Jeffrey Hunter (born Henry Herman “Hank” McKinnies, November 25, 1926 – May 27, 1969) was an American film and television actor. His most famous roles are as John Wayne's character's sidekick in The Searchers, as Jesus Christ in the biblical film King of Kings, and as Capt. Christopher Pike in the original pilot episode of Star Trek.
Hunter was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and after 1930 reared in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he graduated from Whitefish Bay High School. He began acting in local theater and radio in his early teens. He served stateside in the United States Navy, in World War II, then from 1946 to 1949 studied theatre at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois alongside Charlton Heston.
Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley inThe Searchers
In 1950, while a graduate student in radio at the University of California, Los Angeles and appearing in a college play, he was spotted by talent scouts and offered a two-year motion picture contract by 20th Century-Fox that was eventually extended to 1959. He made his Hollywood debut in Fourteen Hours, had star billing by Red Skies of Montana (1952), and first billing in Sailor of the King (1953).
A loan-out to co-star with John Wayne in the title roles of the now-classic western The Searchers began the first of three pictures he made with director John Ford; the other two beingThe Last Hurrah (1958) starring Spencer Tracy and Sergeant Rutledge (1960). The same year as The Searchers, Hunter also co-starred with top-billed Fess Parker in Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase, based on an actual 1862 historical event during the American Civil War. Ironically, according to Parker's Archive of American Television interview, Ford had originally wanted to cast Parker in Hunter's role in The Searchers but Disney refused to loan him out, something Parker didn't hear about until years later; Parker referred to his loss of that part to Jeffrey Hunter as his single biggest career setback.
Ford also recommended Hunter to director Nicholas Ray for the role of Jesus Christ in the biblical film King of Kings (1961), a difficult part met by critical reaction that ranged from praise to ridicule (Hunter's youthful matinee idol looks resulted in the film being derided as "I Was a Teenage Jesus" despite him being 33 years old during shooting). Among an all-star cast in the World War II battle epic The Longest Day, he provided a climactic heroic act of leading an ultimately successful attempt to breach the defense wall atop Omaha Beach in Normandy but dying in the process.
Having guest-starred on television dramas since the mid-1950s, Hunter was now offered a two-year contract by Warner Brothers that included starring as circuit-riding Texas lawyerTemple Lea Houston, the youngest son of Sam Houston, in the NBC series Temple Houston (1963–64), which Hunter's production company co-produced. Jack Elam was his co-star.
Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in King of Kings
Although Temple Houston did not survive its first season, Hunter accepted the lead role of Captain Christopher Pike in "The Cage," the first pilot episode of Star Trek. Hunter declined to film a second Star Trek pilot requested by NBC in 1965, and decided to concentrate on motion pictures such as Brainstorm. The footage from the original pilot was subsequently adapted into the later series in a two-part episode entitled "The Menagerie." Later that year, Hunter filmed the pilot for another NBC series, the espionage thriller Journey Into Fear, which the network did not pick up.
He also had a bit part in the 1966-1967 TV series The Green Hornet playing a corrupt construction company owner.
With the demise of the studio contract system in the early 1960s and the outsourcing of much feature production, Hunter, like many other leading men of the 1950s, had to find work in B movies produced in Europe, Hong Kong, and Mexico, with the occasional television guest part in Hollywood.
Hunter's first marriage from 1950 to 1955 to actress Barbara Rush produced a son, Christopher (born 1952). From 1957 to 1967, Hunter was married to model Dusty Bartlett. He adopted her son, Steele, and the couple had two other children, Todd and Scott. In February 1969, he married actress Emily McLaughlin.
While in Spain to film the Chicago Mafia story ¡Viva América! (1969), Hunter was injured in an on-set explosion, suffering facial lacerations from broken glass as well as powder burns. While on the plane with his wife returning to the United States, Hunter's right arm suddenly became semi-paralyzed and he lost the power of speech. Upon landing, he was taken directly from the plane to Valley Hospital in Los Angeles where it was determined he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He recovered and was released after a couple of weeks. At his home in Van Nuys, California, Hunter continued complaining of headaches and dizziness. Shortly after signing to co-star with Vince Edwards in The Desperados(1969), Hunter suffered another cerebral hemorrhage while on a short flight of steps in his living room and collapsed, fracturing his skull. It is not known how long he had been unconscious when he was finally found. He died during surgery to repair the skull without ever regaining consciousness. He was 42.
Hunter was interred at Glen Haven Memorial Park, in Sylmar, California. Books about Hunter include All About Jeffrey Hunter by Michele Bernier (2009) and Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television by Glenn A. Mosley (2011).