Saturday 17 July 2021

Britain made, but America has lost its much-loved Maestro Wig Maker, for actors of stage and screen, Paul Huntley

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Paul, who has died at the age of 88, spent the first 40 years living and working in Britain and his last 48, in his adopted home - the USA. In the course of that time he designed wigs and styled hair for actors on stage and screen on both sides of the Atlantic including over 200 Broadway productions and some 60 cinema films. Costume designer William Ivey Long pronounced him “by far the premier hair designer on the planet hands down”. 

He was born in Greater London in the summer of 1933, into what became a family of five children supported by a father who served in the British Army and was presumably absent from the home for long stretches at a time. He grew up surrounded by a love for glamour and told Playbill in 2004 : “My mother was an avid movie buff. She always had magazines and she would let me look at them. I must have been six or seven, and I saw an article about the make-up people in the studios. It showed the actress Agnes Moorehead being aged from a youngish woman to a 100-year-old lady and I thought, ‘I want to do something like that’”

On another occasion he said : "As a small child, my mother was very remarkable in the fact that she would like to wear very heavy make up and I was fascinated at the age of six watching her make up" (link) and was also fascinated by the way "she curled and dressed her hair. That is basically how I started my interest : as a small child".

Having left school in 1949, Paul tried to find an apprenticeship in the film industry, but in the flooded post-Second World War job market, found that there was no vacancy for him. In 1951, at the age of 18, Paul was called up for his two years National Service in the British Army and recalled : "When I came out of that I decided I wanted to be an actor. So I went to a drama school (the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and trained.(link)

Then after a few months
(working in repertory theatre, seen here seated in front of the door) I decided that acting wasn't the thing I wanted to do at all. I wanted to do something more creative and then I trained in a very wonderful company called 'Wig Creations', which was a great experience. They asked me about the fact that I'd trained as an actor and the position required someone who had knowledge of wigs, which of course I did not really know much about wigs, but I said 'I know everything about wigs' to get the job and I trained as theatrical wig maker and so I had to go to hairdressing school at the same time".

The company, 'Wig Creations', was run by Stanley Hall who, before the outbreak of the Second World War had worked as a make-up artist for Alexander Korda's 'London Films' at Pinewood Studios. During the War he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major as one of the chief organisers of Combined Services Entertainment, producing shows for the troops such as 'Stars in Battle Dress'. After the War he set up the company partnership with a friend and companion of the War years, Noel Macgregor, known universally as 'The Major'. 

Vera Mitchell, an apprentice wigmaker working alongside Paul, who would later emigrate to the United States where she became Marlon Brando's wig designer of choice said : “Wig Creations had a stranglehold on the wig market throughout Europe but that’s because they were the very best. They supplied the wigs to everyone, the BBC, ITV, all the big theatres and opera companies and the film studios”.

Paul recalled his work in the 1950s and said : "In those heady days as a very young apprentice I was allowed to put curlers in Vivien Leigh's hair and various luminaries at that time in the theatre and movies.(link) I was very fortunate, because it was that period when the very famous actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and Gielgud, all those knights were around”. He played a role when the company hand crafted and designed the wigs for the big budget film the 1961, 'El Cid' as the 1964 musical, 'My Fair Lady'. 

He created Elizabeth Taylor’s Egyptian braids for the 1963 film 'Cleopatra' and said : “It was monumental, because she had thirty wigs”.(link) Later, he recalled she asked him, “Do you do personal wigs? Because I have a dear friend who’s a comic in New York, and he wears one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen”. She introduced Paul to Mike Nichols, who had lost all his hair when he was four, from a defective whooping-cough inoculation and as a result Paul ended up making his hairpieces and fake eyebrows for many years. 

In 1965 Paul assisted on Olivier’s controversial blackface version of 'Othello' and created his wig for the Moorish Prince. In the same year he designed Angela Lansbury's wigs as Lady Blystone in 'The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders'.(link) Wig-making, Paul said, was "an intimate collaboration". Marlene Dietrich’s world touring cabaret act, in the 1970s required fourteen identical blond wigs, which she would mail back to Paul for upkeep and he would mail back to her in brown paper bags, when restored.

Paul said : "I even made a wig for an actress called Mae West, who was quite a character I can tell you". He recalled going to her room at the Dorchester Hotel for her wig fitting : “I was ushered into the hotel reception of the suite that she was in and she had asked them to raise her bed on a dais and she had four lilac spots trained on her. When I went in to take her measurements, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I mean, it was just extraordinary, because she'd got a peignoir on as low as she possibly could to welcome a fairy into her domain, and there she was with all these satin pillows. She was sweet and charming, but the thing that I remember mostly is her teeth. They were pure white and glowed, I mean literally glowed and all I could think was : ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ I literally had to ask her to sit up in bed, and I knelt. So I had to do pin curls kneeling on the fucking bed. It was very awkward, actually”.

Still working at 'Wig Creations' in the 1970s, when Paul was in his forties, he had been, in his own estimation "the number one person in that company for many many years". He was already, at Elizabeth Burton's request, creating wigs and false eyebrows for film director Mike Nichols when he asked Paul to make the wigs for the film he was making in the USA called 'Carnal Knowledge' (link) which was to star Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel. He asked Paul he’d ever considered moving. Paul recalled : “He said, "Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?" and I said, "Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud"". Mike pressed on and ultimately sponsored Paul's visa and he moved to the States in 1972. 

Life and work in the USA :                                        

Paul recalled that he now realised : "That I could, perhaps, start my own company and I would like to start it here in New York " which he found to be "very loud and very noisy, very hot and very cold".(link) However, he found that :  "American actors really are rather wonderful. In many ways more considerate than the English actors who take it for granted too often that things that are made, like wigs and beards and so on, it's their God-given right. American actors are so fascinated by the whole thing and  say : "Oh my God. Look at that. Look at this". 

Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Paul made his Broadway debut in 1972 with the Nichols-directed production of 'Uncle Vanya', starring George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish (seen bottom centre). Paul recalled : “The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, "Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage. You’re going to have to give me a gray wig”. And she did look young”.

As a designer he became known for reading the entire script and diving deep into the characters’ psyche before getting started. He defined his role as : "A wig designer is a person, either sex, it doesn't matter about age, they create a style, a look, that is a designer. (link) And so when I'm approached to a production, I have to know what sort of person they are, whether they're poor people who have no way of going to a beauty parlor and having their hair done. So you design for the character. He creates a look with his skill and his comb and his brush".

He defined the importance of wigs in stage productions as : "On most productions, most performers wear a wig because it's easier. (link) It stays the same and you have your mic pad in your head, so you can't wear a mic pad in your own natural hair, you see. So that is why wigs are used and also with a production, once you establish the whole look of the whole concept of productions, costume, lighting everything, then that has to be respected 8 times a week and its much easier to do it with a wig because people get caught in the rain and they've had a shower and they've got to blow dry their hair and then it just doesn't work and its just not the same because hair natural hair is not the same every day".

Paul said : "If an actor came in with a costume designer and they started to talk about various aspects of the play and what character this actor was going to be, it helped me a lot that I'd been an actor myself and was able to speak and had an opinion, of course, in what would be the right thing to do in respect of a wig or a hairpiece or a beard or moustache to transform them into the script of the play".

Of actors he said : "First of all when they're sitting in front of the mirror in the dressing room they only really see themselves from sort of half way and it's the face isn't it ? (link) And if they had their make up and their hair in the character they feel totally secure in, then they just go out and do it and that is a kind of therapy, I think, for them. They find that a kind of catharsis in a way. They feel totally secure when they go out there and you have to make them feel that". Paul used his ability to channel characters through their hair - his curls, waves and tresses.

After working on several films with Bette Davis, Paul offered to help with her personal appearance because he had noticed the synthetic store-bought wigs she wore on talk shows : “I used to say to her, "Why do you wear these terrible wigs? and she said, "All I do is I put them in Woolite, and I shake them out and put them on the line". I said, "Yes, but they look like very bad, cheap wigs"”. 

He became known for his patience in dealing with divas and used his ability to always keep things in perspective and said :  “We’re not curing cancer here. It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, "Oh well, what the fuck". You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think”.

In 1977 Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in 'The Gin Game' in the John Golden Theatre and Hume's signed photo gives a measure of the respect with which Paul was held by the acting profession :  'For Paul - Miracle Worker with admiration, affection, and respect'. 

In 1979 he designed Angela Lansbury’s orange buns in “Sweeney Todd”  (link) and also, in the same year, Patti LuPone’s ice-blond updo as Eva Peron in 'Evita'. When in rehearsals she inquired about being fitted by Paul, Hal Prince, the director, told her that he would not be working on the show. To which LuPone replied :“Well, Mr. Prince, I will not be able to wear any wig that isn’t Paul Huntley's, so I won't be wearing a wig.”  
She got her way and was featured with Paul in an article in 'Life Magazine' and Paul's relationship with Prince, which had fractured after a miscommunication, was restored. Paul said that he : "loved that show very much. I just loved the look and I love the music. It was Patti LuPone, who I work with a lot, who always requested me". She said : "When I put on a Paul Huntley wig, I never felt anything but my character".

The following year year Paul worked on the Broadway production of 'Amadeus'  with Antonio Salieri played by Ian McKellen and said : "I preferred straight plays, like 'Amadeus' - the white powdered wigs, which I always loved. I think you could be more subtle, which is what I tried to do in my career : make things as real as possible. Whereas musicals, of course, it’s chorus girls and lots and lots of wigs".

By the 1980s Paul had built up a formidable reputation as the premier wig maker and when Paul assessed his contribution to wig making in the USA he said : "I personally brought a different type of wig to this country. (link) The delicacy of the temples and the sides of the wig made an enormous difference and so the wigmakers who were making wigs here, put far too much hair in a wig, which is always a giveaway. And so I started to create a much finer type of wig to be worn in movies and theatre. One of the things I specialise in is, that when the hair is threaded into the foundation I shade the colour with a different colour and we call that a 'root colour'. Its where the base of the wig is slightly darker than the base of the hair and that has influenced a lot of wig makers here in this country - they've started to do that". 

Paul paid deference to the importance of new technology : "What you must realise now is that those mike pads are worn in the hair,(link) that changed the whole purpose. It has to be a wig because it has to cover up that mic pad. They can't use that mic pad with their own hair - there's no way. Also they have to dance, turn upside down with this on their heads. But most dancers, particularly Broadway dancers prefer it in their head, because they don't have to have cords running down their bodies". 

In 1982 Paul created the wavy reddish bob that Dustin Hoffman wore in the film 'Tootsie'. Paul recalled : “He had very definite ideas of what he wanted it to look like”. As a result they experimented over a period of months: blond, straight, long, short. “What he did not want : It must not look like drag”. Finally, at Paul's suggestion, they settled on auburn with thick bangs to cover the tape that Hoffman used to arch his eyebrows. Hoffman, Paul recalled, promised that he would be listed in the credits, but, when Paul saw the final film, his name was absent. “I got grumpy and thought, Well, there you go”. He ribbed Hoffman about it later, when he designed the actor’s thinning hair for 'Death of a Salesman'.

It was also in 1982 that Paul worked on the original Broadway production of 'Cats' and when it came to the the eighties-punk fur, Paul said he adored it "because it was so very different from what I was used to doing". "The kind of work I like to do and prefer to do is natural. (link) I don't like people to know they're wearing wigs and I don't like them to be alluded to wigs in a way, I just like it to be the character and no one questions that they've got a wig on. But with 'Cats', of course, you couldn't really do that and for me, who was such a purist about doing natural, it was something very exciting in a way because of those extraordinary colours and it wasn't made with human hair it was made with yak". 

Glen Close had Paul's services written in to her contract and he made her wigs for her character Norma Desmond in the musical 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Minskoff Theatre in 1985 and and in 1996, he created the black-and-white tangle of hair for her as Cruella de Vil in the film of '101 Dalmatians'.  

Paul's output was prodigious and he typically worked on several shows at once. In 2011, when Paul was 78 years old he said : "This year I've done, I should think, about 20 shows, (link) but driving my creativity - I think I've just disciplined myself to do that and I never think of doing anything else. This is who I am actually. This was meant to be, obviously for me". 

In 2013 for the film biopic, 'Phil Spector' he constructed, for Al Pacino, the outsize 'fright wig' Spector insisted in wearing during his trial for murder. The following year he turned out 48 wigs for Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' and more that 60 wigs and facial pieces for the Shakespeare Theater Company's two-part 'Henry IV' in Washington. In the same year but he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for the film 'Master Class' which was to be the feature film she directed and based on the biopic of the great 20th century opera singer. 

In 2018 Paul said : "A costume designer can hire me. (link) A director can hire me and a director can certainly hire me, because he is the one whos going to be paying the pennies. I have certain demands. I always say : 'Well I'm too old and too famous, so I can ask this'. Which I do. I get a design fee on a production I do and if they're generous I get a royalty. per week. That's the business side of it". Paul had travelled a long way from his early days and recalled : “I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped”. He knew that in his latter years, his reputation preceded him, but still said that, in the theatre world, he remained the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff”. 

In 2020, the Broadway musical 'Diana : A True Musical Story' based on the chronicles Lady Diana Spencer’s royal romance and marriage, was to be his last show. He said : "We had to make sure that we captured her in as short a time as possible, because it is, after all, a show. So she, in fact, has four wigs. When she started out, as a pudding face, she had a mousy look at the beginning and then gradually it got more flamboyant and windswept and windblown and the colour changed, of course, all the time. I was very fond of her and this was a tribute. I quite like the musical". Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic forced the show to close after only two performances. 

Paul lived alone after his partner of 21 years, Paul Plassan, had died in 1991 and was alone when interviewed at his home by the New York Times in February this year. In the resulting newspaper feature was titled : 'Exit interview. Broadway’s Hair Master Puts Away the Wigs', Paul said that he had been forced to sell his Upper West Side home-studio townhouse in New York because : "I am struggling financially. It’s been very difficult. And the fact that I’m not well doesn’t please me". In fact a fall in his house had left Paul with a fractured hip and not long after the interview he left his adopted USA and returned to his native Britain, where he died at the entertainment industry care home, Denville Hall in London. He didn't get to see the 'Diana' film version neither stream on Netflix in October, nor reopen on Broadway in November.

Paul said : 

"There were certain projects that, aesthetically, I may not have thought much of. But generally speaking, I enjoyed the rush".

Paul made a wig every month for free for chemotherapy patients who had lost their hair, his friend James M. Kabel said when one recipient asked : "What do I owe you ?", Paul replied : “What do I owe you? Just get well.” In gratitude, the woman had a plaque with Paul’s name installed on a park bench at 82nd Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

A celebration of Huntley hair :  Rebecca Luker as Maria, surrounded by the von Trapp children in the 1998 Broadway revival of 'The Sound of Music'.

1 comment:

  1. I had the great pleasure of working alongside Paul in the early 70's as a new and upcoming wig designer I looked up to him with awe. He taught me to be confident and have attention to detail...a greta man!