Honestly, these days, when we picture John Chambers, we picture John Goodman. Well, what do you do? While Chambers himself received an honorary Oscar at the 1968 ceremony, he was played by John Goodman in a much more well-known Oscar-winning film—and in fact Chambers was never eligible for a competitive Oscar, as the category in which he would’ve won didn’t exist until roughly the same time he retired. And right around that time, he was busy doing the thing that got him played by Goodman.
In his early years, Chambers was an artist who designed jewelry and carpets. He was nineteen when World War II broke out, and he spent the war as a dental technician. Following that, he made prosthetics—both facial and for amputated limbs—for other veterans. He then began training at 20th Century Fox in the makeup department. In 1953, he made the shift to television; he seems to have gone back and forth between the two for most of his career, based on what he’s best known for. At least until you get back to his activities outside of Hollywood, that is.
His Oscar was only the second honorary one given in the field. The first, four years earlier, went to William Tuttle for The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Chambers received his for Planet of the Apes. He would receive four Emmy nominations over his career for makeup, winning none of them. But he did quite a lot of other makeup work over the years, and if not all of it came to the attention of the various awarding agencies, well, it’s remained in the public consciousness even if most people couldn’t put a name to whose work it is.
This is very much not helped by the persistent failure of IMDb to credit behind-the-scenes people for all their work. It is universally agreed that he designed Spock’s ears. There doesn’t seem to be any debate about this. However, it doesn’t appear on his IMDb credits list. Neither does the specific Night Gallery episode for which his Emmy nomination was given, even though that detail is on his Awards page. It’s not just his TV, either; neither Cat Ballou nor A Man Named Horse appear on it, though Blade Runner does. It’s deeply frustrating. For my needs, yes, but also because these people deserve to have their work recognized.
Yeah, let’s get to the John Goodman thing now. So in the late 1970s, Chambers went to work for the CIA, providing “disguise kits” for agents. I don’t know how this happened; neither of my regular reference sites includes that little detail. Still, okay, there it is. Then in 1980, he was approached by an agent named Tony Mendez. Mendez asked him to be part of what would be known as “the Canadian Caper.” Eventually this would be fictionalized—heavily, and leaving out most of Canada’s actual contributions—in the Oscar-winning movie Argo. Where Chambers was played by John Goodman. There are worse people to play you.