September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

After landing the role of Dr. Zira, a psychiatrist chimp in 1968’s Planet of the Apes, Kim Hunter headed for the Bronx Zoo. “She’d watch the apes for hours,” says her son, Sean Robert Emmett, 48, a computer consultant in Stamford, Conn. “My mother was a meticulous craftsman.”

Hunter, who died of cardiac arrest at age 79 on Sept. 11, displayed a passion for detail and a distaste for actressy frills, whether playing a talking monkey in Apes (and two sequels) or, in her most famous role, Stella Kowalski in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she won a supporting actress Oscar. (She also originated the role on Broadway.) “Kim was wonderfully vulnerable and open,” says James Whitmore, a friend who trained with Hunter at New York City’s Actors Studio. Blacklisted during the ’50s anticommunist scare—possibly, Hunter said, because she was a big-name sponsor of a world peace conference—the twice-married actress “never said it was unjust,” says daughter Kathryn Emmett, 57, a lawyer. “She wasn’t bitter.”

But Hunter was wary of Hollywood. The Detroit native spent most of her life in Manhattan, where she forged a stage career and let her Oscar collect dust on a shelf. “When I was a kid,” says her son, “we used it for ringtoss.”

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