Born: November 25, 1926
Died: May 27, 1969
Jeffrey Hunter was born Henry Herman McKinnies, Jr. in New Orleans, the only child of a Louisiana sales engineer and his wife. The family moved to Milwaukee in 1930, and young “Hank,” as he was known, grew up in Wisconsin.
While still in high school, Hunter acted on Milwaukee radio station WTMJ; this led to summer stock work and then to Chicago theater activity.
Military Service and Education
He served in the U.S. Navy at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois 1945-1946. Afterwards, he attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois where he earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of Speech. He continued his stage appearances and had a small role in the 1949 film version of Julius Caesar, which starred Charlton Heston.
Going to Hollywood!
Soon after, Hunter moved to California to attend UCLA on a scholarship, He was spotted by Hollywood talent scouts when he appeared in a school production of “All My Sons” in May of 1950. He made a screen test at Paramount, but it was 20th Century Fox that signed him to a contract. At Fox, he made his first “mainstream” film appearance in Fourteen Hours, a film which also served as the debut for Grace Kelly.
Over the next two decades, Jeffrey Hunter would show his versatility as an actor by starring or co-starring in a wide variety of movies – dramas, comedies, westerns, science fiction and war films. He often played the handsome decent, wholesome suitor or husband in domestic contemporary dramas and comedies of the period.
His movie career gained momentum after he co-starred with John Wayne in the John Ford western classic The Searchers (1956). Hunter, who often displayed a wry sense of humor, said in an interview, “I was told I had arrived when, during the filming of The Searchers, they gave me almost as much ammunition as they gave John Wayne.”
In 1961, Hunter won the difficult and challenging role of Jesus Christ in King of Kings. His reverent performance earned Hunter considerable praise. According to director Nicholas Ray’s biography, the Vatican approved the script before filming began.
In 1963, Hunter signed a two-year contract with Warner Brothers. At Warners, he starred in the western TV series “Temple Houston”. He filmed nearly 30 episodes of the hour-long series before it was canceled in 1964. Hunter’s 1963 film The Man From Galveston was originally the pilot episode of this television series.
In 1964 Hunter portrayed Captain Christopher Pike of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” television pilot, “The Cage.” After that pilot was rejected, he turned down the option to make an unprecedented second pilot. The two-part episode “The Menagerie,” in “Star Trek’s” first season, incorporated significant footage from “The Cage” and introduced Captain Pike to “Star Trek” fans.
During the next several years, he acted in several films in Europe and Asia. Jeff’s last stage appearance was in “The Rainmaker” in Chicago, in 1967.
Marriages and Children
Hunter married actress Barbara Rush on December 1, 1950. They had one child, a son, Christopher. Although they divorced on March 29, 1955, Rush would remember him fondly and said she considered him to be the handsomest man she ever met.
On July 7, 1957, Hunter married Joan “Dusty” Bartlett, a former model. Jeff met Dusty when she worked as a stuntwoman on Jeff’s film A Kiss Before Dying. They had two sons – Todd and Scott. He also adopted Steele, Dusty’s son from a previous marriage. This marriage ended in divorce in 1967.
After a whirlwind courtship, Hunter married actress Emily McLaughlin in February 1969. She is best known for her role as Nurse Jessie Brewer on the ABC soap opera “General Hospital.” She played Nurse Jessie from 1963 until her death in 1990.
Jeffrey Hunter’s Death
In 1969, while filming ¡Viva America! in Spain, Jeffrey Hunter was accidentally injured in an on-set explosion. Soon afterward he began complaining of dizziness and headaches. On May 26th, 1969, he fell down a short flight of stairs at home and struck his head. Around that same time, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died the next day during surgery to repair the skull fracture. What exactly caused his death has been the subject of some debate since then. Jeffrey Hunter was only 42 years old.
Check out Paul Green’s excellent biography of Jeffrey Hunter for more details. It’s available here.