What the Hell Happened to Helen Hunt?
Helen Hunt started her career as a child actor in the seventies. After two decades in the business, she finally got cast on a hit TV show. She won the Emmy for four consecutive years and won a Best Actress Oscar during the same time frame. A few years later, she practically disappeared.
What the hell happened?
Helen Hunt started working as an actress in 1973 at the age of 10. As a result, there are a lot of embarrassing photos and clips of Hunt as a child appearing in cheesy 70s TV movies.
If you have ever seen Hunt on a late night talk show, you have probably seen her squirm as they played a clip of her on The Bionic Woman or some other relic of the era. Don’t worry. That won’t stop me from dredging those things up all over again here.
It is not uncommon in these articles for me to skip over some movies or TV shows that weren’t especially important to the subject’s career. In Hunt’s case, I am going to have to skip over dozens of projects. Because she paid her dues and then she paid them some more.
I can’t possibly cover every cheesy TV movie and canceled show. But I will do my best to make sure we hit all the lowlights.
Hunt’s first role was in the 1973 TV movie, Pioneer Woman. Yep, the guy with the mustache is Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. That alone makes Pioneer Woman at least a little awesome.
And here’s Hunt smiling her way through the 1974 Ironside spin-off, Amy Prentiss. Hunt played the title character’s daughter.
The next year, Hunt got a recurring role on the Swiss Family Robinson TV show. Those promotional pictures all look the same. Let’s watch the show’s opening:
I think it’s about time for that Bionic Woman clip, don’t you?
The clip is dubbed over in German. But I don’t think you lose a thing in the translation. The Bionic Woman actually stops a dude with a head of lettuce. I’m sure it was bionic lettuce.
TV in the 70′s was really something. This was a hit show!
In 1982, Hunt appeared in the infamous anti-drug TV movie, Desperate Lives. Be sure to stick around for the end of the trailer to see a hopped-up Hunt hysterically jump out of a window.
Remember kids, just say “no”. I can’t tell you how many drug-related window-jumpings there were at my school in the 80′s.
In ’82, Hunt joined another short-lived TV family for the sitcom It Takes Two. I wonder if the same guy took all these promotional pictures. The cast included Richard Crenna (of Rambo fame), Patty Duke and a pre-ER (and pre-bald spot) Anthony Edwards.
I could go on for pages and pages with this stuff. Hunt appeared in so many TV movies and after-school specials. I remember seeing a lot of them. We watched the anorexia TV movie, The Best Little Girl in the World (starring Jennifer Jason Leigh) in school. And who can forget Hunt as a high school football player in Quarterback Princess? It was based on a true story, you know.
Hunt even starred in an anti-polygamy movie, Child Bride of Short Creek. I would have been about 10 years old at the time. What the hell was I doing watching an anti-polygamy TV movie? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, we watched them all.
Okay, let’s take one more look at Hunt as an alien princess on The Bionic Woman and then we’ll move on.
That was the problem with the failed 2007 Bionic Woman relaunch. Not enough alien princesses.
In 1985, Hunt made the jump to the big screen with the teen dance comedy, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
Girls co-starred Sarah Jessica Parker and featured Jonathan Silverman and Shannen Doherty in smaller roles. Cyndi Lauper makes an uncredited cameo as does Hunt’s future husband, Hank Azaria.
Girls was completely ignored at the box office. But it has played on basic cable ever since. As Hunt, Parker and Doherty rose to fame, the movie gained a cult following. There are even plans for a remake because Hollywood is remaking everything these days.
Just about every Hollywood star has an old horror or sci-fi movie from before they were famous that they would like to forget. For Helen Hunt, that movie is most likely the 1985 time travel movie, Trancers.
Trancers is goofy even by genre standards. It’s about a cop from the year 2247 who is hunting down a bad guy who can turn people into zombies. The cop, named Jack Deth (of course), can identify these zombies by scanning them with a bracelet.
The bad guy escapes by using a drug-fueled form a time travel that places him in the body of an ancestor in the year 1985. Deth follows the bad guy back into the past and winds up in the body of one of his ancestors as well.
In 1985, the cop from the future gets help tracking down the bad guy who turns people into zombies from his ancestor’s girl friend, a punk rocker named Leena played by Helen Hunt.
This is a movie that actually got made! In fact, it inspired 5 sequels.
Peggy Sue got good reviews and was a hit for Turner. But Hunt’s role was too small for it to matter all that much. It’s just another interesting footnote in her climb to fame.
In 1987, Hunt finally got a chance at a lead role in a mainstream movie. She starred opposite Matthew Broderick and a chimp in Project X.
Project X was about an Air Force pilot assigned to work with a chimp on some top-secret project. Hunt plays the research assistant who taught the chimp sign language.
Project X was sort of an ET rip-off with a chimp instead of an alien. It’s part comedy, part sci-fi thriller, part animal rights infomercial. Thanks to Broderick’s popularity at the time, it broke even despite the mixed reviews.
In 1988, Hunt was still paying her dues with bit parts in movies like Stealing Home and Miles From Home. She also had a lead role in little-seen fairy tale, The Frog Prince.
In 1989, Hunt starred opposite Patrick Swayze in Next of Kin. I have to admit, I have never seen this movie. But based on the summaries I have read, it doesn’t appear that Hunt had a very large role in it. It is interesting to note that her future Twister co-star, Bill Paxton, also appeared in Next of Kin.
Okay, maybe not all that interesting. But I haven’t seen the movie. Next of Kin got bad reviews and did poorly at the box office.
In 1991, Hunt made a long-awaited sequel to Trancers. She looks like she is asking herself, “Where did my career go so wrong?”
In 1992, Hunt was all over the place. She appeared opposite Andrew Mc Carthy and Kelly Preston in Only You. She had a small roles in Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night and Tim Robbins’ mockumentary, Bob Roberts. She also co-starred with Eric Stoltz and Wesley Snipes in The Waterdance. The Waterdance is about a paraplegic writer’s physical therapy. But the internet being what it is, all my searches returned was pictures of Hunt’s nude scenes.
Since Hunt was not yet famous, she also had to endure Trancers 3. You can hardly blame her for wanting to complete the trilogy. She owed it to Trancers fans everywhere. Plus, the check cleared.
Oh, and she got a regular role in a sitcom co-starring the asshole from Aliens, Paul Reiser. A romantic comedy starring Burke and Leena? Yeah, that will never work…
Reiser and Hunt had a natural chemistry and Mad About You turned into a big hit for NBC. In 1993, Hunt got her first Emmy nomination for the show. She would go on to be nominated every year until the show ended in 1999. She won her first Emmy for Mad About You in 1996 and kept on winning Emmys for four consecutive years (96-99).
Emmy voters are sometimes accused of rewarding the same shows and actors over and over again out of habit. But Hunt had the difficult task of making Paul Reiser cuddly. Four Emmy wins sounds about right.
In 1995, just before those Emmy wins started rolling in, Hunt returned to the big screen with a small role in the crime thriller, Kiss of Death opposite David Caruso and Nicolas Cage.
Caruso famously left his high-rated TV show, NYPD Blue, to try to make it in films. Although Kiss of Death got decent reviews, it was not a hit at the box office. Caruso’s big screen dreams came crashing down and eventually he returned to TV with CSI: Miami.
Hunt, on the other hand, kept her day job while testing the waters in movies. It was a strategy that worked. There were no crime procedurals in her future.
In 1996, Hunt starred opposite Bill Paxton in Jan de Bont’s disaster movie, Twister, about a group of “storm chasers” tracking a tornado.
Twister was an infamously troubled production. It was de Bont’s first film as a director after having a hit with Speed. And apparently, that hit went to his head. At one point during production, the camera crew left claiming that the director was out of control. A new camera crew needed to be hired.
There were several injuries on the set of Twister. Hunt seemed to get the worst of it. At one point, she and Paxton had their retinas burned by special lighting. They were both temporarily blinded. Later, both stars were required to get hepatitis shots after filming a scene in a contaminated ditch. Hunt was repeatedly hit in the head and possibly suffered a concussion. De Bont attributed these injuries to Hunt’s “clumsiness”.
Twister went over-schedule and over-budget. Paul Reiser actually delayed shooting of Mad About You by two weeks to accommodate Hunt’s movie schedule. All the hard work and suffering paid off. Twister was a massive hit at the box office despite mixed reviews.
Hunt had a hit TV show, her first Emmy win and a box office hit under her belt. It seemed like there was nowhere to go but down. But first, Hunt had to win an Oscar.
In 1997, Hunt starred opposite Jack Nicholson, Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr. in James L Brooks’ comedy/drama, As Good As It Gets. With the age difference between them, Hunt and Nicholson were an unlikely pairing. I think it is a testament to Hunt that for the most part, she makes it work. Especially considering that Nicholson’s character is pretty reprehensible for most of the movie. Hunt makes you believe she could inspire him to “be a better man”.
As Good as It Gets got mostly positive reviews and was a hit at the box office. It was nominated for several awards. Nicholson and Hunt both took home Oscars and Golden Globes. Hunt also won another Emmy for Mad About You that year. I imagine she had to buy a larger mantle in 1997.
After As Good As It Gets, Hunt took a break from movies to finish out her time on Mad About You. I guess when you have scored an Oscar and have a steady stream of Emmys, you might as well.
Like most TV shows, Mad About You started going downhill. Originally, it was a show about newlyweds. But when the honeymoon was over, they started relying on stunts to goose the ratings. Mad About You had celebrity guests, cross-overs with other NBC shows like Friends and Seinfeld, and finally they had a baby.
By the end, the show was more soap opera than sit com. There was a seemingly endless storyline where the couple separated. The final episode featured Janeane Garofalo as the Buchman’s grown-up daughter telling the story of her parent’s break-up. It ends with them reuniting. But by then, most of the audience had moved on. Still, Hunt kept winning Emmys up till the bitter end.
Around the time Mad About You was coming to an end, Hunt married character actor (and Mad About You guest star) Hank Azaria. Although they had been a couple since 1994, the marriage was short-lived. They divorced in 2000.
In 2000, Hunt returned to movies with a vengeance. She appeared in four movies that year. The first was the truly dreadful melodrama, Pay It Forward.
Pay It Forward stars Haley Joel Osment as a saintly little boy who has the revolutionary idea that the world would be a better place if everyone did random acts of kindness. One of his acts is to try to set his single mom up with the teacher who inspired the “pay it forward scheme”. The teacher was played by Kevin Spacey.
Pay It Forward is the worst kind of manipulative crap. Spoilers for the next sentence. It ends with Osment dying Christ-like for our sins. Instead of being moved, the audience just feels jerked around by such an obvious attempt to elicit an emotional response.
Reviews were not kind. And Pay It Forward bombed at the box office.
Later that year, Hunt appeared in another bomb, Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women.
Richard Gere played a successful gynecologist and Hunt played one of the many women in his life. The cast included Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler and Tara Reid.
Hunt’s luck improved in the latter half of 2000. First, she starred opposite Mel Gibson in Nancy Meyers’ comedy, What Women Want.
Gibson played a male chauvinist ad exec who suddenly finds he has the ability to read minds. Hunt played his rival at the ad agency. At first, Gibson reads her mind to get a leg up at work. But soon, he begins getting in touch with his feminine side. As this is a Nancy Meyers movie, the two eventually fall in love.
What Women Want got mixed to positive reviews and was a hit at the box office.
Hunt ended the year with a very small role opposite Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ shipwreck drama, Castaway.
How small was Hunt’s role? The volleyball, “Wilson” was more central to the story. But it was a chance to work with Hanks. And Castaway was liked by both critics and audiences.
In 2001, Hunt dodged a bullet. She had filmed a scene for Paul Reiser’s comedy, One Night at McCools. But her scene was cut. One Night was a critical and commercial flop.
But Hunt’s luck ran out when she appeared in Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
Jade Scorpion was a lesser Woody Allen film starring Allen, Hunt and Dan Aykroyd. It was in fact the most expensive film of Woody Allen’s career. But reviews were lukewarm and the movie bombed at the box office.
Around this time, Hunt remarried to TV producer, Matthew Carnahan. Hunt’s output as an actress greatly slowed down as the couple started a family. They had a daughter in 2004.
Considering the fact that Hunt had been steadily working since she was a child, the decision to scale back her career is perfectly understandable. She already had more awards that any reasonable person could ever dream of. She was in the rare position of being able to have it all.
Hunt still works occasionally. She recently directed an episode of Californication. And has appeared in movies like Bobby, Soul Surfer and The Sessions. She also directed her first feature film, 2008′s Then She Found Me.
In 2012, Hunt stepped back into the spotlight with a leading role in The Sessions.
Hunt played a sex surrogate hired to help a paralyzed poet lose his virginity. The film premiered at the Sundance Festival where it won several awards. Hunt received a ton of nominations including nods from the Golden Globes and Oscars.
So what the hell happened? Helen Hunt started working as a child, paid her dues for decades, succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination and then decided to raise a family. Around here, that’s what we call a happy ending.
Kim Basinger Thora Birch Matthew Broderick Nicolas Cage Chevy Chase Kevin Costner Geena Davis Bridget Fonda Brendan Fraser Mel Gibson Cuba Gooding Jr. Heather Graham Melanie Griffith Steve Guttenberg Daryl Hannah Helen Hunt Michael Keaton Nicole Kidman Val Kilmer Jude Law Jennifer Jason Leigh Penelope Ann Miller Demi Moore Rick Moranis Eddie Murphy Mike Myers Michelle Pfeiffer Molly Ringwald Meg Ryan Winona Ryder Arnold Schwarzenegger Steven Seagal Elisabeth Shue Alicia Silverstone Christian Slater Mira Sorvino Wesley Snipes Sharon Stone Mena Suvari Uma Thurman John Travolta Kathleen Turner Robin Williams Debra Winger Sean Young Renee Zellweger