Actress Kim Hunter Dead At 79

Actress Kim Hunter: photo from Aug. 27, 1998. Hunter, who won a supporting Oscar in 1951 as the long-suffering Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and appeared in three "Planet of the Apes" movies, died from an apparent heart attack Wednesday,Sept. 11, 2002, in New York. She was 79. AP

Kim Hunter, the versatile actress who won a supporting Oscar in 1951 as the long-suffering Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and appeared in three "Planet of the Apes" movies, died Wednesday in her Greenwich Village apartment.

Hunter, 79, died from an apparent heart attack, said her daughter, Kathryn Emmett.

A shy, modest person, Hunter possessed an inner strength that allowed her to play heavily dramatic roles. She enjoyed a long and busy career in theater and television, less so in films. Partly that was due to being blacklisted during the red-hunting 1950s, partly because she didn't fit the sexpot pattern for female Hollywood stars.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" provided the highlight of her acting career. The play was cast with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Karl Malden as Mitch, and Jessica Tandy as the tragic Blanche DuBois.

Director Elia Kazan admitted in his autobiography, "A Life," that he had trouble casting Stella "because I enjoy looking at girls." He added of Hunter: "The minute I saw her I was attracted to her, which is the best possible reaction when casting young women."

Brando, Malden and Hunter played their roles in the somewhat sanitized film version (Hollywood still adhered to a strict moral self-censorship). Because Warner Bros. need a movie star for marquee value, Vivien Leigh, who had appeared as Blanche in London, repeated the role in the film. Leigh, Malden and Hunter won Academy Awards; despite his unforgettable performance, Brando did not. Humphrey Bogart was awarded a long overdue Oscar for "The African Queen."

Oscar's legendary golden touch didn't seem to apply to Hunter. Her subsequent films were few, and they lacked the luster of "Streetcar." Among them: "Deadline U.S.A.," as newspaper editor Humphrey Bogart's estranged wife; "Anything Can Happen," as Russian immigrant Jose Ferrer's wife; "Storm Center," a minor film starring Bette Davis; also "The Young Stranger," "Bermuda Affair," "Money, Women and Guns."

In 1958, the offers from Hollywood and television stopped. Hunter was listed as a communist sympathizer by Red Channels, a red-hunting pamphlet that influenced hiring by studios and TV networks. Outside of theater, her only acting work for five years was a sequence of "Saint Joan" on the "Omnibus" TV series. A liberal Democrat and member of Americans for Democratic Action, she sought a way to remove herself from the list.

"A bunch of vigilantes were making money off (de-listing)," she recalled in 1999. "One of them said to me: 'For $200 I'll get you off the list.' He put it in writing, and that was that."

Her return film was "Lilith" (1964), which starred Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg and Peter Fonda in 1964. Four years later came "Planet of the Apes."

Hunter was cast as Dr. Zira, a chimpanzee psychiatrist in the science fiction classic about a group of astronauts from a ruined earth who discover a future world ruled by apes, with humans as slaves.

The actress spent hours as the makeup and monkey suit were applied and later removed. "It was pretty claustrophobic and painful to a certain extent," she told a reporter in 1998. "The only thing of me that came through was my eyeballs."

She was enough intrigued with the character and the plots that she appeared in two sequels, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970) and "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971).

Her name was Janet Cole at her birth in Detroit on Nov. 12, 1922. "I was lonely growing up," she later remarked. "My only brother was nine years older and had little time for me. So I picked friends out of books and played `let's pretend' games, acting out their characters before a mirror."

Her engineer father came from a Baltimore family interested in amateur theatricals, and her mother had been a concert pianist. They divorced when Janet was young, her mother remarried and moved to Florida. The girl had taken part in school plays and at 17 joined a traveling stock company. She gained more seasoning in regional theaters, then went west for a role in "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the Pasadena Playhouse.

That led to a contract with David O. Selznick, whose first move was to change her name. "Janet Cole could be anyone," he told her. "Kim Hunter has individuality and would go far as an actress."

Selznick devoted his attention to his established stars such as Ingrid Bergman and Jennifer Jones, and he loaned Hunter to other studios. She made her film debut in a low-budget RKO horror film, "The Seventh Victim," and followed with secondary roles in four other features. Alfred Hitchcock, who had directed some tests with her, recommended her for the England-made fantasy "Stairway to Heaven."

While the film drew good reviews and is now considered a classic, it did little to help Hunter's career. Without any film offers she returned to the New York theater.

Irene Mayer Selznick, who was producing "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947, was seeking an actress to play Stella Kowalski. Her ex-husband, David O. Selznick, recommended his former contract player, Kim Hunter.

After the "Planet of the Apes" movies, Hunter's film career dwindled, and she became prolific in theater and television.
  • Dan Collins

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