For this month’s Practical-ly Perfect column, I thought it was the perfect time to take a moment and pay tribute to Bart Mixon’s contributions to the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, which was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (you can read my interview with him HERE). When it debuted on ABC in November of 1990, it became a landmark moment for television, and a big part of that was the now-iconic villain Pennywise, portrayed by the legendary Tim Curry.
As we all get ready for Andy Muschietti’s new take on King’s classic novel, it’s only fitting that we celebrate Mixon’s bold and ambitious take on horror’s most infamous killer clown in the original IT adaptation. Mixon discussed his approach to designing Pennywise, his experiences collaborating with Curry (who was one of three top choices Wallace had in mind to play the unforgettably terrifying character), how we almost never got to see Mixon’s brilliant disfigured Pennywise design, and more.
“When you’re in this business, it’s nice if you can get one character that truly becomes your calling card, and Pennywise became mine. Working on IT in that respect was very gratifying because it’s something that has endured with fans to this day. Go to any horror convention, or any store that sells Halloween stuff, and Pennywise’s face is everywhere.”
“I was certainly aware going into IT that it was so popular, but I honestly wasn’t a huge Stephen King fan myself. I didn’t dislike his stuff, but I hadn’t read a lot of his books up to that point. I had read Pet Sematary and one of his short story collections, but my twin brother, Bret, was a huge fan, and he helped get me familiar with the book. Then I decided to read IT for myself, and between Stephen King’s vision and what we were given in the script, I had to find the best way to represent the character of Pennywise.”
“Story-wise, the clown is an illusion; it’s not a real manifestation. So, to me, it made sense that it would look like a friendly clown, especially since he was trying to lure in little kids. I almost wanted him to look like a live-action cartoon, and at one point, we were going to do blue contact lenses that would almost look like an animation drawing.”
“I was also thinking of giving him pure white teeth that would match the clown-white paint on him. I just wanted to see him pure white, because a lot of clown makeup goes gray since you can often see the skin tone underneath it. The colors had to be real stark, and I wanted to use primary colors like the red and yellow against these clean lines. I just thought that would all be horrific to see as It brought about suffering on these innocent kids.”
“My intention was to have two looks for Pennywise: the clean version, because that makes sense when you’re dealing with kids, and then a monstrous version that taunts them as adults, because they all know at this point that he’s a monster. Originally, I had wanted to continue using the battery acid look, where half of his face is disfigured, but for different reasons, the director [Tommy Lee Wallace] didn't want to go that route.”
“Originally, Tim Curry, Roddy McDowall, and Malcolm McDowell were the three names mentioned to me when I first came on. It was going to be a three-part, six-hour miniseries, too, which I don’t think a lot people know, either. Any one of them would have been a very cool Pennywise, but Tim really made this character his own. Just coming up with the Pennywise makeup was certainly a collaborative effort between Tim, me, and Tommy. They both would give me their feedback on my drawings or sculptures, and I would fix anything they didn’t feel was right.”
“Tim was so great to work with, too. What I liked about him was that you could do a clown makeup on him and he could look like a nice, friendly clown, and then with just his eyes or a twitching of his mouth, he suddenly looked evil. It was so subtle. I do remember that there was some controversy surrounding the battery acid look of Pennywise, though. It was decided at that point in the script that he would get that disfigured makeup, but when we shot the movie, we ran out of time up in Vancouver and we never got to the battery acid look. They just kind of shot around the kid spraying Pennywise, and then Pennywise jumping in the drain. They never did Pennywise’s reaction shot, so I figured they would just be picking that up on inserts later on.”
“But we had to make a miniature of Pennywise for the shot of him going down the drain. It’s an 18-inch stop-motion puppet, and up until the time that I molded it, they weren’t going to use the disfigured look for whatever reason. So I said, ‘Well, all right. Sculpt it with the normal face.’ And literally, the day that I molded that half of the puppet—the front half—they came and said, ‘All right, we decided Tim’s going to wear the disfigured makeup, so now we're going to shoot that sequence.’ What that meant was that I then had to make a little miniature prosthetic to put on the stop-motion puppet to change its appearance to look like the disfigured one. I’m so grateful they finally changed their minds and that Tim was willing to wear that piece, because that sequence would have played out very differently had Pennywise just had a normal face.”
“Also, the sequence where they hit Pennywise in the head with the silver, and it punches a hole in his head where the deadlights shine out, originally played out differently in the script. It was supposed to be spider hairs sticking out of his head, and to me it just seemed too literal because the spider isn’t what he really looks like, either. It's the deadlights that are the true representation of what this character is. So, at least Tommy agreed with that, and they ended up rewriting the script. Dynamically, I thought it would be more interesting to present it that way, and I think that scene turned out great.”
“I’m still really proud of the work we did on IT. I think it was my first ever upfront credit for a show, and I love how the fans have embraced Pennywise, too.”
Behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Bart Mixon: