Friday, February 21

Jeffrey Hunter

Jeff Hunter was standing in front of me in a long line at the Santa Monica Post Office back in 1963... only I didn't know it for awhile.  What I did know was that the man standing in front of me had the greatest backside to look at while standing in a long line.  I remember he had a great haircut, a great tan and was wearing sweats that fit like I wished mine did.  As we slid our packages along the table as the line moved, he turned around, looked straight at me, and made a grunting sound to express his boredom.  Thankfully he didn't say anything intelligible because I could never have managed a single syllable in return, so blinded was I by his handsomeness.

It's sad to think that he is one of those who is largely forgotten today.  The brightest of Trekkies will remember him and his appearances in a couple of famous movies.  Regardless, he never truly reached those dizzying heights of Mount Hollywood and it's a shame.  Besides that face, he had genuine talent.

Henry Herman McKinnies Jr. was born in New Orleans but moved at at early age to Milwaukee.  His folks called him Hank.  The acting bug bit him early and he did some children's theater.  Radio seemed an odd choice for someone so good-looking but the truth is his voice was almost as intoxicating.  After a stint in the Navy, summer stock became a smart place to hone his talents, which he did while attending Illinois' Northwestern University.  He elected to study drama and radio at UCLA and it was there that he was discovered by a talent scout and signed to a contract at 20th Century Fox.  It was also at this time that he married starlet Barbara Rush.

He would remain at the studio throughout the 1950s.  Despite his educational background, he still went into the studio program where all young wannabees learned fencing, horseback riding, dance and more.  His first assignment was being sent to Manhattan to appear in crowd scenes (with Debra Paget, who would become a frequent costar) for Fourteen Hours, about a man threatening to jump from a tall building.  A certain future princess of Monaco would also make her film debut in that crowd. 

Most of his films at Fox were highly entertaining but not prestige pictures.  Studio mogul Darryl Zanuck had a large stable of stars and they would work with one another over and over again.  Hunter made more than one film with Michael Rennie, Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain, Richard Widmark and Hope Lange.  His most frequent female costar was Paget in five films.  That is the same number in which Fox paired him with Robert Wagner.   

The Fox publicity mill had a thing about pairing Hunter and Wagner in any number of ways.  They were both good-looking, started acting at about the same time and joined the studio almost together.  They took a series of pictures together as well.  I don't wanna go all Cary Grant/Randolph Scott on you here, but the inevitable rumors would surface.  I don't think anything was ever substantiated about Hunter and I am likely to put it down to wishful thinking.  What drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood actor hasn't had his share of rumors floating around?

I do think the films these two made together were good ones.  My favorite is a western called White Feather (1955) with Wagner as a Indian agent and Hunter as the hands-down hottest Sioux warrior ever to grace the screen. The following year they were on opposite sides of the law in the thriller A Kiss Before Dying.  In 1957 they were the James' brothers in the not-bad True Story of Jesse James (which it certainly was not).  In 1958 Bradford Dillman joined them as three WWII buddies in In Love and War.  Finally, in 1962 they both appeared in The Longest Day (who didn't?) but had no scenes together.

Toward the end of the 50s it seemed like Fox threw all of its muscle behind Wagner and went limp on Hunter.  One time the opposite effect was echoed loud and clear.  He was loaned out to director John Ford (who passed over Wagner) and hired Hunter for the role of Martin Pawley in arguably the best western ever made, The Searchers.  Second-billed to John Wayne, with Hunter looking tough and sexy, the two were on a lengthy mission to find a relative stolen by the Indians.  Both turned in possibly the best acting jobs of their careers in an epic film gorgeously shot in Monument Valley.

He would have the honor of working with Ford twice more.  He played Spencer Tracy's skeptical nephew in The Last Hurrah (1958), about a mayor running for re-election.  It wasn't a great success but more so than Sergeant Rutledge (1960), as an army lawyer out to win freedom for a black man (the great Woody Strode) falsely accused of rape and murder.

By 1955 Hunter and Rush were divorced under rather mysterious circumstances, as I recall.  But two years later they appeared together in a film I quite liked, No Down Payment, a soaper about four couples living in a subdivision.

I think he made an entire career of saving people.  It was the Japanese in the fine Hell to Eternity (1960) and then the whole planet in King of Kings (1961).  It's always a tricky thing playing Christ; there are a few actors who could attest to that.  Despite being made up to look like what we've been told Christ looked like, Hunter was derided for his blue eyes and matinee-idol looks and the film was often referred to as I Was a Teenage Jesus.  People may think it was successful because it was a remake of a famous work, but it actually didn't do so well critically or with the public.

From here on out Hunter's career more or less hit the skids.  His good films were behind him.  He remarried, to a former, never-really-was actress, Dusty Bartlett, who was hated by most everyone in the industry.  Not willing to leave his side, she would accompany him to his movie sets and alienate everyone.  Unfortunately, that also meant Hunter was persona non grata in many quarters as well.

He drifted into television as most do when their movie careers fade.  He did all he could to get the father role in The Brady Bunch but it went to Robert Reed.  That perhaps was due to Hunter's shrewish wife and/or because by now he had become an alcoholic and word was out.  What he did manage to do was the part of Captain Kirk in the pilot for Star Trek although he turned down the subsequent series

Finally it was off to Italy where his name still meant something although that was not commensurate with quality films.  I dare say Sexy Susan Sins Again, Super Colt 38 and Viva America were all dogs.  But it was a paycheck.  And it was something else way more sinister.  On the latter film, Hunter was injured in an on-set explosion.  On the plane coming home with his new wife, actress Emily McLaughlin, he complained of dizziness, and went into shock, not able to move or speak.  Doctors could not find anything seriously wrong with him, which certainly puzzles me.  A few days later he was coming down the stairs in his home, fell and fractured his skull.  He died the following day in the hospital.  He was 42. 

It had certainly begun as a promising career.  He had been schooled for his work. He had talent, impossibly handsome looks, a great movie star voice and worked with good people.  What went wrong?  I guess we'll never know.  For whatever reasons, his death remains a bit of a mystery, certainly nothing on par with his Fox buddy, Marilyn Monroe, but a mystery nonetheless.  The same could be said for about the last 10 years of his life.  Why?

That means he was not doing so well when I ran into him in the Santa Monica Post Office.  Wow, if that wasn't doing well, I wanna get me some.

Sheree North


  1. Just catching up, but OH MY....I do believe I'm reliving my long lost youth and the fantasies that went with it. Tyrone Power, Jeff Hunter be still my aging heart.

  2. I wondered if in the 1960's Jeff Hunter was perceived as more of an establishment type of actor. With the arrival of Paul Newman & Steve McQueen they capitalized on the "rebel" or "the Outside of Society" type of films. As this genre dominated the 1960's maybe Jeff Hunter was considered to be a bit too old fashioned. BTW, I loved his performance as Capt. Pike in the first "tryout" Star Trek show. I prefer his acting style in this over Shatner's more "cartoony" acting in the series.