Last Word

Uncle Arthur and the Round Table
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Arthur Hunnicutt (left) with Ross Bagdasarian, the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks

ALMOST EVERY MORNING, I sit at my nicked and scarred oak dinette table, sipping English breakfast tea while scanning the daily newspaper. What’s significant here is not that I have a morning ritual or that I’m reading an actual paper newspaper, but the table where this takes place. I call this vintage piece of furniture, which wouldn’t look out of place in a farmhouse kitchen, my storyteller table—as in, “if this table could talk, the stories it would tell.”

If the slab of wood could talk, it would most likely tell tales of my most famous family member, Arthur Lee Hunnicutt, who was an honest-to-goodness movie star. OK, not really a star like his friend John Wayne (that’s right, the Duke), but still a highly regarded and Oscar-nominated character actor. The storied table sat for a good 40 years or more in the kitchen of great-Uncle Arthur and his wife, my great-Aunt Pebble, in their home in Northridge, California. Its varnish is now worn in places, darkened in others, but the tabletop no doubt glowed with polish when Aunt Pebble and Uncle Arthur sat there, reading through shooting scripts for movies like El Dorado, Cat Ballou and The Big Sky, which is the one that catapulted Uncle Arthur within reach of the most coveted of acting honors.

In 1953, Uncle Arthur was nominated as best supporting actor for his role as savvy frontiersman Zeb, who dispensed homespun wisdom in The Big Sky to a fresh-faced actor named Kirk Douglas. Uncle Arthur lost the statuette to Anthony Quinn, but he felt he was in fine company with Quinn and fellow nominee Richard Burton. Sitting at the table years later, Aunt Pebble reminisced about the dreamlike experience of finding herself at the Academy Awards, and how cameras popped and flashed when she and Uncle Arthur stepped from their limousine to walk the famous red carpet. They held each other’s hands tightly, amazed to find themselves the object of such attention. “Here we were,” she said, “just two schoolteachers from Gravelly, Arkansas, at the biggest show in the world, wondering how we got here. We could hardly breathe.”

Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the round table in Aunt Pebble and Uncle Arthur’s kitchen was a gathering place for all manner of famous folk—Wayne, Robert Mitchum, William Bendix, Gene Kelly and Walter Huston, grandfather of actress Anjelica. These legends of Hollywood were just story-swapping pals back then, jovial men who sprawled in the table’s wide-bottomed captain’s chairs drinking blister-your-tongue strong coffee while listening as my uncle held forth, “cutting up” and spinning tall tales. All the Hunnicutt men (Uncle Arthur had three brothers) were cut-ups, my mother was fond of saying. By that, she meant they didn’t talk so much as embellish and entertain. Tall, lanky, bearded Uncle Arthur was the ringleader of the bunch.

The table might have felt a little let down after finding itself at my house, having been passed along to me by Aunt Pebble, who had no room for it when she moved back to Arkansas after Uncle Arthur’s death in 1979. No guests of the movie-star variety ever gather here, but the table still possesses the power or spirit or whatever it is that gets people wound up and talking when they pull up a chair. My mother, Franchelle Owen (whose mother was Arthur’s sister), possessed a generous measure of Hunnicutt storytelling DNA, and when we sat at the old oak table together, the stories flowed. She loved to tell how Ross Bagdasarian (aka David Seville, the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) had found inspiration in the way Uncle Arthur shouted to his younger brother (Alvin, Allll-vin!). She especially delighted in telling how Uncle Arthur decided to give up a career in teaching to take a shot at his lifelong dream of acting. With only $30 in his pocket, she told me, Uncle Arthur took off for Ohio and enrolled in the curiously named Phedelia’s School of Dramatic Talking. From there, he went on to summer stock at Martha’s Vineyard, then acted in Broadway touring productions of The Time of Your Life and Tobacco Road before “the call” came from Hollywood.

Now that the storytellers—Uncle Arthur, Aunt Pebble and Mom—have passed on, I find myself keeper of the table and the stories. As I sit there in the mornings, I occasionally appraise its blemishes and wonder idly if I should strip and refinish it. But I won’t. I’ll just sit and listen.