Henry “Hank” McKinnies was born in Louisiana, but raised in Wisconsin where he studied theatre. He went to graduate school at UCLA, which is where he was spotted by two different talent scouts who swiftly offered the handsome, and very talented, young man motion picture contracts. He wound up signing with 20th Century Fox under the name he is known by: Jeffrey Hunter. At this stage, he was already married to a pretty, young starlet who was just beginning her own career. Wedlock with Barbara Rush, however, would only last five years.
He was immediately put to work on a small role in the film Fourteen Hours, which was about a desperate man threatening to jump from a high-rise window ledge. The film (not actually Hunter’s first as he had done two minor bits previously for other people) marked the debut of close to a dozen actors, including Grace Kelly, who would go on to notable careers. In an odd twist of fate, the day the film was previewed, one of Fox’s chief execs, Spyros Skouras, lost his daughter to suicide in the same manner, prompting the film to be shelved for half a year.
Still, Hunter was kept busy, first in The Frogmen (about men on a Naval underwater demolition team) in which he had a great, featured role as an injured man in danger of drowning, followed by other movies in varied genres including Red Skies of Montana, Belles on Their Toes, Dreamboat and Princess of the Nile. His stunning looks, particularly his ice blue eyes, made him especially striking in color films.
1956 was an impressive year for Hunter because it’s the year he was loaned to Warner Brothers to costar with John Wayne in The Searchers, a revenge-western that was lauded upon release and has only gained in stature over the years. Hunter played the adopted, part-Indian, brother of a girl who’s been captured by a ferocious chief. Hunter held his own with Wayne as the pair battled it out onscreen over how best to retrieve the girl, played by Natalie Wood.
For inexplicable reasons, Hunter began being paired with the up and coming Robert Wagner, but receiving second-billing and secondary roles when he actually possessed far greater talent and more handsome features. It is likely that Wagner’s teen following (egged on by his fairytale marriage to Natalie Wood) had a hand in this. While the men suited each other on screen, even playing brothers in The True Story of Jesse James, the differences in their abilities fairly screams off the screen in films such as White Feather (in which Hunter’s eyes were covered with brown contact lenses and his face augmented with war paint, rendering him almost unrecognizable) and A Kiss Before Dying (later remade with Matt Dillon.)
Hunter continued to provide strong work in many films, but often in support of another star, such as Robert Ryan in The Proud Ones, Fess Parker in The Great Locomotive Chase, Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward or Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah. A genial presence anyway, even in unsympathetic roles, perhaps he complimented the other actors so well that his own leading man potential was not fully trusted?
Occasionally, as in The Way to the Gold and Count Five and Die, he would be given top billing. Other times he would be featured in ensembles as he was in No Down Payment (which also starred his ex-wife Rush!) and In Love and War. The Searchers’ director John Ford, had thought enough of Hunter to use him in The Last Hurrah and then gave him the leading role in the controversial film Sergeant Rutledge, about the court-martial of a black soldier accused of raping and killing a white girl as well as killing her father.
By now, Hunter was finally recognized as leading man material, though he hadn’t really delivered a blockbuster or even a future-classic of his own. When director Nicholas Ray chose him in 1961 to portray Jesus Christ in King of Kings, the first time that Jesus’ face would be continually shown in a major Hollywood film, most critics balked. Some catty film columnists even referred to the movie as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” due to Hunter’s handsome, youthful and healthy good looks and as a derisive way of reacting to them. The truth is, even though Jesus was normally portrayed in an older way to that date, Hunter was in fact two years older than Christ when he was crucified. Typical of the idiocy of that time, preview audiences took offense to Hunter’s chest hair while on the cross (is this really what they gleaned out of the scene?!) and it had to be re-shot after he’d shaved it and his armpits.
This ludicrous and shameful criticism of Hunter’s thoughtful, reverent performance in a likewise beautiful and tremendously produced film led to box office disappointment. An epic film in the grand tradition (those are real extras, folks on a real landscape!) featured eye-popping sets and costumes along with vivid supporting performances, notably from Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, Rip Torn as Judas and especially Rita Gam as Herod’s wife. The sublime music of Miklos Rozsa has also come to be recognized as classic. Poseidon is not even Christian and yet the film is watched every Easter here in The Underworld!
Feature film-wise, Hunter hit a lean period after this and increasingly turned to television. He starred in a western series called Temple Houston (about the son of legendary Sam Houston), but it only lasted a season. Upon its cancellation, Hunter was given the lead in a new sci-fi series pilot, an unusual little project known as Star Trek! (Ironically enough, the Temple Houston photo here shows him with Grace Lee Whitney, who would later appear on Trek, though not with him.)
The project concerned Captain Christopher Pike and his starship’s five-year mission to explore the unknown reaches of space. Hunter was handsome and virile in his role, but the network wanted another version of the pilot, one not as cerebral in nature and with more action. Then married to former model Joan “Dusty” Bartlett, who wasn’t enamored of having a husband working in a then-sneered upon genre and having been advised to demand more money and to pursue films again, he wound up passing on the entire ball of wax. His pilot was later interpolated into a two-part episode of the series, which, of course, wound up starring William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Trek with Hunter would have been an altogether different show. Perhaps it would have been more serious and dramatic in tone, but then the magical chemistry of the eventual leads wouldn’t have been there and that is really what propelled it into an iconic show.
In any case, little film work came about and, before long, Hunter found himself working as a guest on more TV shows and eventually landing in Europe, headlining quite a few foreign films. He was aged (rather unconvincingly) for a part in Custer of the West, which was filmed in Spain. Occasionally, he would find himself in an American film, though not in anything particularly prestigious. Bob Hope’s The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell is far from the big time, but Hunter still looked terrific. Unfortunately, Mr. Hunter would be dead within a year.
When Sherwood Schwartz was putting together The Brady Bunch, Jeffrey Hunter lobbied heavily to win the role of the father. In what is a tremendous head-scratcher, Schwartz declared that Hunter was “too good looking” to be an architect! Schwartz was paid back in spades for his attitude when he cast Robert Reed in the part and began what was a marathon of bickering, complaining and temper tantrums throughout the entire run of the series.
So, it was back to Europe again to make more features there. On Viva America!, a horrible chain of events began which would eventually cost Jeff his life. First, an on-set explosion injured his face. Then, a “friendly” sparring match with an old military friend resulted in him being clipped in the chin and, more importantly, hit in the head when falling backwards. On the way home to America, he suffered a stroke on the plane (while accompanied by his new wife, Emily McLaughlin, best known as Nurse Jessie Brewer on General Hospital and, no, I don’t get it either!) Once past that, he had another stroke at home and fell to the floor fracturing his skull and lying unconscious for some time. He never again came to after that, dying in the hospital at age 42.
I was alerted to the charms of Jeffrey Hunter about six or seven years ago by a fellow movie buff who couldn’t get enough of him. I started paying attention to him myself and very quickly saw what the fuss was about. This guy could do anything. He played petulant Indian braves and erudite professors and assured cowboys with equal commitment. And those eyes… The world lost a true gem when he passed away at such an age. Fortunately, he did leave behind a sizeable body of work that can be enjoyed time and again, hopefully winning him new fans even now.