Theater News

Kim Hunter, Broadway and Hollywood’s Stella DuBois, Dies at 79

Kim Hunter
Kim Hunter

Kim Hunter, who died on September 11 of a heart attack at 79, began and ended her Broadway career at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In late 1996, she succeeded Dulcie Gray as Lady Markby in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband that closed in early 1997 — the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Hunter originated her most famous stage role, that of Stella DuBois Kowalski.

I first met Hunter in 1986, when I interviewed the gifted actress about her film career. She received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for recreating the part of Stella, the expectant wife of Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, in the 1951 film version of Streetcar. Hunter also memorably played Dr. Zira, the psychologist (pri)mate of a simian Roddy McDowall, in the original Planet of the Apes movie and its first two sequels. “I’m glad I did them,” she observed, “and I’m glad I got killed in the third.” Summing up her movie career, she said, with a laugh: “I was either pregnant or an ape.”

Our interview took place in the Greenwich Village apartment that she shared with her husband, Bob Emmett, a former dancer and actor who became a very successful writer. (In the mid-1960s, he was head writer on the popular political-satire TV series, That Was the Week That Was). The Emmetts, whose company I enjoyed on several occasions thereafter, were a devoted, charming, funny, and warm couple until Bob’s death in 2000. They were married almost 50 years. In the 1990s, Bob returned to acting, and worked frequently with Kim. The parents of Kathy and Sean, they were grandparents
of six.

When speaking of Brando, Hunter’s voice took on a reverential tone: “An absolutely gorgeous actor and a beautiful human being! I think Karl [Malden, the original Mitch in Streetcar] said it once about Marlon: ‘As an actor, he can make wrong choices, even bad choices — but he can’t be false.’ It was congenitally impossible for that man to be false. And if you don’t think that isn’t pure joy to work with — that sense of truth — God! Also, [he was] the dearest, most thoughtful, considerate human being I’ve ever met. Wild sense of humor; practical joker, no end.”

Hunter with Marlon Brandoin the original Broadway productionof A Streetcar Named Desire...(Photo: Eliot Elisofon/LIFE)
Hunter with Marlon Brando
in the original Broadway production
of A Streetcar Named Desire
(Photo: Eliot Elisofon/LIFE)

Born Janet Cole in Detroit on November 12, 1922, Hunter never legally changed her name; her driver’s license read, “Janet Cole: a.k.a. Kim Hunter.” She was nearly nine years younger than her brother, Gordon (later a pilot). Their father, Donald, died when she was three. When Janet was 10, her mother, Grace, remarried and the family moved to Florida. “A drama teacher moved nearby,” she recalled. “I’d always loved the movies and I asked to take acting lessons.” Her stepfather, Bliss Stebbins, died the year that she began high school.

After graduation, Hunter joined a local stock company and then became a member of “The Theatre of the Fifteen,” playing ingénue roles until the group disbanded in 1942 (“Most of the actors were being drafted,” she noted). One of the group’s directors, who had returned to the Pasadena Playhouse, wrote to Hunter and suggested that she come west to audition: “I did and was accepted. In my second play, I was spotted by a talent scout for David O. Selznick. He put me under contract and changed my name; he didn’t want the name Janet, because of Janet Gaynor and Janet Blair. I’d never been absolutely in love with my name, and the idea of changing it seemed a marvelously romantic
notion. I suggested ‘Kim’ because I liked the name from Show Boat [the daughter of Magnolia and Gaylord]. Then Selznick was given a list of last names and chose the name Kim Hunter.” Her first film was 1943’s The Seventh Victim.

One day, while posing for publicity stills, Hunter met Marine Captain William Baldwin, who was on a studio tour. “He was a very persistent chap,” she recalled. “We had a very brief courtship. It was the pressure of the war, everybody wanted to get married.” Their wedding was photographed for a Life magazine layout (“As far as I knew, I’d married a camera”) but the marriage lasted less than two years (“We just didn’t belong

After five films, all made on loan-out, her Selznick contract was terminated. The producer explained that the roles that suited Hunter would first be offered to his other contract players, Jennifer Jones (his new wife) and Dorothy McGuire. One of Hunter’s assignments while working for Selznick had been to substitute for Ingrid Bergman’s head while Alfred Hitchcock made tests for some minor male roles in Spellbound. “It lasted a couple of days and I had lunch with Hitch, who was charming. He recommended me to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger when they came to Hollywood [from England] looking for an American actress to play a WAC in A Matter of Life and Death. On Hitch’s recommendation, they saw me and signed me.” The American title of the 1946 film, in which Hunter co-starred with David Niven, was Stairway to Heaven.

Hunter was starring as Claudia in Connecticut when approached about playing the part of Stella Kowalski. Irene Mayer Selznick (ex-wife of David O.), who was producing Streetcar, recalled her former husband’s enthusiasm for the actress. An emissary was sent to Hunter and she was told that there was interest in her but that she could not be signed until the part of Blanche had been cast, since Stella and Blanche had to look like sisters. Jessica Tandy was cast as Blanche and would win a Tony for her performance.

Streetcar premiered on December 3, 1947, directed by Elia Kazan. “We all knew it was a bloody good play,” noted Hunter, “but Gadge [Kazan’s nickname] had warned us before the New York opening, ‘Do not succumb to overconfidence. Yes, we all love it — but the play is a bit like oysters. A lot of people don’t like oysters. Just do your damnedest.’ We did our damnedest.”

...and in the 1951 film version
…and in the 1951 film version

Streetcar, she said, “was the happiest, most productive and fulfilling film experience I’ve ever had.” Kazan insisted that she be hired for the movie, in which Brando and Karl Malden also recreated their roles. Vivien Leigh, who had starred as Blanche in London, was signed for the film as box-office insurance. “Fortunately, there had been a year or two between working with Jessica and with Vivien,” Hunter noted. “I’m grateful for that period because I might have resented [the cast change], having loved Jessica so much. Vivien was an incredibly charming woman. When she spoke to you — to anybody — you were the only person in the world.” Hunter went on to remark that, for the film version, “Gadge really worked to correct something that had happened on the stage. He had become a little too fascinated with the character of Stanley. It tended in many ways to become Stanley’s play, rather than Blanche’s. And it’s her story.”

The way Hunter saw it, “The film was made 20 years too soon. The whole concept of homosexuality couldn’t even be whispered onscreen at that time. Unless you knew the play, you didn’t know what the hell Blanche’s relationship with her young husband had been. Tennessee had to rewrite the whole scene where Blanche explains to Mitch about her deceased husband. I remember Vivien looking at the rewrite [impersonating Leigh]: ‘Do I have to say he disgusted me because he was a poet?’ And there was a problem with the ending: We couldn’t leave in the rape scene unless Stanley was punished. Stella had to leave him. Well, Stella’s not going to leave him. The relationship would never be the same again, but leave him? Never! We had to re-shoot the ending. Originally, I took the baby and said, ‘I’m not going back’ only once. The censors said that was not strong enough. They wanted me to say the line several times. That pleased them and us [because we felt] it made it less positive that Stella was not going back.”

During the early 1950s, Hunter discovered that she’d been blacklisted in TV and movies. “I was never a Communist, nor even pro-Communist, but I was very pro-civil rights and I signed a lot of petitions. I think my big ‘sin’ was agreeing to be a sponsor of a [1949] World Peace Conference held in New York. I never actually attended it but Life magazine came out with a big picture spread of all the celebrity sponsors — I was in mighty good company [e.g. Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt] — and I think this fanned the flames.” She testified in New York Supreme Court during the May 1962 libel suit that radio personality John Henry Faulk brought against Aware, Inc., and Vincent Hartnett, the principal author of Red Channels, a 1951 publication that listed entertainers alleged to have Communist affiliations. Variety’s Who’s Who in Show Business stated that “[Hunter’s] testimony paved the way for clearance of many performers unjustly accused of Communist connections.” Faulk’s victory inspired a 1975 TV-movie, Fear on Trial, in which Hunter was asked to play herself. “It included private scenes that were not true,” she said, “and I consulted a lawyer and got my name off it.” (Lois Nettleton portrayed the Hunter role, an actress named Nan Claybourne.)

Hunter’s TV credits include Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian, Give Us Barabbas, The People Next Door, Skokie, and Three Sovereigns for Sarah. Among her other films are Deadline USA with Humphrey Bogart; Anything Can Happen with Jose Ferrer; Storm Center with Bette Davis (“What a dame! Absolutely straight on, no nonsense!”), and Lilith.

Catherine Wolf, Anne Jackson, and Kim Hunterin The Madwoman of Chaillot(Photo: David Rodgers)
Catherine Wolf, Anne Jackson, and Kim Hunter
in The Madwoman of Chaillot
(Photo: David Rodgers)

Her other Broadway plays were Darkness at Noon, The Chase, a 1952 revival of The Children’s Hour, The Tender Trap, Write Me a Murder, Weekend, The Penny Wars, the 1973 revival of The Women (with Alexis Smith, Dorothy Loudon, Myrna Loy, Rhonda Fleming, etc.), and To Grandmother’s House We Go. The versatile Hunter worked constantly in regional theater, playing a wide variety of roles from Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday to Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. Her only musical was Jokers, based on The Gin Game, in which she co-starred with Ronny Graham in the early 1990s. Her final stage appearance came in the spring of 2001 when she appeared with Anne Jackson in an Off-Broadway production of The Madwoman of Chaillot.

In 1985, she was quoted as saying: “I got into this business as a kid out of high school to be an actress, not to be a star. It’s the work, not the billing, that always fascinated me.” In turn, Kim Hunter fascinated audiences for decades — and she was equally fascinating offstage.