Paul Huntley has been working in the theatre as a wigmaker and hair designer for 55 years, the last 33 on Broadway. If you go to the theatre, the chances are you’ve seen his work—in shows that range from Amadeus to Cats, The Real Thing to The Heidi Chronicles, Crazy for You to the revival of Cabaret.
His recent work includes The Producers and Chicago, Hairspray and Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out, The Boy From Oz and Wonderful Town. Two years ago, he won the Theatre Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Artisan Award, and last year he was given a special Tony Award honor. He is, as far as the costume designer William Ivey Long is concerned, “by far the premier hair designer on the planet, hands down.” And, Huntley says, it’s all something he has known he was meant to do since his childhood in a London suburb.
“My mother was an avid movie buff,” Huntley says. “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.’”
Huntley is sitting in his lavishly decorated Upper West Side town house, not far from Riverside Park. It serves as both his home and his studio, and it is entered through a tall and imposing wrought-iron gate. He is in his seventies, but looks at least ten years younger.
He was one of five children, the son of an army man and a housewife, and at first he decided to become an actor. He went to drama school and worked in repertory, touring the countryside. “What used to happen,” he says, “is that wigs would be rented from various wigmakers, and the actors would say that something was wrong with theirs and ask me if I could do something with it. And little by little, I started to get into it.” One day, he saw an ad from a theatrical wigmaker seeking an assistant, and he got the job. It was the beginning of more than 20 years working on plays and movies in London and Europe.
“I designed for all the greats,” he says, “Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and all the knights. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne came to London to do a play, and so did Tyrone Power, and I did work for them. I designed wigs for Marlene Dietrich for her one-woman show. Those were heady days. As a kid, I was so star-struck with all those photos of the actors my mother went to see on the screen—and here I was actually touching them.”
In 1971, the director Mike Nichols suggested that he come to the United States, and Huntley has been here since, designing for the likes of Jessica Lange, Donna Murphy, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close and Carol Channing. “I love the creativity of the theatre,” he says, “the magic. Backstage, there can be difficult times, and hysterics, and even unprofessionalism. But onstage everything changes. It’s extraordinary what is absolutely possible onstage.”
What he does is, of course, crucial to those possibilities—but he himself prefers invisibility. “What I do is an integral part of what you see,” he says. “But I like it to be seamless. I always read the script and work with the director. You have to really know what these characters are about, where they’re coming from. Sure, sometimes there are star egos to deal with and you have to glamorize, which may not always be right for the part. But I don’t care about that. If an actor looks in the mirror and isn’t happy with what he or she sees, that’s not good. They have to be totally happy with the way they look, totally secure when they go on, because it plays an important part in the result.”
Making a wig, he says, can take four days—which means a lot of work on a musical that can have 70 or 100 wigs. He much prefers using real hair, he says. “I love real hair. That’s how I was trained. It’s always the best, because you can do anything with it—dye it, lighten it, whatever you want. But synthetic hair can be very useful for a dance show, because when synthetic hair is steamed, it will set in totally. When you curl it you can lock the curl, so the dancer can sweat or even turn upside down and it will never come out.”
Huntley, who also donates his services to make wigs for cancer patients, says he has thought of retiring several times. “I’m going to be 73,” he says, “and I thought I would retire at 68 or 69, or maybe even 70. But here I am. It’s just that I get great joy from it.”
And so, he says, he plans to continue doing what he does for at least a little while longer. “I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I have very good health, and I’m physically fit. I guess there’s something about being interested in people that keeps you young. So you don’t really appear to be the age you are on your passport.”