Olivia Hussey, superstar of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet: ‘I was wild’

Melding Shakespeare with the spirit of rebellion, Hussey became the worlds most famous teen. Then she went to live at Hollywoods most notorious address

At their first press conference in 1967, Romeo and Juliet clutched each other’s hands.” For security ,” star Olivia Hussey insisted to the Guardian. The newspaper noted that director Franco Zeffirelli‘s 16 -year-old heroine still spoke Shakespeare with a Spanish lilt. As a child, Hussey- birth name Osuna- left Buenos Aires for London with her mom and brother, unaware that she wouldn’t see her father again until she became so famous that the Argentinean government flew her home to hug her grandmother on live TV.

Fame hadn’t taken long to arrive. As Hussey recounts in her lively new autobiography, The Girl on the Balcony, a year after the trio arrived in the UK, she turned to her mother and announced:” I think it’s time I started taking my career seriously .” She was eight.

” I used to walk around the house with a towel on my head pretending to be a nun ,” says Hussey , now 67.” One day I just said,’ I don’t know about being a nun. I like pretending to be a nun. Maybe if I was an actress, I could pretend to be a nuns and still be me .” Her pledge came true. After Romeo and Juliet– which celebrates its 50 th anniversary this year- turned her and co-star Leonard Whiting into international idols, she went on to play both the Virgin Mary and Mother Teresa. Laughs Hussey:” That was my fate .”

Sweet regret: Leonard Whiting and Hussey in Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

Off-screen, Hussey’s seem is a touch more rock’n’roll. At an organic Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, she’s wearing all-white with a leopardskin coat, stacks of silver rings, and boots embellished with roses. Her spouse of 29 years, David Eisley, headed a Sunset Strip metal band when they met in the 80 s. In the book, he comes zooming into their own lives on a Harley. That memory is half hers, half her eldest son Alex Martin’s, who co-wrote the chapters that Hussey couldn’t bring herself to type. The hardest concerned the death in 1987 of her first husband, Dino Martin, who flew from LA to Britain to implore her for a date. She said no. But a year later, Hussey moved to California, and eventually said yes.

‘ I knew he was in love with me’ … Zeffirelli directing Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Rex Shutterstock

The Girl on the Balcony is most startling when Hussey rappels off Shakespeare’s ledge to scamper around Hollywood. She arrived in Los Angeles a month after Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family– and moved into the crime scene on Cielo Drive, which was owned by her director Rudi Altobelli. Cops and gawkers haunted the house. One morning, Hussey was stimulating coffee when Manson girl Linda Kasabian gave District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi a walkthrough of the attack.

” I could hear her say,’ And that Abigail Folger was lying over there and she had lots of stab wounds ,'” says Hussey.” People would say,’ How could you live there ?’ I’d say it was actually the safest house in Hollywood. There was a button under the desk in the living room that buzzed immediately to the Beverly Hills police. When you walked in there, there were no bad vibes or anything. All I felt was the sweetness of Sharon. I never felt afraid .”

‘ I like feigning’ … Hussey as Mary in Jesus of Nazareth. Photo: ITV/ Rex/ Shutterstock

It was a dramatic introduction to Los Angeles. Overnight, everyone began locking their doorways. Hussey briefly dated Terry Melcher, then thought to be Charles Manson’s intended target, who now travelled with bodyguards.” Terry was a sweetheart ,” says Hussey,” but he was fucked up .” Hussey saw herself at the centre of a celebrity shifting. Dino was the eldest son of the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin. Dinner at the in-laws meant satisfying everyone from Sammy Davis Jr and Truman Capote to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Meanwhile, Dino surprised his bride by bringing the Bee Gees home for dinner. She answered the door in her pyjamas.

Hussey represented that generational change, though her autobiography is too modest to say it. Proportion of the reason the public was obsessed with her Juliet was that Hussey was a groovy 60 s teenager who danced and drink and befuddled her elders. Her miniskirts and hippy hair were a sign that the kids- and perhaps the whole globe- were changing. The journalists who managed to pin her down for a quotation fumbled for words. One older reporter lectured:” There aren’t many girls at 15 I know that smoke cigarettes publicly .” Hussey nonchalantly replied:” Oh, there are .” She gazed at him impassively and took a drag.

” I loved playing Juliet ,” says Hussey today.” The only part I didn’t like was all the PR. It was depleting, and I was this wild little thing .” Online, she’s continually detecting shots of herself she’s never seen.” I must have had people photographing me everywhere I went ,” she says. She posts them on Instagram where today’s high-schoolers, who discovered the movie in English lessons, message her asking if she and Leonard truly dated( yes) and plead for love advice.” Lighten up !” Hussey responds.” Life simply unfolds. If I know nothing else, I know that in 2 months their own lives can change wholly .”

‘ Yes, we dated’ … Hussey and her Romeo and Juliet co-star Leonard Whiting in Los Angeles in 2018. Photograph: Willy Sanjuan/ Invision/ AP

Hussey and her first spouse, Dean Martin’s son Dino. Photo: Globe Photos/ Guy Webster/ Rex/ Shutterstock

The book is structured around a question Hussey poses on page four:” That daughter on the balcony keeps asking,’ Has the life I’ve given you been worth it ?'” The role wasn’t a gift. It was a trade. She and Whiting dedicated Zeffirelli’s blockbuster a jolt of youthful rebellion that wired a 400 -year-old play to the anti-Vietnam war protests. Adolescents had had enough of dying for their parents’ conflict. In exchange, Romeo and Juliet gave Hussey immediate and eternal notoriety, plus a bottle of diet pills- the producers’ idea- that her mom furiously flushed down the lavatory. Too late. She’d swallowed the fear that her body was too curvy for the camera. On situated, Zeffirelli called her” Boobs O’Mina “. Later, he confessed that she was the unrequited love of his life.

” I know. I knew ,” says Hussey.” We had a bond. I’d look at him and know exactly how he wanted me to play it .” In the foreword, Zeffirelli , now 94, writes:” You are the object of my admiration .” She still devotes the director a kiss on his birthday. She considers herself unscathed, though she pointedly notes that the #MeToo movement is “fantastic,” adding:” We’ve all been harassed in one way or another. Fortunately for me, I had a big mouth and I was always being interviewed. Those sleazy people, I’d meet them but they wouldn’t dare .” The book does, however, contain an account of a violent rape by her then boyfriend, performer Christopher Jones, while she was living in Cielo Drive. Hussey discovered that she was pregnant and had a termination.

‘ That was my destiny’ … taking a break on decide during the filming of Mother Teresa of Calcutta( 2003 ). Photograph: Gemunu Amarasinghe/ AP
For a while, Hussey’s life seemed to move so fast she could scarcely hang in. She nervously pee-pee in her couture dress when presented to the Queen at Romeo and Juliet’s royal premiere, and said no to several projects she probably should have done, such as the sidekick role in
True Grit . (” John Wayne doesn’t really do anything for me ,” she shrugged to producer Hal Wallis .) Later, when she had to be less picky, she acted alongside everyone from Bette Davis to Traci Lords. She made good movies, including Bob Clark’s slasher Black Christmas, a favourite of Elvis Presley’s, and legendary bombs such as the 1973 musical Lost Horizon, ranked by Golden Turkey awards founder Michael Medved as one of the 50 worst cinemas of all time.

By 22, Hussey was a divorced single mom who was terrified to leave her house, thanks to agoraphobia aggravated by strangers stopping her on the street.” It wasn’t that I was snobby- I was shy ,” she says.” I’ve always been so sensitive. I cry easily. I’m an actress .” A friend dragged her to gratify Swami Muktananda, a controversial guru on his first American tour, and for the first time, she fell in instant- if platonic- love, just like Juliet.” When I satisfied him, the world stopped ,” says Hussey. Muktananda, she says, touched her third eye and her vision flooded with blue sunlight. She followed him to a retreat in the Catskills, and the other in India, braving the spectators who wanted an autograph in a moment when she was so shattered, she scarcely recognised herself.” I loved him so much and in the end he helped me love myself ,” she says.

Birthday kisses … director Franco Zeffirelli. Photograph: John Reardon for the Observer

Love knocked her flat again when she gratified her second husband, Tokyo pop star Akira Fuse( though she didn’t speak a word of Japanese) and permanently, when she satisfied Eisley.” My stone ,” she calls him.” I didn’t think I could ever fall in love again, because I’d loved so much .” She had two more infants, Maximillian Fuse and the actor India Eisley, who put her career on pause for a year to assist Hussey through breast cancer for a second day- she is now in remission. Hussey herself continues to act sporadically, though now that The Girl on the Balcony is published, her energy has shifted toward animal rights activism. Her twitter page is cluttered with emojis of hearts and tears for an endless river of rescue dogs and tragic animal heroes, like a video of an armless squirrel named Karamel.

” A dog gives you unconditional love and its completely in the moment. We should all strive to be like our dogs ,” says Hussey.” It’s all about love when you simmer it down .” Juliet ought to know.

* The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life after Romeo and Juliet is published by Kensington.

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