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Marsha Hunt on Anthony Dexter

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jan 20th, 2013
2013
Jan 20

INTERVIEWS

Marsha Hunt talks about her friendship with Anthony Dexter

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Marsha Hunt

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Yesterday, January 19, was Anthony Dexter’s 100th birthday. In celebration here is a repeat of an article I posted more than three years ago about Marsha Hunts friendship with the actor.

 

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I was first introduced to Marsha Hunt by Margaret O’Brien while working on the book I wrote on her career (Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography). A few years later I renewed that friendship through my late friend Jimmy Bangley. On occasion we would visit with her and talk about Hollywood and watch old films at her Sherman Oaks home.

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Marsha Hunt, who was equally at home with light romantic comedy or heavy dramatic roles, first appeared in films in 1935 in Paramount’s The Virginia Judge. Her later work at MGM included Pride and Prejudice (1940), Lost Angel (1943) and Smash-up, the Story of a Woman (1947). Her film career came to an abrupt halt due to the communist witch hunt of the late 1940s and 1950s.

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Though blacklisted, Marsha appeared on stage and occasional television roles over the next few decades. She has been seen in Matlock, Murder She Wrote and as an alien in one of my favorite shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation. She recently appeared in the short film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008) playing the widow of a possible serial killer.

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Since 1980 she has been the honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks and in 1993 she wrote, The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ‘40s, a book filled with fashion, film history and inside Hollywood stories.

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Marsha Hunt and Allan Ellenberger

Marsha Hunt and me the night we talked about Tony Dexter

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When I began researching my book on Rudolph Valentino (The Valentino Mystique), I learned that Marsha appeared in a Sacramento production of the musical, The King and I, playing the role of Anna with Anthony Dexter as her King. Dexter, of course, played the silent film idol in the 1951 bio-pic, Valentino, so one evening several years ago, I asked Marsha what she thought of Valentino and about working with Tony Dexter. What follows is her response:

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“Of course I remember Valentino. By the age of eight I had already seen The Sheik and his films with Vilma Banky. Valentino smoldered, didn’t he? That was fine with me. I got his message loud and clear, even at a young age.

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“I remember when Valentino died. There were two deaths that summer – my grandfather and Rudolph Valentino. I remember everyone being concerned and upset because one person had died and that was really quite awesome to me. That was probably the first indication of the scope of fan-hood — of hero worship — a matinee-idol-kind-of-madness that could sweep a country.

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“As for Tony Dexter, I first met him when he was the King and I was Anna. Do you know the story of my doing The King and I? I had never found the courage to do a musical. I had sung in half a dozen movies but nobody knew it was me. They assumed that I’d been dubbed by a singer. They sort of thought ‘if she could sing she’d be a singer so this must be somebody else’s voice.’

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“It was 1958 and I was in New York in a Broadway show at the time (The Tunnel of Love with Johnny Carson). Musicals and straight plays have different matinee days so actors can go see each others shows. So on one of those matinees, I was finally able to see The Music Man (with Robert Preston) and there sitting behind me was Russell Lewis and Howard Young, the producing team of the Music Circus Theatre in the Round in Sacramento. They had asked me over the years if I would do a musical and I always said ‘no thank you.’ I had done my only tour play with them when they produced T.S. Elliot’s The Cocktail Party, which I did with Vincent Price and a wonderful cast – Estelle Winwood and some great people.

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“So there was Lewis and Young sitting behind me at The Music Man and we went backstage to see Bob Preston together. And then they walked me to my theatre because there wasn’t time to go back uptown until my evening show, and the entire way they were giving me hell and saying ‘Marsha, you are the most cowardly person we know. You are afraid to do a musical and you have just seen and heard what an actor, who is not a singer, can do on stage.’

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“And of course they were right. Bob Preston was absolute magic. And I was so spellbound by Preston and what he had done that I said ‘yeah maybe so,’ and they said, ‘well you’ve seen it – you heard what an actor can do with a singing role. Now will you promise to do something for us this summer?’ And in my weakened condition I said yes. And they held me to it.

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“So when I got back home they said ‘Okay, what’s your show — what are you going to do for us?’ And I didn’t know, but it seemed to me if I didn’t make history as a singer, that it better be a good acting role, and the best acting role I knew in a musical was Anna, so I suggested The King and I, and they made me do it. And that’s how I became involved in the play and first met Tony Dexter.

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“One of the first things that struck me about Tony Dexter was – and I don’t mean that it was obtrusive – but he didn’t have an ego. And I was amazed during rehearsals, this Anthony Dexter, who had played Valentino; larger than life, you know, macho man dramatic hero of all womanhood, didn’t seem to have an ego.

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“He was conscientious and professional and terribly nice, but I saw none of the ‘me first’ quality that the King was made of. He was playing the King and ruler of all that he surveyed, and I found myself wondering in rehearsal how Tony Dexter was going to succeed as the King. But he was an actor and it all came true in his performance as rehearsals progressed. He grew muscles of ego as well as insistence on having his way. I was so proud of him for not imitating (Yul) Brynner — there was nothing of Yul in his King; he found  his own King. He was awfully good.

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“I knew that he had played Valentino so I can’t honestly say whether I would have noticed the resemblance or not. I was busy trying to ‘de-Valentino-ing’ him in my mind and seeing him as the King of Siam. He wore Asian makeup to a degree – he was bronzed in that wonderful Pacific-colored skin that isn’t brown and isn’t yellow. Its Filipino — it’s a wonderful bronze shade. And he was superbly built. He did just fine in what minimal costuming he had.

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“We rehearsed for a week and then performed the show for a week, and that’s it. And if they took pictures they never sent them to us. He sang surprisingly well. I remember, of course, the moments of friction and attraction that happened between the King and Anna and the “Shall We Dance” routine was wonderful as a number. It was such an experience together because there were all types of magic going on between us.

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“For my costume, I was given Gertrude Lawrence’s hoops which were made of steel and were five foot in diameter in graduating size, and linked from one hoop to another so they all stayed equidistant from one another. Then I started twirling, and those hoops got their own momentum, they went like holy blazes. And there is Tony – poor Tony, barelegged – and through the layers of my thin petticoats, the steel hoops cut grooves into his shinbones – its not very upholstered at your shin bones, and he was bleeding by the end of our dance so they had to cover the widest link with padding so he got bumped but not cut.

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“We had almost no time together except in rehearsal and I didn’t get to know him then, but he was clearly a nice man as well as intelligent, and as I said, no ego. What surprised me was hearing from Tony out of the blue well after the show had closed. He would call me maybe once a year in the 1960s and 70s. And he just wanted to chat. It was so sweet. He knew I was married, so he was making no pitch. But I was so complemented that he remembered an experience we briefly had of intense work together, and wanted to renew our acquaintance.

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“And then after Robert (Marsha’s husband, screenwriter, Robert Presnell, Jr.) died I began to hear from him maybe three to six times a year. He was living alone and he must have been very lonely. He called just to chat. I remember my beloved friend John Anderson, a wonderful character actor, who lived just a few blocks away. The Andersons and Presnells used to do things together. We’d go to screenings at the Academy, or out to dinner — we were very fond of them.

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“Then Robert died and the Andersons looked after me. And we did things as a threesome and then Pat (Anderson) died of emphysema and that left John and me. We were such good friends and one time I asked him ‘Did you every know someone named Tony Dexter?’ And he said, ‘What made you think of that name?’ I told him that Tony had called earlier that day and wondered if he knew him. He said, ‘That’s amazing because I also hear from him occasionally (they made a movie together).’ So I don’t know how many people Tony called, but every now and then he called John Anderson as well as me. Now maybe we’re the only two people he did call but John was so touched that Tony just wanted to visit.

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“Anyway, Tony had a thing about the film I made with Greer Garson, Pride and Prejudice — he adored the film and he adored me in it. Every time it ran he had to call me and say so. And there’s nothing I could say about it. He would just carry on about my Mary. He treasured that performance.

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The Way We Wore

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“I sent him my book (The Way We Wore) because he was so devoted, and there wasn’t anything else I could do for him. I had a sense that he was lonely, and I just thought he might enjoy it. Well, he went to pieces over it and he said he was now the big man on his block — that all his neighbors and friends was dropping by to ripple through some more pages and catch up. They loved the book and he was so grateful.

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“Then, he did a really touching thing. He looked up my birthday and sent me a twenty dollar bill. To send me money on my birthday — I found it so touching. I wanted to send it back because I had a feeling things were probably pretty tight for him and twenty dollars made a difference, however I felt it might hurt his feelings so I kept it and told him I had a splendid dinner.

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“I never saw him in person again after we did The King and I — we only spoke on the phone through out all those years. I think he developed a mild crush on me because in his letters and cards he began to sign his name rather romantically. And he left sweet messages at Christmas time, sending me cards and things. It was so dear. Never until I was widowed though, because he was quite conscientious about that.

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“But I liked him and I thought it was a pity that a man that nice and that gifted – at least from the one thing I saw him do — wasn’t having a better time toward the end. I would ask him how he was feeling and he’d make light of it, but it was clear he was not in the best of health or spirits, and so we’d talk for a long time — as long as he wanted to because I thought it mattered to him. And that’s all I can tell you about Tony Dexter.”

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Anthony Dexter died on March 27, 2001 in Greeley, Colorado.

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11 Responses

  1. Harry Martin Says:

    Allan, did you know Anthony was Joe Walker’s drama teacher in high school?
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    A. – Hi Harry, no I did not know that. Thanks. — Allan

  2. Andre Says:

    Cool!
    Amazing how Dexter really looks like Valentino in that photo.

  3. Judith Dunn Says:

    What a shame. . I’ve been in love with Anthony Dexter since I was 12 yrs old. I wish I had known about his lonliness, I feel I could have at least been a good friend maybe more.

  4. w.k. mccauley Says:

    Fascinating. Your stories are so interesting. Share more of them with us. I would love to see more “behind-the-scenes” info. on some of your many interviews.
    ______________________
    Thanks Kevin, I’m looking through my archives for stuff I havent used. — Allan

  5. Anne Sims Says:

    I have been a fan of Anthony Dexter since I was 10 years old and very much enjoyed the interview with Marsha Hunt. She is also a remarkable lady and star. I also enjoyed her book “The Way We Wore”.

    All of your stories are very interesting. Thank you.

  6. Luba Boychuk Says:

    Watching the movie Valentino I fell in love with Anthony Dexter, not Rudolfo Valentino. How I wish to see all his movies!

  7. Eve Holmes Says:

    I met Anthony Dexter at a high school in Eagle Rock…He was a drama teacher…this was very early 80s or late 70s. I am an entertainer and we were doing Latin theme shows around Los Angeles for High Schools and Elementary School. I was the only one that recognize him…I told him so and remarked about seeing him in Valentino and a couple of other smaller films. He was still very handsome and gracious.

  8. jacktf Says:

    Thank you, Allan, for this interesting article. I wish I had read it the first time around! In 1961, when Anthony/Tony Dexter was a well-preserved 48-year-old, he played a supporting role in a science-fiction movie, “The Phantom Planet.” I just watched that movie via the Internet Archive. It is an insipid movie by the standards of today or even by the standards of 1961. But fans of Mr. Dexter will find that movie worth watching, because it has a “beefcake” scene, in which Mr. Dexter’s character and the lead character [played by Dean Fredericks] fight a duel with their shirts off. And I definitely want to see more of Marsha Hunt’s work. There is some good biographical material about her [and Tony Dexter] on the IMDb [Internet Movie Database]. Some of Miss Hunt’s movies and TV work are also available for free viewing via the Internet Archive.

  9. Ina Jean (Canino) Berger Says:

    I just stumbled upon information that led me to this website today. I did not know of Anthony Dexter or of his leading roles. I just knew him as Mr. Craig, my drama teacher in 8th grade at Eagle Rock High School. (circa 1966). I did not know about all his films and how he looked like Rudy Valentino. He was very modest and probably did not share that with his students. However, he is one of the few teachers I remember from back then and with great fondness. He was quite a gentleman and a class act. He believed in his students and encouraged them. Taking his class helped me get over my shyness as a young teen and gave me a love for theater. I just wish I had not been so sensible later in high school when I chose to spend my elective classes in the field of business as opposed to being in the school play which Mr. Craig was encouraging me to do. I will never forget this wonderful teacher!!!

  10. George M. Potapczuk Says:

    Hi Allan, nice site. I was also one of Tony’s (Mr. Craig’s) students at Eagle Rock High School. Not only was he a great teacher, but also a very good friend. Anyway, I am just posting here to let you know (in case you didn’t already) that TCM has scheduled Valentino to be shown on June 24th, 2013. Thanks for the interesting read.
    ~G
    ___________________
    THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP

  11. Joan Patterson Says:

    I have been an Anthony Dexter fan since 1951 when he stared in
    Valentino and I graduated from high school. I believe he is: better looking that the original, a superior dancer to the original & definitely a better actor. I’m so disappointed that he never became the star he should have been. Who was his agent and why wasn’t he doing more for Anthony? I’m so disappointed.

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