If you’ve seen a movie in the last fifty years or so, chances are you witnessed the work of an optometrist and you didn’t even know it. Dr. Morton Greenspoon of Professional VisionCare Associates in Sherman Oaks, California, is a contact lens specialist and a consultant to the major film studios . He is a third generation optometrist who started practicing in 1951 and has since fitted actors with cosmetic contact lenses in order to produce award-winning special effects in movies and television .
Dr. Greenspoon’s list of past projects is extensive, ranging from movies like The Lost Boys (1987), Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), and Underworld (2003) to the Star Trek television series [3, 4] and even music videos for Elvis Presley in Flaming Star and Michael Jackson in Thriller.
I literally grew up on movies, with one of my parents having been a film major and all, and when I heard about Dr. Greenspoon and his work, I just had to get in touch with him.
Adrienne: Dr. Greenspoon, your work in specialty contacts and special effects has led you to work on a number of notable projects ranging from movies to music videos. How did you get involved in the film and television industry in the first place?
Dr. Greenspoon: I am perhaps one of the most fortunate people. My father was a 1921 graduate of the Rochester School of Optometry. He practiced in New York with his brother for 6 years before meeting my mother and came to L.A. on their honeymoon. He loved California so much that he left New York and came to L.A. in 1935. My father opened his practice in the new city of Beverly Hills and met many people in the movie business. In 1939, he used Zeiss glass lenses to create the first special effect contact lenses to change an actor’s eyes from brown to blue.
I grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Beverly Hills High School, which was adjacent to the 20th Century Fox Studio. I decided that I wanted to become a cinema photographer. I got a summer job at Fox in the mail room and discovered how political the movie business was. I decided I could become an optometrist and combine my interest in photography and optics with my interest in cosmetic contact lenses.
I graduated from the Southern California College of Optometry. I had the advantage of a dream faculty including Henry Hofstetter and Monroe Hirsch. I joined my father in his Beverly Hills practice and took over the cosmetic contact lens part of the practice, which I later moved to Sherman Oaks, in the suburban San Fernando Valley to be closer to Disney, Universal, and CBS.
Adrienne: What was the most challenging part of creating these special effects with contact lenses? Were there any projects where you were unsatisfied with the results?
Dr. Greenspoon: Many special effects require scleral lenses or large corneal lenses, which have to be ballasted (Author’s note: ballasting involves adding additional weight to a part of the contact lens to stabilize it in order to maintain a given orientation). These are always a challenge to fit. Our biggest challenge was finding non-toxic paints and dyes with which to paint the lenses. When soft lenses became available, it involved a whole new set of problems. The pigment had to be introduced into the matrix of the lenses in such a way that they would not leak out. This involved a complex chemical process, which took a lot of research from all over the world to solve. Sometimes we would create an excellent special effect, which the photographer would not utilize properly and it got lost — very disappointing.
Adrienne: You must have met and worked with many celebrities during the course of your career. Who was your favorite or most memorable encounter?
Dr. Greenspoon: Elvis Presley was my favorite. He was a real gentleman. Cooperative, friendly and after the fitting he invited me to lunch in the Fox Studio dining room and insisted we take a picture together. Michael Jackson was my most difficult. In Thriller he transforms into a wolf. To create this effect we needed to fit full scleral lenses with a vertical pupil. If the lenses rotated even slightly it would ruin the effect. He was very sensitive and required a lot of assurance.
Adrienne: How does it feel to have received Oscar and Emmy nominations for your work?
Dr. Greenspoon: The Oscar I got was for my work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Of course, I shared it with the other members of the makeup team and the makeup artist, Greg Cannum. I received several Emmy’s all for the effects lenses in episodes of the Star Trek series. It is good for the ego but you can’t let it go to your head. These awards mean a lot in the theatrical community but not much in the optometric community.
Adrienne: What is the one project that you are most proud of and why?
Dr. Greenspoon: Without a doubt Thriller. The transformation from man to wolf had just been perfected by makeup artist Rick Baker, but without the wolf eye it would not have been effective. It went on to become the bestselling music video of all time. It has stood the test of time. Every Halloween it is on T.V. and my grandchildren look at and say “Grandpa did that.”
Adrienne: Are you currently working on any new projects?
Dr. Greenspoon: We are prohibited by the studio from discussing projects not yet released. The two biggest current projects released are Pirates of the Caribbean and The Twilight Saga.
Adrienne: How has optometry evolved since you first started practicing? Is there anything about the profession that you would like to see change?
Dr. Greenspoon: In the 61 years that I have been in practice, the biggest change, of course, has been in the scope of practice. In 1951 when I started practice, optometrists were second-class citizens. They couldn’t get a commission in the army, couldn’t use pharmaceutical agents, and even anesthetics and fluorescein were against the law. Now optometrists can do almost everything an ophthalmologist does except surgery and certain oral medications. My only fear is that the science of refraction, on which optometry was built, will become secondary to medical optometry.
Adrienne: Given your unique experiences, do you feel that there are more opportunities for optometrists now than before in terms of the types of services they can offer?
Dr. Greenspoon: Without a doubt. There are many more opportunities both in private practice and with health plans.
Adrienne: What advice would you like to share with current optometry students?
Dr. Greenspoon: Optometry is a wonderful profession. It provides so many opportunities in so many areas. It is not physically demanding like dentistry. The hours are good. I am happy to see so many more women following the profession.
 American Optometric Association, “OD’s work produces ‘thrilling’ effects,” News from the American Optometric Association, October 31, 2012 <http://newsfromaoa.org/2012/10/31/ods-work-produces-thrilling-effects/>
 Review of Optometry, “The History of Contact Lenses in the Movies,” Review of Optometry, October 15, 2012 <http://www.revoptom.com/content/c/37161/>
 IMDb, “Morton Greenspoon,” <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0339201/>
 The New York Times, “Dr. Morton K Greenspoon Filmography,” <http://movies.nytimes.com/person/826372/Dr-Morton-K-Greenspoon/filmography>
I would like to thank Dr. Morton Greenspoon for taking the time to do this interview. It was a pleasure corresponding with you and congratulations on all of your amazing achievements!
I also want to thank Benjamin Emer who told me about Dr. Greenspoon in the first place and said, “this would be a great idea for your next article!” Thanks for the great idea, Benji!
Lastly, I want to thank our “in-house” optician Leandro Petalio for answering my questions and schooling me on contact lenses.
Here are the other articles in the series “The Unconventional Optometrist”
- The Unconventional Optometrist: Taking Optometry to a New Frontier
- The Unconventional Optometrist: The First Deaf Optometrist in America
- The Unconventional Optometrist: Optometry in NASA Space Medicine
- The Unconventional Optometrist: Forensic Optometry