Kim Hunter, born Janet Cole on November 12, 1922, in Detroit, Michigan, was a remarkable American actress known for her versatile performances in theater, film, and television. While she garnered critical acclaim throughout her career, it was her portrayal of the compassionate chimpanzee scientist, Dr. Zira, in the Planet of the Apes film series that secured her a place in cinematic history.
Hunter’s passion for acting blossomed at a young age, leading her to attend the prestigious Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She dedicated herself to honing her skills, making her stage debut in 1942. It wasn’t long before her talent caught the attention of theater critics, and she achieved her first major breakthrough in the role of Stella Kowalski in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. Hunter’s performance as the resilient sister-in-law to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski received widespread acclaim, and she was honored with a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Following her success on Broadway, Hunter transitioned to film. In 1951, she made her debut in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, reprising her celebrated stage role as Stella opposite Marlon Brando. Her nuanced portrayal earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, solidifying her status as a highly talented and respected actress.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hunter continued to demonstrate her acting prowess in a range of films. Her notable performances during this time include Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Lilith (1964), and The Swimmer (1968). However, it was her role as Dr. Zira in the original Planet of the Apes film in 1968 that brought her widespread recognition and forever linked her to the science fiction franchise.
In Planet of the Apes, Hunter’s Zira emerges as a compassionate and intelligent chimpanzee scientist who forms a bond with the film’s protagonist, astronaut George Taylor, portrayed by Charlton Heston. Zira’s empathy for Taylor and her defiance of the oppressive ape society make her a pivotal and beloved character, Hunter’s nuanced performance bringing depth and complexity to the role.
Said Hunter, “I read the first script of Planet of the Apes and did a doubletake. I said, ‘My God, these are apes.’ Well, I said said, they must know what they’re doing, but it sounded pretty scruffy to me. It was different. But once into the makeup, it became extraordinarily easy. Humans can be quite beastly, you know. We apes clung together.”
The success of the first film paved the way for four sequels, and Hunter reprised her role of Zira in the sequels Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).
Beyond her contributions to the Apes franchise, Hunter continued to showcase her talent in other notable film and television projects. She appeared in movies such as The Kindred (1987) and Midnight Lace (1981) while also making guest appearances on popular television shows like Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, The 11th Hour and The Edge of Night.
Hunter’s illustrious career saw her returning to the theater, where she delivered exceptional performances in numerous stage productions. Notable among these were The Women and The Children’s Hour. Her work on stage further exemplified her versatility as an actress, earning critical acclaim for her performances in both comedic and dramatic roles.
In addition to her acting prowess, Hunter was admired for her strong will and determination. She boldly stood against the Hollywood Blacklist during the McCarthy era, refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and remaining steadfast in her principles. Although her defiance resulted in a temporary suspension of her career, she eventually regained her standing — thanks in part to Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs — and continued to contribute to the industry she loved. But the blacklist was certainly a challenge.
“I won the Oscar,” she told the Detroit Free Press, “and I couldn’t get a job because of the blacklist. One of the most disturbing things was what it did to one’s sense of self. Doubts, at night, ate into your self. There are parts of it that I’ve blacked out now.”
Hunter received several prestigious accolades for her exceptional contributions to the world of entertainment. In addition to her Tony Award and Academy Award, she earned two Primetime Emmy nominations for her outstanding work in television. Her talent and dedication to her craft garnered her the respect of her peers and established her as a highly regarded figure in the industry.
Tragically, Kim Hunter passed away on September 11, 2002 of a heart attack at the age of 79. However, her legacy lives on through her unforgettable performances, particularly her portrayal of Dr. Zira in the Planet of the Apes films.