Jeffrey Hunter was born Henry Herman McKinnies Jr. on November 25, 1926 in New Orleans, Louisiana, an only child. His parents met at the University of Arkansas, and when he was almost four his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In his teens, he acted in productions of the North Shore Children’s Theater and, from 1942 to 1944, performed in summer stock with the local Port Players, along with Eileen Heckart, Charlotte Rae and Morton DaCosta. Hunter was also a radio actor at WTMJ, getting his first professional paycheck in 1945 for the wartime series “Those Who Serve.” After graduation from Whitefish Bay High School, where he was co-captain of the football team, he enlisted in the United States Navy and underwent training at Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois, in 1945-1946, but on the eve of his shipping out for active duty in Japan he took ill and received a medical discharge from the service.
Hunter attended and graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in 1949, where he acquired more stage experience in Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and Ruth Gordon’s “Years Ago”. He also did summer stock with Northwestern students at Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania in 1948, worked on two Northwestern Radio Playshop broadcasts, was president of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, and was active in the campus film society with David Bradley, later acting in director David Bradley’s production of Julius Caesar (1950) in 1949. He then attended graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he studied radio and drama. He was in the cast of a UCLA production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” in May, 1950; on opening night, the good-looking Hunter drew the attention of talent scouts from Paramount and 20th Century-Fox Studios.
Hunter made a screen test with Ed Begley in a scene from “All My Sons” at Paramount (where he met Barbara Rush, his future wife), but after an executive shake-up at that studio derailed his hiring, he was signed by 20th Century Fox (where he remained under contract until 1959) and within a month was sent on location in New York for Fourteen Hours (1951). Hunter was kept fairly busy in pictures, working his way from featured roles to starring roles to first-billing within two years in Sailor of the King (1953). His big break came with John Ford’s classic, The Searchers (1956), where he played the young cowboy who accompanies John Wayne on his epic search for a child kidnapped by Comanches. Hunter got excellent reviews for his performance in this film and justifiably so, as he held his own well with the veteran Wayne.
Starring roles in two more John Ford movies followed, and in 1960, Hunter had one of his best roles in Hell to Eternity (1960), the true story of World War II hero Guy Gabaldon. That same year, Hunter landed the role for which he is probably best known (although it’s far from his best work), when he played Jesus in producer Samuel Bronston’s King of Kings (1961), which due to Hunter’s still youthful looks at 33, was dubbed by irreverent Hollywood wags “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” After the cancellation of his Western series Temple Houston (1963), and his decision not to continue in the lead role of the current series Star Trek: The Original Series (1966), his career took a downturn, and Hunter eventually wound up in Europe working on cheap Westerns, at the time a sure sign of a career in trouble. In 1969, Hunter suffered a stroke (after just recovering from an earlier stroke), took a bad fall and underwent emergency surgery, but died from complications of both the fall and the surgery.
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