The untold truth of Hetty from NCIS: Los Angeles

When the first spin-off of CBS' extremely successful NCIS hit the air in the fall of 2009, millions of fans of the flagship series tuned in to the new show as well, expecting — and receiving — the unique blend of elements that made the original such a juggernaut. NCIS: Los Angeles packs plenty of procedural drama, military intrigue, crackerjack action sequences, and bad guys resoundingly defeated by the good guys. Household names such as L.L. Cool J and Chris O'Donnell top-lined the cast, but before long, it became clear that the secret weapon of NCIS: Los Angeles was Supervisory Special Agent Henrietta "Hetty" Lange, the mysterious if not inscrutable manager of the NCIS team. 

Played by veteran character actress Linda Hunt, Hetty's character features a deep and dramatic backstory that includes work as a Cold War operative. Though she appears in more than 200 episodes, we can't shed much light on this enigmatic agent, but we can delve into the untold truth of the accomplished performer who brings her to life.

Before she was Hetty, folks didn't think she had the right stuff

Young actors encountering resistance from their parents is a common theme. Moms and dads, fearing the worst, often have a hard time getting behind their child pursuing such a risky career. Linda Hunt told the Daily Beast that her folks, an oil executive and a piano teacher, embraced her dreams "most diligently," but her father thought she should opt for a teaching degree. Hunt didn't listen to her dad, confident enough in her abilities to trust that she didn't need a plan B. 

However, even while attending the prestigious Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, Hunt reportedly had to stare down those who didn't think she had what it takes to become a star. According to the Daily Mail, "Despite her interest in performing, Hunt studied directing when people at the Goodman School looked at her askew upon hearing she wanted to pursue acting." When she moved to New York, Hunt said she threw the logic of others out the window. "If it's hard to get into acting, what is it like for a woman to become a director?" she quipped. "I stuck to my guns."

Hunt proved herself to the world and to her parents, who accompanied her to the 1984 Academy Awards, where she won best supporting actress for The Year of Living Dangerously. "My father was so relieved when I won that award," Hunt said. "He was like, 'You know what? I guess she's right. She's going to be okay.'"

Linda Hunt made Oscar history

The Year of Living Dangerously is a drama about reporters covering an attempted coup in Indonesia in 1965, but if Peter Weir's 1982 film was made today, casting an actress like Linda Hunt could be considered problematic. Hunt plays Billy Kwan, a male photographer who is part Asian and part Australian. Hunt isn't any of those things — she's a Caucasian, American, female-identifying individual. Not sharing those attributes with the character that she portrays so effectively contributed to the critical acclaim Hunt received for The Year of Living Dangerously. In fact, Hollywood was so taken with her performance that she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. 

She won the Oscar over Hollywood heavyweights such as Cher (for Silkwood) and Glenn Close (for The Big Chill). Hunt's win also marked the first time a performer won an Academy Award for portraying a character of a gender different from that with which they identify. This history-making moment also happened to be Hunt's second film role of her career. (Her first gig was as Mrs. Holly Oxheart in Popeye). Was the big win beginners' luck? Hardly.

Can you picture Hetty on Broadway?

Linda Hunt was hardly a neophyte to performing when cast as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. She successfully made the jump to Hollywood from the hyper-competitive and top-notch New York theater scene, where she'd thrived. Hunt debuted on Broadway with a 1975 revival of Eugene O'Neill's classic Ah, Wilderness!. She was up for a Tony Award in 1984 for End of the World, but lost to Glenn Close, who took home the best performance by an actress in a leading role for a play called The Real Thing

Hunt did, however, win Obie Awards (Think of it like a Tony for New York theatrical productions not produced on "the Great White Way") for her work in the ensembles of Top Girls and A Metamorphosis in Miniature. She even helped originate a role in Aunt Dan and Lemon, a 1988 play by Wallace Shawn. (Yep, the guy who said "Inconceivable!" in The Princess Bride is an accomplished playwright.)

She's in love (and has been for a long time)

Linda Hunt is openly gay, which may imply that she was once in the proverbial closet, but that doesn't appear to have been the case. Hunt never formally announced that she prefers the company of women, opting instead to live her life the way she sees fit, which includes a long-term relationship and taking on LGBT-oriented roles back when those were incredibly hard to come by. In 1987, Hunt co-starred as Alice B. Toklas, partner of legendary, proudly out early 20th century poet Gertrude Stein, in the film Waiting for the Moon. In 1994, she spoke to The Advocate about the dearth of gay female storytellers and stories about gay women. "I don't think gay women have broken through yet in the world of theater or film," Hunt said (via AfterEllen). There hasn't been a female Tony Kushner yet; there hasn't been the great lesbian play."

The same year that Hunt portrayed half of a famous same-sex couple, she got cozy in real life, too. In 1987, Hunt moved in with her other half, psychotherapist Karen Klein, with whom she shares an affection for Craftsman-style homes. After more than two decades together, they wed in 2008.

Linda Hunt was bored before NCIS: Los Angeles came along

Despite winning an Academy Award, and before starring on a hugely popular TV show for a decade, Linda Hunt was something of an "oh, that lady" — a character actress with a memorably petite and perpetually youthful appearance who popped up in small roles in movies and all over TV. However, as a thespian with a background in the nation's highest levels of theater, she found that a lot of the parts being offered to her were beneath her. 

"I began to get some pretty boring stuff for a while: children's films, family films, which I never felt comfortable with," Hunt told the Daily Beast in 2011. She didn't name names, but a look at her credits suggests she's talking about her work in stuff such as Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarnegger (pictured above) and Yours, Mine & Ours with Dennis Quaid. Hunt had semi-retired by the time NCIS: Los Angeles started up. "I wasn't looking for anything," she said. "At this time in my life, that this has come along, feels just like a gift. The heavens opened up and just handed me a little something to get me into my 70s."

Now hear this! (It's Linda Hunt)

Linda Hunt is highly recognizable for her on-screen work, but she also has a distinctive voice. It's a little bit gravelly, a little bit curt, and features major notes of gravitas, authority, and wisdom. All that is likely the result of her extensive theatrical training and experience. She just sounds like a stage performer, and those pipes have served Hunt well over a long and somewhat unheralded career as a voice-over artist.

The good people at Disney realized Hunt should be lending her voice to the biz and cast her in the iconic role of Grandmother Willow in 1995's Pocahontas. She was also an in-house narrator for PBS' American Experience and guided viewers through nature and war documentaries, too. That's also her as the narrator in multiple entries in the God of War video game franchise. Hunt may have even inspired you to buy things, as her voice was used to persuasive ends in TV commercials for Tylenol, FedEx, and electric cars. She's also about the only person involved with Solo: A Star Wars Story who was not publicly maligned for it — she voiced the monstrous Lady Proxima in the science fiction spin-off.

Teens today, with their surfboards and their love for Hetty

While it doesn't generate the same kind of social media fervor as shows such as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, the NCIS franchise is extremely popular. In the 2017-18 season, NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, and NCIS: Los Angeles all ranked among the top 30 most-watched shows on broadcast TV, and while no NCIS show has ever won a major Emmy Award, the LA-based iteration used to clean up at the Teen Choice Awards. 

Between 2010 and 2013, NCIS: Los Angeles was nominated for "Choice TV: Action" four times and lost only once. It makes sense that forever-young fan favorite, rapper/actor LL Cool J, took home one of the show's signature gigantic surfboard trophies, but it is something of a surprise that the understated, academic, dare we say elderly Linda Hunt would also garner tremendous favor among teen voters. In fact, Hunt has not one, but two surfboards, which we sincerely hope are displayed on the mantle of her elegant bungalow. She won Choice TV Actress: Action in 2011 and 2012. In her late sixties at the time of her second win, Hunt is one of the oldest Teen Choice winners and would probably hold the record if not for that darn Betty White, who at 88, won a surfboard for her dance sequence in 2009's The Proposal.

Why Hetty disappeared from NCIS: Los Angeles

NCIS: Los Angeles was pretty much business as usual when it returned for its tenth season in the fall of 2018. Well, it was supposed to be more of the same, but just before the season began, writers were forced to address some off-screen concerns — namely the absence of Hetty Lange due to the sudden unavailability of actress Linda Hunt.

According to TMZ, Hunt was driving an SUV in Hollywood on July 2, 2018 when she reportedly hit a car and then ran into another SUV while attempting a left turn. The other drivers suffered minor injuries, but a "visibly shaken" Hunt was hospitalized. The next day, she issued a statement (via People): "I'm pleased to report I'm recovering well and have no serious injuries," noting that she was "looking forward" to returning to work. However, Season 10 of NCIS premiered and got rolling with no sign of Hetty. 

In November 2018, Hunt updated her followers. "Though I had hoped to return to playing Hetty at the start of the season, I had to take some additional time to recover," she said (via TV Line). "I look forward to returning later this season."

Hetty knows how to make, well, a re-entrance

SPOILER ALERT! Hetty returned to NCIS: Los Angeles in March 2019 as only she can — by crashing through a wall during Deeks and Kensi's wedding, saving her crew from an intense situation that was unfolding. Later in the episode, when asked by Callen and Sam if she'd like to explain "where the hell [she's] been," Hetty replies, "No ... Certain things are better left unshared." 

Although Linda Hunt's character was a bit cagey about her prolonged absence, her co-stars and crew were a bit more forthcoming to TV Insider. Co-star Daniela Ruah revealed that the cast had "not set eyes on her or spoken to her in a year." Eric Christian Olsen said he couldn't stop hugging her upon her return, and LL Cool J celebrated the "toughness," "centeredness," and "balance," that Hunt brings to the show. 

Executive producer Scott Gemmill promised that Hunt was "raring to go" from that moment on, and that she helped plan her return. "We were waiting for her to feel well enough where she was comfortable [returning]. Linda knew we were going to do the wedding and she really wanted to be the officiant. That was a real incentive for her," Gemmill said, adding, "Even though she was maybe still on the road to recovery ... she soldiered on and came." 

Hunt made several more appearances through the end of the season, as well as the Season 10 finale, and she is expected to return for Season 11.