CUMBERLAND, R.I. — Joe Rossi’s film credits refer to him as a makeup artist — and he is — but in the basement of his Rhode Island home, it’s clear that he’s a wig man.
There are boxes on top of boxes of tufts and toupees. There’s a graying Frederick Douglass wig worn by Richard Brooks in PBS’ recent “American Experience” series “The Abolitionists,” and piles of hair that have been machine-crimped to look like natural beards. There’s also the shaggy ’do that David Walton will wear on this Sunday’s premiere of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “The Makeover.” The movie features the actor as a low-brow Southie guy who gets a makeover (hence the title) and then runs for office.
Rossi admits that he found Walton’s hair in a box of handmade ’70s wigs in his basement. A disheveled, almost-mullet fit the bill. He and makeup artist Rebecca Frye, who assisted with the beard and wig, went out of their way to make sure Walton looked particularly scruffy, at least for the first part of the movie.
“It would be giving him a look that would be radically different from the makeover,” he said. “There had to be a real change.”
Rossi, whose makeup department resume includes the recent locally filmed television pilot “Terminales,” last year’s local pilot “Gilded Lilys,” “The Fighter,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Outside Providence,” has found that his wig-making skills give him an edge for local film jobs. For instance, when producers of “The Makeover” hired him, they knew they weren’t just getting someone to do makeup. They were also getting someone who could transform Walton’s look.
Rossi explains that his wigs are made of real hair — some bought, some collected by his hairdresser friends. He was trained to put the pieces together by Bob Kelly, the great New York wigmaker who worked on Broadway shows such as “West Side Story” and “South Pacific,” and for television shows including “Saturday Night Live.”
Rossi was sent to Kelly’s shop in the mid-1970s when he was doing makeup for theater at Rhode Island College. During his visit, Kelly offered to teach him the trade. He wound up spending spring break of his junior year learning the craft.
“Instead of going to Florida, I took him up on his offer.”
Rossi said he feels honored to be doing the work.
“Part of it is that it’s almost a lost art. There are so few people doing it these days, at least in this country,” he said. “I think I have a particular love for it because of how and when I learned how to do it. [Kelly] was on top of the business. [He] openly took me in and taught me how to work in this craft.”
Rossi said locals shouldn’t be offended by Walton’s hair in “The Makeover.” He knows that Boston people aren’t so shaggy.
“I’m not stereotyping,” he said with a laugh, adding, of the style, “It’s Southie hockey [hair].”