I was guilty of dismissing Jeffrey Hunter as just another pretty boy actor until a recent television broadcast of The Searchers (1956) revealed what a solid performer his is, able to hold his own with Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, John Qualen and—no small feat—John Wayne himself (who, if one uses the Grauman's Chinese forecourt as a guide, had very small feet.) With an intensity and magnetism perhaps a level or two below Paul Newman or James Dean (still not a bad place to be), Hunter quite effectively put over his role as Martin, a young man who sets off on a mission with Wayne to find the abducted Wood. “I was told I had arrived,” Hunter recalled, “when, during the shooting of The Searchers, they gave me almost as much ammunition as they gave John Wayne.” In his New York Times review of the picture, Bosley Crowther called the actor “wonderfully callow and courageous.”
Hunter is likely best remembered as the blue-eyed Jesus with shaved armpits in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), dubbed I Was a Teenage Jesus by the snarkier set. Hunter was, in fact, 35 years old when he shot the film, a good two years older than his character upon crucifixion. Reviews for the film and Hunter were mostly positive, and it has become a champion horse in the stable of biblical films that networks trot out every Easter.
Low-budget westerns and television appearances dominated Hunter's career in the years following, with a plum role as Captain Christopher Pike in the pilot episode of Star Trek. When NBC ordered more episodes, Hunter declined the part in order to focus on his movie career. He was replaced by William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk.
Death came shockingly early to Hunter, as a series of blows led to a debilitating stroke, followed by a fatal one. It began in Spain on the set of Viva America! (1969), where Hunter suffered facial lacerations and powder burns from an on-set explosion and a head injury from a fight scene. Stoke symptoms on the plane back to the United States landed him in L.A.’s Valley Hospital, where he spent two weeks in recovery. Dizziness and headaches plagued him until he suffered another stroke, resulting in a fractured skull from falling down stairs. He never regained consciousness and died following brain surgery on May 27, 1969, at the age of 42.