive a special technical-achievement award for this contribution to moviedom.

“If you look at the title, it’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” Zeller likes to remind people. As one of the little-known innovators who pursue the science of movies, Zeller has concocted, in addition to Zel-Jel, four varieties of fake fog, an ice substitute, “steam chips” that make food look eternally oven-fresh, and the deliciously sticky muck that coated John Belushi during the swamp scene in Neighbors, among other things. He was the, well, brains behind the exploding heads in Scanners and the firehouse inferno in Ragtime. He has worked in TV advertising as well as movies, masterminding (with the help of his wife and partner, Joyce Spector) such fanciful props as talking french fries for Burger King.

His career looks like a devilish little boy’s dream come true, and so it is. As a child growing up in New York and then Florida, Zeller says he was “fascinated by the people who got shot out of cannons and swallowed fire in movies. And I love fireworks—I had them under my bed.” The summer that he was 16, he apprenticed himself—unbeknownst to his mother, Hedy—to a Miami fireworks manufacturer. He also learned set building from his father, Joseph, a designer of department store displays, so his subsequent summer jobs, building scenery and doing lighting in local theaters, came naturally. At the University of Miami he pursued another love, chemistry, but continued to work backstage. That’s how he met Gypsy Rose Lee, who was in Coconut Grove playing Auntie Mame. The grand dame was curt to Zeller during her run but obviously noticed his work. After the final show, he recalls, “she wrote me a note that said, ‘Zeller, you’ll never starve. When hungry, call this number. Try New York once—you’ve got nothing to lose.’ ” Enclosed was an airline ticket and a hundred-dollar bill.

Lee never had to make good on her offer of sustenance because Zeller quickly found stage work in Manhattan. He returned to Florida to get a Ph.D. in polymer chemistry in the early ’70s, then headed back to New York and the entertainment world. He and Joyce, whom he had met designing sets and married in 1966, started a company to create theatrical sets and props. “We were interested in a combination of art and technology,” says Joyce, a special-effects technician who serves as company president. “We couldn’t go in one direction without the other.” Word of their talents spread, and soon they were consulting for commercials and movies as well as plays.

In 1987 the Zellers and their son, Evan, now 6, moved to New York’s Catskill Mountains, where they have a roomy three-bedroom log cabin that is constantly under construction. They maintain a lab near the house and an apartment in New York City, two hours away. Gary’s current project is the creation of a new, water-based plastic for sculptors. “Many artists have been poisoned or become ill from industrial materials,” he says. “I feel what I am doing now is very important.”

Health and safety have always been priorities for Zeller, who wrote a hefty how-to manual for Zel-Jel. (It bothers him that stunt people don’t “freely exchange ideas” because they’re afraid “someone else will get the edge,” he says.) So he was delighted to discover that Zel-Jel also helps heal burns. He hopes to get FDA approval and market a form of the gel (not suitable for at-home stunts) as a topical burn treatment. It is a task he knows he is up to. “I’ve always been good,” says Zeller, “at translating dreams into reality.”

—Kim Hubbard, Toby Kahn in Downsville