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Kim Hunter, 79; Won Oscar for 'Streetcar'

September 12, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kim Hunter, the versatile stage and film actress who won 1951's Academy Award for best supporting actress as Stella Kowalski, Blanche Dubois' long-suffering sister in "A Streetcar Named Desire," died Wednesday in New York. She was 79.

Her death, in Greenwich Village, was caused by an apparent heart attack, according to her daughter, Kathryn Emmett.

Hunter created the stage role of Stella in Tennessee Williams' towering Broadway play and later rode the character to fame in Elia Kazan's Oscar-nominated film, each time playing opposite an electrifying young actor named Marlon Brando, whose shouted mating call "Stella!" has become an enduring part of cinematic history.

"I had read 'A Streetcar Named Desire' before I read for the part of Stella," Hunter would recall in a 1999 interview. "I knew it was a good play, but I don't think I knew how special it was, what a milestone it would be. I don't think my mind worked that way."

"Doing 'Streetcar' was a joy, needless to say," she said in an earlier interview. "Plays like that don't come along every other year. From the struggle to get everything right in rehearsals through the challenge of sustaining a long Broadway run, it was never easy. But I wouldn't have given up any of it."

Hunter originated her role on Broadway along with Brando, who played Stanley Kowalski, and Karl Malden, who played Mitch. Jessica Tandy played the tragic Blanche DuBois in the stage version, but the film role went to Vivien Leigh, who had appeared in the play in London. Leigh, Malden and Hunter won Oscars for their roles, but Brando was passed over for Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen."

Hunter's Oscar, however, did not translate into roles of equal stature. Her subsequent films included "Deadline U.S.A.," "Anything Can Happen," "Storm Center," "The Young Stranger," "Bermuda Affair" and "Money, Women and Guns."

In addition to "Streetcar," Hunter expressed fondness for two other film roles: the 1946 British fantasy "Stairway to Heaven," in which she played a young American woman working for the Royal Air Force, and as Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychiatrist in the 1968 science fiction classic "Planet of the Apes." She appeared in two sequels, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970) and "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971).

Hunter later recalled the arduous task of getting into makeup and the chimpanzee suit each day. "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."

Born Janet Cole on Nov. 12, 1922, in Detroit, her father, Donald, was a refrigeration engineer while her mother, Grace, had been trained as a concert pianist and used to accompany choral groups in public performances. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother married Bliss Stebbins, a retired businessman from Miami Beach, where the family subsequently moved.

A shy child, she began to study acting with a drama coach who lived in her neighborhood, spending hours studying voice technique, theater history and theory, when not studying on her own. At 17, she joined a traveling stock company, then got involved with regional theater, auditioning in California for the acclaimed Pasadena Playhouse, where she got the ingenue part in a production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and a similar role in "The Women."

In 1943, an agent spotted her in Pasadena and she signed a seven-year movie contract with David Selznick. It was Selznick who suggested she change her name since Janet Cole was not theatrical enough and there were already other Janets around, including Janet Gaynor and Janet Blair. Hunter was delighted because she loathed her real name. She tossed out the name "Kim" because it was the name of Magnolia's daughter in "Show Boat." A secretary of an RKO producer suggested "Hunter." Selznick put the two together.

She made her film debut in a low-budget RKO horror film, "The Seventh Victim," and followed with secondary roles in other features, eventually returning to the New York theater.

In 1947, Irene Mayer Selznick was producing "A Streetcar Named Desire" and recommended to her ex-husband that Hunter play Stella Kowalski.

"I had done a lot of theater--summer stock, winter stock--and ... David O. Selznick put me under contract to do films," she recalled. "By the time of 'Streetcar,' I had done about five. I didn't have to come back and read again; I got it. Incredible!"

In his autobiography, "A Life," Kazan noted that he cast Hunter because, "The minute I saw her I was attracted to her, which is the best possible reaction when casting young women."

Hunter was blacklisted by the film industry shortly after winning the 1951 Oscar. While showing no bitterness, she was concerned that future generations not forget the toll taken on the entertainment industry by McCarthyism.

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