Linda Hunt hadn’t had the career of a superstar in Hollywood until she got the role of Hetty on ‘NCIS.’ At least, that’s probably what many of the fans of the now-classic crime series thought. 

Hunt actually has a lengthy career in show business, despite facing many issues growing up. She was institutionalized because of her stunted physical and mental growth, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dreams.

In 1983, Linda Hunt received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But many fans would probably not be able to recognize her from the role at the time, which became a true classic.

Linda Hunt was born on April 2, 1945, in Morristown, New Jersey. She was raised in Connecticut by her parents, Elsie and Raymond Hunt. At an early age, though, when Linda was only six months old, her parents noticed something that gave them cause for worry.

Linda’s motor skills weren’t developing at the usual rate, so her mother and father took her to a hospital in New York to seek help.

What doctors found wasn’t exactly the news Linda’s parents wanted. As The Bulletin reported in 1991, examinations showed she was suffering from a form of cretinism – a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth – which would likely eventually lead to Linda being institutionalized.

Elsie and Raymond, however, were not going to let hope fade. Instead, they were determined to support their beloved Linda and used books and theater to encourage her and help her develop.

By the time Linda started school, her motor skills were pretty much on par with that of an average child her. Sadly, she struggled due to her learning difficulties and short stature.

“I was totally alienated by school almost from the first day, I had a bad experience with a teacher and was made to feel stupid. I felt bad that I didn’t fit in,” Hunt said.

Speaking to The Bulletin, Linda explained that she had always loved acting and theater. Her most significant source of inspiration came when she was eight years of age after her parents brought her to see the Broadway musical Peter Pan.

“I’m lucky that I’ve always known what I wanted to do,” she told the newspaper. “[Mary Martin, who played Peter] was astonishing in her belief in the world she was creating, and that was fascinating to me. She had the power to make others believe what was in her mind.”

“It was bigger than life. And that in some sense, I longed to be bigger than life because I wasn’t,” she explained to CBS.

At that point, Linda devoted her life to acting and theater. She explained that she wanted to become a “high priestess of theater.” She got a private acting coach in high school and was sent to an excellent boarding school.

Linda Hunt

Linda’s parents resolved to do whatever they could to see their daughter achieve her dreams.

“I was so lucky my parents were encouraging on every level,” she said.

Linda Hunt was diagnosed with hypopituitary dwarfism

Yet, while Linda’s parents wanted her to pursue a professional acting career, they were also worried that she didn’t have a backup plan. As a result, her father, Raymond, encouraged her to study directing as well – he even tried to push her towards a teaching degree if things didn’t work out.

Luckily, things did. When Linda Hunt finished high school, she was diagnosed with hypopituitary dwarfism. The condition halts the regular amount of growth hormones released into the body. Consequently, Linda is much shorter than the average woman (she stands at 4 feet 9 inches tall).

Of course, Linda wasn’t about to let any diagnosis stop her.

After studying at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and the Theatre School of DePaul University in Chicago, it was time for Hunt to reach for the stars. So she moved to New York City, where her passion for working in the theater only grew.

When she arrived in the “Big Apple,” she didn’t know what to do or where to begin.

“I moved into a shoebox-sized apartment in the city when I was in my early 20s with my father’s help,” Hunt recalled.

“I was very young and very lost, I didn’t even attempt to act professionally. That would have meant getting an agent and going to auditions. I wasn’t capable of doing any of that. It was truly emotionally beyond me.”

Linda Hunt

In 1975, Linda made her Broadway debut, starring in Ah, Wilderness. That, in turn, led her to land her first on-screen gig. In 1978, she appeared in the film Fame, and just four years later, Hunt made history.

Linda Hunt played a man in ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’

Linda got the role of Billy Kwan in the film The Year of Living Dangerously, starring alongside Mel Gibson. The film became a huge success, and Hunt received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the first person ever to win an Academy Award for playing a cis-gender character of the opposite sex. And during the Oscars ceremony, many people probably won’t recognize her at all.

Producer Peter Weir had already gotten Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver on board during the casting process. However, he had a hard time finding an actor capable of playing the role of photographer Billy Kwan. The charismatic character was to have an essential role in the film, and at first, Australian dancer David Atkins had gotten the part.

Sadly for him, Mel Gibson didn’t like his personality, and Atkins had to leave. They began filming without the character in place – but that was the moment a member of the casting department suggested another actress: Linda Hunt.

“The sets were being built in Manila and time was of the essence,” Weir told The New York Times in 2019. “The casting agent said he had a possible Billy Kwan called L. Hunt. Later it was revealed she was a woman. We were desperate, we gave her a shot and it was brilliant.”

Linda Hunt
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

At that point, Linda Hunt had already had a great career in the theater. It’s safe to say she was shocked when the phone rang.

“I didn’t quite understand what I was there for; I talked to the casting director about it and he just said, ‘This would be a part that you would play as a man,’” she told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘Holy shit,’ and laughed.”

Linda Hunt was unrecognizable as Billy Kwan

At first, Linda Hunt wanted Weir to change the script to suit her as a woman. But that was out of the question.

Instead, the producer simply asked Linda if she could play a man.

“I said this would change the entire story and there was a silence,” Weir recalled. “‘Could you play a man?’ I asked her and there was a longer silence. ‘Only if you believe in me,’ she replied.”

Linda Hunt was told to wear a wig, pieces of rubber over her eyes to make her more “oriental,” and a mustache. The rubber part was indeed quite controversial, at least today. Linda looked herself in the mirror – and asked them to take all “this shit off.” The NCIS star wanted to do it her way if she was to do it at all.

“I didn’t try to pass myself off as a man; the movie wasn’t about that,” Hunt told the New Straits Times.

For the film, Linda really wanted the crowd to believe she was a man. Therefore, she decided to dye her hair, cut it short, and shave her eyebrows. According to reports, when she went out for dinner, waiters even called her “sir,” although she wore a dress.

Linda Hunt did a fantastic job as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. Still, to this day, it is the only time the academy has honored a woman for playing a cisgender man.

Linda Hunt
Youtube/oscars“It seemed crazy, but it totally worked, and that’s why she won, Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger told the New York Times.

Pete Hammond, a film critic and awards columnist for Deadline, added, “She totally immersed herself in that character. It was impossible to ignore.”

In her Oscars speech, Linda Hunt thanked her parents, who were in the audience.

Linda Hunt as Hefty on ‘NCIS’

“He lived though the Academy Awards and died about 18 months later of a stroke,” Hunt said in 2011. “It now means a great deal that he got to be there. My father was so relieved when I won that award. He was like, ‘You know what? I guess she’s right. She’s going to be O.K.’”

Since then, Linda Hunt’s career has gone amazingly well. For the last decade, she’s been a true star on NCIS Los Angeles, having amassed a staggering 281 episodes as Operations Manager Henrietta “Hetty” Lange.

Things have been pretty quiet regarding Linda after she missed season 12 of the show due to COVID-19 concerns. She only made a handful of appearances last season, including one in the finale, and the series’ fans have speculated whether she will come back. Fortunately, news about her future seemed promising indeed.

Linda Hunt
Shutterstock/Kathy Hutchins“Linda had both her vaccines, she was feeling great, and she came back. And she was so happy to be back. She had been gone for so long and hadn’t really interacted with anyone, so she was just so thrilled to be back on set,” NCIS showrunner R. Scott Gemmill told TV Insider in 2021.

Luckily, in May last year, Gemmill gave fans a new update on the Linda Hunt rumors, hinting that she might return. The catch? She wouldn’t resurface as Hetty until next season.

Linda Hunt — net worth, NCIS salary

In January of 2023, Hunt appeared in a three-way crossover special between NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and NCIS: Hawaii.

It’s not the first time Linda has been absent from NCIS Los Angeles. In July 2018, she was in a car crash, which luckily only left her with minor injuries. Still, it resulted in her missing almost the entirety of the 10th season and most of the 11th season.

It’s unclear whether Linda will work on other projects when she’s not filming NCIS Los Angeles. Previously, she’s enjoyed engaging in other acting work, including voice acting for films and video games.

In any case, she certainly doesn’t have to worry about going bankrupt if she takes some months off; her net worth is said to stand at around $12 million. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Hunt earns $80,000 per NCIS Los Angeles episode.

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