Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind

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MM: Another iconic movie that you almost starred in: You were originally cast as James Dean’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause, but you left the film. Why?

MH: You really do know my history [laughs]. I had committed myself to do a play at the Carthay Circle Theatre, which was the first time a play was put on. It was originally built to be a playhouse but never head been. From the time it opened it was a movie house for A-list pictures. I had attended plenty of openings there. Carthay was the highest level theater for beautiful openings and the attention it got to the films that played there. To do a play there live at that historic theater was a delight. We ran for months and was a hit and I have the happiest memories there. It broke my heart to leave Rebel, but I was that committed. I didn’t know anybody would remember that I was originally a part of that or even know about it.

MM: What was your impression of James Dean?

MH: I didn’t get to work with him, but when I was still cast we met when we did our photo shoot. There was something special about him. He was playing it down, as if there was nothing to it. Instead of admitting he was thrilled that he was getting a big break he was more casual and laid back. He was underplaying his private pride in how well things were happening for him. That’s all I got to know about him but I was looking forward to working with him.

MM: When you were starting out in the film industry, was there anyone who offered you advice that stayed with you and that you would like to share with younger actors? 

MH: Wouldn’t it be nice if I did? But I don’t. The only advice I remember getting was from my father, who was a very wise man. He warned me and tried briefly to talk me about of being an actress. He knew it was a very chancy kind of career to aim at because it was so competitive and could be unfair. He told me I could have my heart broken as an actor over and over again by bad luck or too much competition. He wondered if I could find something else in the arts I could do. He wasn’t in show business but knew how up and down it could be. I told him there wasn’t a chance of changing my mind. Reluctantly he wished me the best and told me they would be there for me. Then of course he was the most shameless showbiz father. He headed the social security board here in L.A. and asked to switch it from the downtown office to here in Hollywood, and was in the same building as the Screen Actors Guild office on Hollywood Boulevard. He would visit me on set and he had a pass automatically to all the studios, because social security was a part of show business. He loved being the father of an actress. We went to a couple of openings together. I think I have a clipping from a fan magazine where he was escorting me to some opening. We were dressed up and I loved the look of pride on his face about being at an opening.

MM: You and your husband were blacklisted in the early 1950s. Can we talk about how this affected your careers?

MH: [Laughs] Well, you know, what is there to say? It was an evil spell cast over the industry out of the blue. Because I had espoused some liberal causes that was enough to blacklist me. Liberals had to be Red. I don’t know if anyone believed I was a Communist. I certainly wasn’t the Communist type, whatever that might be. I didn’t know the first thing, or care about Communism. It was like an evil curse that lasted for years. This may be a bit much for me to claim, but in my heart and mind I was heading towards major stardom because I had major successes in my career thus far in the roles I had been given. I was going to be a different type of actress and not play any two roles alike. I wanted to be a character actress not a leading lady. Play as many different types of people as I could be allowed to play. Versatility meant as much to me as opportunity. That was a major heartbreak and it lasted.

Hunt in the 1964 Twilight Zone episode “Spur of the Moment.” Courtesy of CBS

MM: You began to work in television. How did you find working in that medium compared to film and the stage?

MH: I was fascinated because it combined so many elements in one kind of work. I was in the first Shakespeare play ever to be broadcast on television coast to coast. If we made mistakes in our lines, the whole country saw it. It was Twelfth Night and you know what is funny, that is the first time I showed my legs. I made 50 movies but never showed my legs. I was disguised as a boy and the tights showed my legs. I also had a cold and there was no place to hide tissues so my nose was running right down my lips on stage and the whole country could see. There was no other take, it’s live for better or worse.

MM: What do you consider some of your career highlights?

MH: I think the fact that I was allowed versatility. I couldn’t really care less about stardom. My dream was to be an actress and they let me be an actress. At 17, I got such an early start. I had been out of school just a year. In that time, I went to a dramatic school and was in plays. Then I had the extraordinary luck of getting a test that was liked and allowed me to be under contract at Paramount for seven years with options every year. The first time I was paid to act I had the romantic lead with two leading men. One of them was Bobby Cummings and the other was Johnny Downs, who had been a leading men in the Our Gang comedies for children. To start at the top was unbelievable good luck. I’ve been so grateful my whole life for the start I was given. Then the blacklist happened, and because I befriended some people that were blacklisted, that was enough to get me blacklisted. My career was curtailed and delayed. I was allowed to work, but not right away. I was punished for a while for taking those positions. I had to start over and play some supporting roles just so I could work.

MM: Who are some of the people that influenced you the most over your career?

MH: I’m not sure if there was anyone who influenced me. I was doing what I wanted to do all my life. There were people I admired, Bette Davis and Margaret Sullavan being two. They were so different in their work and the roles they played. They are my two favorites to watch.

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  1. Victoria Foley

    November 4, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    So enjoyed reading this interview! Happy Birthday Ms. Hunt. I just watched, “These Glamour Girls” from 1939 and felt sympathy for your character, Betty. That last scene with th oncoming train was chilling.

  2. Nancy Barr-Brandon

    October 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    Marsha….you were so kind, caring & generous with me when I was a teenager (your dresser for “The Marriage-Go-Round”) at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1961. You & Robert were so wonderful to me when I was your houseguest. Later on, when you visited NY, you often took me out for lunch. I gave up acting but we remained in touch.I run an animal rescue organization in NJ, at age 75. I remember your beloved dogs King & Kanute!

    Very much love on your 100th Birthday & always,
    Nancy (Barr)
    PO Box B
    Allenhurst, NJ 07711
    (908) 902 – 5342

  3. Lori

    October 23, 2017 at 9:38 am

    Marsha- I just discovered you last night in A Letter to Evie. Such a wonderful movie and I was delighted to learn that you are still with us, 71 years after this movie was released. Happy 100 and thank you for🎂🍰

  4. David Wiegand

    October 19, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    This is a very lovely story about a great actress and clearly someone who is living a singular life. The name of the actress she mentions is Margaret Sullavan, though: With an A. Also a great actress, married to Henry Fonda at one point.

  5. k

    October 17, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Lovely piece- hope she has a fantastic celebration.

  6. Jan Ivanoff

    October 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Wonderful to have your (belated) century birthday! (My cousin is Elizabeth Lauritsen). ❤💖💜💥😇

  7. Tom Luca

    October 13, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Happy Birthday Marsha! Amazing, 100? God Bless you

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