In a New York photo studio, makeup maestro Michael R. Thomas is hard at work adding another Hanimal to his manual menagerie. With careful brush strokes, he applies black and white acrylic paint to an impassive model, painting him from fingertips to elbow until the model’s left hand and arm have taken on the appearance of a small killer whale. Four hours later, Thomas, 38, glues a gray glass eye to the upper end of the crevice between the man’s first and second fingers and fastens a chic gold watch to his wrist.
The elegantly streamlined whale is Thomas’ 11th Hanimal and will join a whimsical collection of swans, peacocks and seals that has taken the ad world by storm. The Hanimals’ raison d’être is the peddling of Noblia watches, priced from $300 to $ 1,500; each of the beasts wears one as a collar. The ads were inspired by Italian artist and hand painter Mario Mariotti, from whom the Hanimal name is licensed, but it is Thomas who has transformed human hands into sleek zoological masterpieces.
When Lintas: New York, the ad agency for Noblia, picked Thomas as its Hanimal man, it chose one of the most talented free-lance makeup artists around, but also one of the quirkiest. Although Thomas has worked on movies, for the Metropolitan Opera and NBC’s Saturday Night Live (it was he who helped design the Coneheads’ cone heads), he has never earned more than $20,000 a year. “Motivation and discipline,” he says, “have always been a problem for me.”
Thomas thinks he knows why. When he was a child growing up in the Bronx, his family lived in the basement apartment of the building where his father served as custodian. “When we’d open the door, our view would be nothing but garbage cans,” says Michael. “Maybe that has something to do with my outlook on life.” He describes himself as a “pretty miserable kid” who spent much of his time watching horror movies, then drawing the monsters he had seen. Monsters are still an obsession. When a visitor comes to the apartment Thomas shares with his wife, Bonnie, in Bergenfield, N.J., the host proudly displays a roomful of monster heads, masks and fiendish photographs. There’s also ajar containing—so the label maintains—an “abnormal brain,” and there are two of Thomas’ paintings. One is of actor Christopher Lee as a blood-drooling Dracula, the other of Thomas’ personal hero, Frankenstein’s monster. “As a kid, I often felt confused and rejected, and I guess I related to the plight of the monster,” Thomas says. “He was strong but innocent at the same time.”
In 1967 Thomas dropped out of high school and began scraping together a living washing dishes, then waxing police cars and later working as an orderly in a mental hospital. Eventually, Thomas got a job in 1970 mopping up for makeup legend Dick (The Godfather) Smith on a Dustin Hoffman movie, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me?
Soon afterward he talked himself into a makeup apprenticeship at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “I grew to hate opera passionately, but the people were wonderful,” he says. He married Bonnie, a supervisor in a bank, in 1976, following a two-year courtship and set out on his own. Among other jobs, he worked on the PBS historical series The Adams Chronicles and on a Burger King commercial, grooming His Hamburger Highness. But his ultimate thriller, he says, involved making up Michael Jackson for his role on The Wiz. “We had an instant rapport,” says Thomas, who invited Jackson home for dinner. Bonnie served her specialty, Cornish game hen, and, according to Thomas, “Michael slopped gravy all over the tablecloth. Later, I got out my guitar and taught him a few chords, and Michael taught me some dance steps.”
Apart from Hanimals, Thomas’ bestknown makeup marvels are the Cone-heads, those suburban visitors from the planet Remulak. “That was the biggest charge,” says Thomas. It was also an occasion of frenzy, since he often had less than a minute between skits to glue the pointy rubber Conehead shells on Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. At Saturday Night Live, says Thomas, “I got to work with some of the funniest people around—Robin Williams, Steve Martin. The craziness rubs off.” So much so that four years ago he auditioned as a comic at a New York comedy club. “Put it this way,” he says. “They didn’t exactly laugh me off the stage.”
Which may explain why Thomas still gets his comic kicks free-lancing for SNL. Aykroyd, the Coneheads’ patriarch, did a cameo on the show last February and was delighted to see Michael still there. “He’s one of the best in the business, and he’s also a good friend,” says Aykroyd. “Most people don’t realize that voice and manner are only half of my job. The other half is the look. Well, Michael takes care of that. After he applies my makeup, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I feel like I’m ready to roll. He has done tremendous things for my confidence.”