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GAYLE HUNNICUTT: 1943 – 2023
Gayle Hunnicutt, who has died aged 80, was a strikingly glamorous American actress better known for her appearances in gossip columns than for most of her films.
American film and television actress Gayle Hunnicutt, who has died aged 80.Credit: Getty
Cast as elegant sexpots in thrillers like Marlowe (1969) with James Garner, Fragment of Fear (1970), her first British film, in which she co-starred with then-husband David Hemmings, and Michael Winner’s spy caper Scorpio (1973), Hunnicutt dazzled with her inordinate good looks.
The Telegraph’s critic Richard Last was agog as he ascribed to her “the most luminously beautiful face on television”, while an equally appreciative Clive James, gazing on her ravishing Titian hair and porcelain complexion, was smitten by her “sweet violence to the eye”.
There were others for whom the mere mention of her exotic name suggested a character who had stepped from the pages of an Ian Fleming novel; indeed, in 1972 she was canvassed as a Bond girl opposite Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, but it was not to be.
In the late 1980s millions saw her make a splash on British television as JR Ewing’s old flame, an English countess called Vanessa Beaumont, in the glitzy American soap Dallas.
American theatre director Michael Rudman (centre), with Gayle Hunnicutt on the far right in 1973.Credit: Getty
Had she remained in Hollywood rather than marrying Hemmings and moving to London in 1968, she would probably have had a more illustrious film career, but she considered herself lucky to escape.
In Britain she sought to establish herself as a serious actress, and in the 1970s featured on television in costume dramas including an adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Golden Bowl, Colette’s The Ripening Seed (both 1973) and as Tsarina Alexandra in the classic serial Fall of Eagles (1974).
In 1993, with her second husband, the cerebral Simon Jenkins, once described as “the acceptable face of fogeyism”, she hosted a joint 50th birthday celebration at St James’s Palace, previous venues for their annual extravaganzas having included Battersea Power Station and the Science Museum.
The disintegration of her first marriage put paid to her appearance as Thérèse Raquin in Michael Voysey’s stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel of that name at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in August 1974.
She pulled out a couple of days before the play opened, explaining that she was suffering from laryngitis, but her “indisposition” coincided with her final split from the serially unfaithful Hemmings, who was reportedly being “consoled” by his 26-year-old secretary, Prudence de Casembroot.
The only child of a US Army colonel, Virginia Gayle Hunnicutt was born on February 6, 1943 in Fort Worth, Texas. When the family moved to Beverly Hills in the mid-1950s, she won a scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles, as near to Hollywood as a student of English and drama could get, and dabbled in acting during the summer holidays.
Her break came when a Warner Brothers talent scout spotted her in a student production, and after graduating with a BA in English Literature she made her first film, The Wild Angels, with Peter Fonda in 1966, followed by New Face in Hell starring George Peppard. In the same year she was cast on American television in two episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.
In 1967, at a beach party for Steve McQueen thrown by the Rat Pack member Peter Lawford in Santa Monica, she met Hemmings, the British actor who had rocketed to international stardom in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, and followed him to Turkey, where he was shooting The Charge of the Light Brigade. They married in Beverly Hills the following year.
It was at a party for the legendary actor Steve McQueen that Gayle Hunnicutt met her first husband.
When her marriage to Hemmings broke up in the mid-1970s, she decided to remain in Britain and “its wonderful, wonderful theatres”.
At their Victorian home in Primrose Hill, north London, she became a notable social asset to her second husband, especially following his appointment as editor of The Times in 1990. “Simon is part of the Establishment,” she declared, “and as his wife, I am too.”
She was the author of the books Health and Beauty in Motherhood (1984), and Dearest Virginia (2004), a collection of her father’s wartime letters written between 1942 and 1944.
With David Hemmings, Gayle Hunnicutt had a son, the actor Nolan Hemmings. After her divorce she married Simon Jenkins in 1978 and had a second son, Edward, who became a journalist. That marriage ended in 2009.
The Telegraph, London
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