Paul Huntley obituary

<span>Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Patti LuPone’s second-act wig for the 1979 Broadway production of Evita is subtle testimony to the skill of its maker, Paul Huntley. Unlike the generic brunette and red big dos LuPone wore through Eva’s first-act ascendancy, this one is specific to historical images of La Perón: bleached blond, combed tight, twisted into a braid coiled into a bun above the nape of the neck. It is the character – a self-created would-be queen – projecting both the grandest Paris fashion and, through that scraped-back hairline, a phoney of-the-people humility.

Huntley, who has died aged 88, collaborated with LuPone on it – the bun is smaller, worn higher than Eva’s, to flatter the actor – as he did with all the leads he bewigged in more than 200 Broadway and West End shows, and many screen and TV movies. He read the scripts, listened to the director and costume designer, and even the choreographer, swapping to synthetic, which he disliked, for a 1920s bob for Thoroughly Modern Millie (on Broadway in 2002) because only fake hair swung back unfluffed after a tap routine.

Patti LuPone as Eva Per&#xf3;n in Evita, 1979. Huntley&#x002019;s wig is specific to historical images of Per&#xf3;n &#x002013; bleached blond, combed tight, twisted into a braid coiled into a bun above the nape of the neck
Patti LuPone as Eva Perón in Evita, 1979. Huntley’s wig is specific to historical images of Perón – bleached blond, combed tight, twisted into a braid coiled into a bun above the nape of the neck. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

Huntley believed in the power of transformation from the outside in, assuring clients that they could sit at their dressing-room mirrors, pull on a mesh cap tailored to their skull, hand-knotted with thousands of strands of human hair and baked into style, and transmute into another person.

LuPone was among many who trusted him. When at the Juilliard School in New York, she begged him to create her an easily fixed wig for student performances to provide a reliable glamour her very fine hair could not; she paid in instalments, later wrote his services into her show contracts, and kept every wig.

Huntley played no favourites, though. LuPone and Glenn Close both demanded him for their Norma Desmonds in Sunset Boulevard (in London and New York respectively), and Close becoming a regular thereafter, including her black and white coiffeurs as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians (1996).

In 2003 Huntley was given a special Tony award for his decades of work – whole shows, especially Hairspray, which opened in 2002, and Bullets over Broadway, in 2014, riff off the caricature energy of their Huntley wigs; Hairspray’s 100 plus creations were decor as well as costume, as high-piled as the almond whirls he had made for the singer Dusty Springfield.

He knotted for the leads himself, and as many others as there was time for; his small workshop staff was supplemented with extras to supply several productions each year. Huntley never grew bored with the absorbing craftwork of realising his imaginative ideas: the mad orange buns above the ears of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Lovett in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 1979; Carol Channing’s strawberry whipped-cream topping in the 1978 revival of Hello Dolly; Stacy Keach’s aged-hippy mutton-chop whiskers as Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Henry IV in Washington in 2014.

Dustin Hoffman’s 80s-permed wig in Tootsie (1982), took months of experiment. Hoffman’s failed actor treats the object with affection on screen, as if it is “Dorothy”, his other, feminine, self.

Nothing fazed Huntley, including the changing dimensions of mic packs under or in the wig, terrifying divas male and female (he had knelt on a hotel bed to pin-curl Mae West’s locks in situ) or preposterous commissions, such as the aura of frizz around Al Pacino as Phil Spector in a 2013 TV movie. Hunter’s pet project was the original Broadway production of Cats in 1982, every feline wildly, differently, styled in dyed yak hair for maximum volume with gloss.

Empathy with characters and sympathy for actors got him into the business. Huntley was born in London. His father was a regular soldier, his mother a film fan; he watched enchanted as she made herself over with brush and comb. In one of her weekly film magazines, he read a feature on Hollywood’s Westmore dynasty, whose members dominated hair and makeup from silent movies through to the 50s.

After postwar national service, Huntley tried unsuccessfully for a studio apprenticeship, going to the Central School of Speech and Drama instead, followed by acting in touring and rep companies, where he also maintained the wigs.

Stanley Hall’s Wig Creations in London offered him a job in the late 50s. Hall had transferred techniques perfected for film close-ups by the Westmores to the theatre, replacing traditional heavy cloth bases with invisible lace, knotting single strands along the hairline, for an unhammy naturalness nature could not reliably replicate for nine shows a week.

Huntley was soon Hall’s principal designer, working on Marlene Dietrich’s 14 blond heads parcel-posted to London for styling, and organising the massed wigdoms of Egypt and Rome for the 1963 film Cleopatra. On set Elizabeth Taylor asked him to help her friend the director Mike Nichols, then a stage comic wearing awful wigs to hide hairlessness as a result of childhood illness. Hunter made him witty eyebrows as well as a wig; Nichols inspired Huntley to move to New York, sponsored his US visa and in 1973 started him off in his Broadway career with Uncle Vanya, one of its wigs being for the former silent movie star Lillian Gish. Huntley’s Westmore dream was fulfilled.

Work was plentiful for Huntley from then on, supporting his Manhattan home and studio, right until Covid-19 shut down Broadway last year. Huntley was preparing for the stage show Diana: A True Musical Story – he had decided to tell the princess’s story in four wigs, pudding-basin podge cut to Sam McKnight spikes – when he fell downstairs, wig in hand, and fractured his pelvis. He announced his retirement, sold up, and returned to the UK, where he died at the showbiz retirement home Denville Hall in Northwood, north-west London.

Huntley’s partner, Paul Plassan, who helped Huntley make a business out of his talent, died in 1991.

• Paul Huntley, wigmaker, born 2 July 1933; died 9 July 2021