She seemed well on her way to stardom until her career was derailed by the Hollywood blacklist. She then turned her attention to social causes.
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Marsha Hunt, who appeared in more than 50 movies between 1935 and 1949 and seemed well on her way to stardom until her career was damaged by the Hollywood blacklist, and who, for the rest of her career, was as much an activist as she was an actress, died on Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 104.
Her death was announced by Roger C. Memos, the director of the 2015 documentary “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity.”
Early in her career, Ms. Hunt was one of the busiest and most versatile actresses in Hollywood, playing parts big and small in a variety of movies, including romances, period pieces and the kind of dark, stylish crime dramas that came to be known as film noir. She starred in “Pride and Prejudice” alongside Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in 1940, and in “The Human Comedy” with Mickey Rooney in 1943. In later years, she was a familiar face on television, playing character roles on “Matlock,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and other shows.
But in between, her career hit a roadblock: the Red Scare.
Ms. Hunt’s problems began in October 1947, when she traveled to Washington along with cinematic luminaries like John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as part of a group called the Committee for the First Amendment. Their mission was to observe and protest the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating what it said was Communist infiltration of the film industry.
Many of those who made that trip subsequently denounced it, calling it ill-advised, but Ms. Hunt did not. And although she was never a member of the Communist Party — her only apparent misdeed, besides going to Washington, was signing petitions to support causes related to civil liberties — producers began eyeing her with suspicion.
Her status in Hollywood was already precarious when “Red Channels,” an influential pamphlet containing the names of people in the entertainment industry said to be Communists or Communist sympathizers, was published in 1950. Among the people named were Orson Welles, Pete Seeger, Leonard Bernstein and Marsha Hunt.
By then, she had won praise for her portrayal of Viola in a live telecast of “Twelfth Night” in 1949. At the time, Jack Gould of The New York Times called her “an actress of striking and mellow beauty who also was at home with the verse and couplets of Shakespeare.” Her star turn in a 1950 revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Devil’s Disciple,” the second of her six appearances on Broadway, had been the subject of a cover article in Life magazine. Yet, the movie offers all but stopped.
In 1955, with little work to keep her at home, Ms. Hunt and her husband, the screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., took a yearlong trip around the world. As a result of her travels, she told the website The Globalist in 2008, she “fell in love with the planet.”
She became an active supporter of the United Nations, delivering lectures on behalf of the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies. She wrote and produced “A Call From the Stars,” a 1960 television documentary about the plight of refugees.
She also addressed issues closer to home. In her capacity as honorary mayor of the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles, a post she held from 1983 to 2001, she worked to increase awareness of homelessness in Southern California and organized a coalition of honorary mayors that raised money to build shelters.
Marcia Virginia Hunt (she later changed the spelling of her first name) was born in Chicago on Oct. 17, 1917, to Earl Hunt, a lawyer, and Minabel (Morris) Hunt, a vocal coach. The family soon moved to New York City, where Ms. Hunt attended P.S. 9 and the Horace Mann School for Girls in Manhattan.
A talent scout who saw her in a school play in 1935 offered her a screen test; nothing came of the offer, but that summer she visited her uncle in Hollywood and ended up being pursued by several studios. She signed with Paramount and made her screen debut that year in a quickly forgotten film called “The Virginia Judge.”
She was soon being cast in small roles in a dizzying array of films. In “Easy Living” (1937), starring Jean Arthur, she had an unbilled but crucial part as a woman who has a coat fall on her head in the last scene. Bigger roles soon followed, especially after she joined Hollywood’s largest and most prestigious studio, MGM, in 1939.
In 1943, she was the subject of a profile in The New York Herald Tribune that predicted a bright future. “She’s a quiet, well-bred, good-looking number with the concealed fire of a banked furnace,” the profile said. “She’s been in Hollywood for seven years, made 34 pictures. But, beginning now, you can start counting the days before she is one of the top movie names.”
It never happened. In the aftermath of the blacklist, however, she began working frequently on television, appearing on “The Twilight Zone,” “Gunsmoke,” “Ben Casey” and other shows. She remained active on the small screen until the late 1980s.
Her only notable movie in those years was “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), an antiwar film written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, also a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, in which she played a wounded soldier’s mother.
Ms. Hunt’s marriage to Jerry Hopper, a junior executive at Paramount, ended in divorce in 1945. The following year, she married Mr. Presnell. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1986. She is survived by several nieces and nephews.
Ms. Hunt’s commitment to political and social causes did not diminish with age.
In a 2021 interview with Fox News, she dismissed the notion that celebrities should avoid speaking out on political issues (“Nonsense — we’re all citizens of the world”) and explained what she considered to be the essential message of the documentary:
“When injustice occurs, go on with your convictions. Giving in and being silent is what they want you to do.”
Peter Keepnews contributed reporting.