Broadway has always been a place where legends walk among us, but those legends often seem firmly in front of the footlights. Not so, as anyone who’s spent any time behind the scenes can attest. One such living luminary is Paul Huntley, still as active now as he was 40 years ago, when he outfitted Patti LuPone with Eva Peron’s varying hairstyles, created the original wigs for Sweeney Todd, and coiffed everyone from Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Huntley, who works with a small team of five, had a desire to create wigs since he first watched his mother get ready to go out as a little boy in 1930s England. After a stint as an actor and military service, Huntley apprenticed with Stanley Hall’s Wig Creations, where, he says during an interview at his Upper West Side townhouse, “we would do every known actor in the world at that time.”
That’s no mere exaggeration. Wig Creations worked on everything from El Cid to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra—the latter of which required fitting 1,000 extras with period wigs for the unforgettable moment when Liz makes her entrance into ancient Rome. He was also once responsible for going to Mae West’s room at the Dorchester Hotel for her wig fitting.
“I was ushered into the hotel reception of the suite that she was in,” Huntley says, laughing at the memory, “and she had asked them to raise her bed on a dais, and she had four lilac spots trained on her. When I went in to take her measurements, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I mean, it was just extraordinary, because she'd got a peignoir on as low as she possibly could to welcome a fairy into her domain, and there she was with all these satin pillows. She was sweet and charming, but the thing that I remember mostly is her teeth. They were pure white and glowed, I mean literally glowed.
“I literally had to ask her to sit up in bed, and I knelt… I just could not believe it, and I thought, ‘You see, this is the tragedy.’ There wasn't a camera or anything, of course not, so it's only in my head that I can remember it. So I had to do pin curls kneeling on the fucking bed. It was very awkward, actually!”
As his career was moving along in England, director Mike Nichols asked Huntley to come to America to do create wigs for his production of Uncle Vanya, starring, among others, Julie Christie and Lillian Gish. A period of work on both sides of the Atlantic ensued, until Nichols suggested that Huntley stay in America. From there, it was a best-of list of the great American musicals of the ’70s and ’80s, from A Little Night Music to the original Broadway production of Cats. Along the way, he made several lifelong fans out of performers, including Patti LuPone, who has never appeared on Broadway without wearing a Paul Huntley wig.
“When she was a student at Juilliard, she knew that she had extremely fine hair, and that she wanted a wig exactly like her own hair but better,” Huntley says. “So she called me—this was in the very early days, obviously—and she said, ‘I want a wig, a beautiful wig made, that I can wear up or down in productions that I will do at Juilliard. I can't afford it. Could I pay you so much a month?’ And I said, ‘Of course you can’ So that was it, and she said if she became a star, I would always be in her contract.”
Years later, after a miscommunication with director Hal Prince that left Huntley temporarily persona non grata, LuPone was in rehearsals for Evita. When she inquired about being fitted by Huntley, Prince told her that he would not be working on the show. To which LuPone replied, “Well, Mr. Prince, I will not be able to wear any wig that isn’t Paul Huntley's, so I won't be wearing a wig.” LuPone won out (and earned a spread in Life Magazine with Huntley), and Huntley and Prince’s relationship was restored.
Relationships like the one he has with LuPone (Huntley also just designed her wig in the Broadway production of War Paint) continue to lead to work, particularly the close working relationship he shares with costume designer William Ivey Long, who brought him into the Bronx Tale fold this season. And Huntley will return to Broadway with Prince of Broadway this fall, reuniting once more with Prince and recreating many of the iconic looks for which he was originally responsible. And though he’s the first to point out that “time marches on, and of course youth has to have its say,” Huntley’s career and talent are as fresh and vital as they were when he knelt in bed with Mae West.