When It Comes to Artificial Eyes O. Robert Levy Is Without Peer

updated 07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 01:00AM

Ocularist O. Robert Levy of Los Angeles is hailed as the Leonardo da Vinci of his profession, the maestro among a scant 150 craftsmen in the world who make and fit artificial eyes. In his 40-year career Levy, 62, has furnished remarkably lifelike plastic eyeballs and lenses to some 30,000 people, including Sammy Davis Jr., a prize Lhasa Apso and one sheik who, Levy recalls, "flew in his own 747, bringing a bodyguard and a full-time ophthalmic technician." He also does movies. During the sci-fi heydays, Levy kept busy supplying weird contact lenses—for Ray Milland in The Man With X-Ray Eyes, among others. Recently he designed the prominent peepers for E.T. "The eyes," deadpans Levy, "were his best feature."

Born in Los Angeles the son of an optometrist father and bookkeeper mother, Levy received a B.S. degree from Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton. In 1946 he went to work at American Optical, which pioneered the development of prosthetic eyes. In 1949 he launched his own practice—seeing patients by day and fashioning eyeballs after hours. "Before the newer plastics eliminated the problem," he recalls, "it sometimes took all night to make one without air bubbles." Today's prosthetics are made of methyl methacrylate, an acrylic that is also used to make dentures. Levy, who employs a staff of five, charges $800 for one eyeball and $950 for a scleral lens, which, like a large contact lens, fits over and masks a damaged natural eye.

Known for his meticulous realism, Levy requires as many as three visits by a patient just to achieve the proper color mix. He applies the acrylic-based paint with a sable brush to the disk-shaped iris, then places it into a spherical mold, adds white Lucite and the "eye" is then baked. Later "veins" are painted on and a clear plastic laminate is added to duplicate the cornea.

"The greatest compliment is when people don't notice our work," says Levy. "We had one patient who said her eye doctor's nurse wanted to put drops in both her eyes to dilate the pupils."

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