In “Star Trek” the Original Series, there was a captain before James Tiberius Kirk — Captain Christopher Pike. In fact, there have been a lot of Captain Pikes. A wheelchair-bound Pike from “The Menagerie“ as well as the Kelvin timeline with Bruce Greenwood. “Strange New Worlds,” a “Star Trek” series airing in 2022, will feature the legendary crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise before Kirk; Anson Mount will play the new Captain Pike, a character Mount played on “Star Trek: Discovery.”
But what happened to the actor who originally played Captain Christopher Pike?
Enter Jeffery Hunter, the Original Pike
Jeffery Hunter was born on Nov. 25, 1926 in New Orleans, Louisiana as Henry Herman McKinnies Jr., otherwise known as Hank. In his childhood, he moved to Wisconsin where he’d play football.
During WWII he joined the U.S. Navy, focusing on the communications division. After he was honorably discharged, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and eventually headed to Los Angeles to get his graduate degree from UCLA.
Hunter Played Jesus, War Heroes, and Cowboys
As Star Trek indicates, Hunter had acted since his teens. His first big break came in the film “Julius Caesar,” with Charlton Heston (as Marc Antony). From there, his career took off. Hunter starred in “The Searchers” — alongside John Wayne — and Jesus Christ in the “King of Kings.”
One of his biggest roles was in Temple Houston, as the main character — a cowboy — that mimicked the “Maverick.”
This Tinsel town lifestyle enabled Hunter to hobnob with some of the greats in the film industry — Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Barbara Rush, Gregory Peck, and more.
Roddenberry had a penchant for westerns. One wonders if that’s what interested him in Hunter to begin with. After all, “Star Trek” was meant as a “Wagon Train to the Stars.”
Playing Pike on “Star Trek”
Hunter joined the set of “Star Trek” making a pilot, “The Cage.” But according to Salon, the studio executives told Gene Roddenberry (“Star Trek’s” creator) the pilot didn’t have enough action. Salon suggests that Roddenberry pleaded with the studio to give Star Trek another chance, agreeing to changes needed, including removing a woman in pants (Number One) and switching her role. A second pilot was ordered and Roddenberry set forth on making changes.
When Roddenberry went back to Hunter, Jeff’s wife apparently intervened according to the same Salon article saying, “This is not the kind of show Jeff wants to do. Jeff Hunter is a movie star.”
Leonard Nimoy (who played First Officer Spock) backs up that statement. According to him, “[Hunter] asked the studio to guarantee him a feature movie role [for doing the series],” but adds “[the studio executives] didn’t have movies to offer him.” The strangeness of the situation wasn’t lost on Nimoy. He was the only actor who made it from the pilot to the second pilot in the original role. Although Majel Barret would continue, she wasn’t the same character; she would later go on to play Nurse Chapel.
Nimoy apparently liked the dichotomy of a happy, emotional captain and an angst-ridden first officer. “For lack of a better metaphor, on a bright sunny day, the shadows get very clear,” Nimoy said according to The Conversation.
Ergo, William Shatner became Captain Kirk, the new captain of the USS Enterprise. Nimoy reflected on the acting choices of Hunter versus Shatner.
From Salon, Nimoy says, “[Hunter] was playing Captain Pike as a very thoughtful, kind of worried, kind of angst-ridden nice guy. Pike didn’t have the clarity or precision of character against which you could measure yourself.”
Controlled Explosion Went Wrong
After his role in “Star Trek,” Hunter had a few setbacks and wound up acting in Spain. During filming, a stunt went wrong and he suffered a concussion. Afterward, he was flown to the U.S. During the flight, he lost consciousness and wound up at Good Samaritan in Los Angeles.
Hunter was told to take it easy and got home on May 26, 1969. Before heading out with friends, he fell down a few stairs and cracked his head. The gardener found him, unsure how long Hunter was there. Soon Hunter was at Valley Presbyterian where doctors performed brain surgery. But on May 27, 1969, Hunter succumbed to a cracked skull and intracranial hemorrhage (according to the NY Times), passing away. His body is laid to rest at Glen Haven Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
A New Pike
Although the ending to Hunter’s story is tragic, Anson Mount seems to understand his place in history. A “Star Trek” fan, he’s ready to continue the voyage of seeking out strange new worlds … where no man (or woman) has gone before.