Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Exit Jeffrey Hunter, Stage Left

It's a matter of common knowledge that NBC rejected Star Trek's pilot episode, 'The Menagerie,' in 1965. It's also well-known that the network followed that decision with the unusual move of ordering a second pilot episode, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before,' which was produced that same year. What's perhaps less clear is why would-be series star Jeffrey Hunter departed the series after 'The Menagerie' failed to sell.

Unfortunately, Hunter died in 1969, taking the answer to that enigma with him. What can be cleared up, however, are the circumstances of the actor's departure from the series, which have been the subject of various and contradictory accounts over the years.

In 1993, William Shatner (with co-writer Chris Kreski) published his remembrances of the production of the original Star Trek television series. He had this to say about Hunter's departure (which, of course, took place before he was hired to be Hunter's replacement):
In truth, Hunter wasn't so much "unable to commit to the series" as he was fired.

Apparently there were problems with Jeffrey. Not while he was shooting or on the set or anything like that, but afterward. They started when the go-ahead came in for the second pilot, and Hunter's wife, who was an ex- model, suddenly started coming to production meetings. Evidently she hated the first pilot, and as a result she began to frequently storm into Gene's office, loudly making demands like "from now on, my Jeff must only be shot from certain angles," and apparently it became "Jeff wants this" and "Jeff demands that." Gene later told me that he'd much rather be dealing with Jeff and his agent, or even Jeff and a gorilla, than Jeff and his wife. He continued that there were so many tantrums, restrictions and ultimatums being laid out on the table that he finally thought, "Well, I can't possibly do an entire series like this. They'll drive me nuts."
--William Shatner with Chris Kreski, Star Trek Memories (1993), p.70
In 1995, Leonard Nimoy published his own Hollywood memoir, with a particular emphasis on Star Trek. Although less elaborate than Shatner's version, the principal details of his account of Hunter's departure are very much the same:
In fact, [Spock] became the only character to survive from the first pilot to the second, because Jeff Hunter was let go when his wife began to represent him and made what Gene [Roddenberry] considered excessive demands.
--Leonard Nimoy, I Am Spock (1995), p.32
Contrary to the version told by Shatner and Nimoy is the one found in 1996's Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, which was co-written by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman:
We had an option on Jeff Hunter for a series, but not for another pilot film. The idea of a network financing a second pilot film after the first one failed to result in a "sold" series was unheard of, so there was no reason for such a contract provision. We therefore had to devise a plan that would enable us to keep Jeff Hunter in the fold.
In the eyes of the New York and Los Angeles television world, Star Trek was already a failure. But we knew differently and looked forward to running the completed pilot for our star, Jeff Hunter. We hoped it would convince him to do another pilot. Gene and I waited in the Desilu projection room for him to arrive. He never did. Arriving in his stead was actress Sandy Bartlett, Mrs. Jeff Hunter. We traded hellos, and I nodded to Gene. He flicked the projection booth intercom switch. "Let's go."
And so it went. As the end credits rolled, and the lights came up, Jeff Hunter's wife gave us our answer: "This is not the kind of show Jeff wants to do, and besides, it wouldn't be good for his career. Jeff Hunter is a movie star." Mrs. Hunter was very polite and very firm. She said her good-byes and left, having surprisingly and swiftly removed our star from our new pilot.
--Herb Solow, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.63 
Jeffrey Hunter and Gene Roddenberry during production of 'The Menagerie'
Which version is correct? In this case, the story as told by Solow and Justman is almost certainly the correct one.

Although Jeffrey Hunter's contract doesn't survive in the Star Trek television series collection held by the University of California, Los Angeles, the contracts of all five of his co-stars in 'The Menagerie' are publicly accessible there.  The financial details of the contracts with Majel Barrett, Peter Duryea, Laurel Goodwin, John Hoyt, and Leonard Nimoy have slight differences, but their broader agreements are all the same.  Each actor was contracted for a pilot episode (in this case, 'The Menagerie') and each had an option for five years worth of regular episodes (a contract which could be renewed or terminated after every thirteen episode production cycle).  None had a provision for the possibility of a second pilot episode, which is why Leonard Nimoy had to sign a new contract on June 2, 1965 when the producers brought him back as Mr. Spock in 'Where No Man Has Gone Before.'  In other words, there's no way Roddenberry could have fired his original leading man. Hunter was a free agent, and fully within his rights when he walked away from Star Trek.

An April 5, 1965 letter to Hunter from Roddenberry confirms that it was Hunter's decision to not continue with the program:
I am told you have decided not to go ahead with Star Trek. This has to be your decision, of course, and I must respect it.
You may be certain I hold no grudge or ill feelings and expect to continue to reflect publicly and privately the high regard I learned for you during the production of our pilot.
--David Alexander,  Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (1994), p.227 
It is unclear if Joan 'Dusty' Bartlett (not Sandy, as reported by Solow and Justman) influenced Hunter's departure from Star Trek, or if she was just the messenger. Whatever Bartlett's role in that decision, her say over Jeffrey Hunter's career wouldn't last. By late 1966, Hunter told the fan magazine Modern Screen he was pressing for a divorce, and in February of 1967 their marriage was over. Unfortunately, so was Jeffrey Hunter's career as a movie star. After his work on Star Trek, Hunter starred in a few B-movies and made a handful of guest appearances on television, but he never approached the heights of his career during the late fifties and early sixties.  In 1969, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, fell, and died during surgery.

Historian's Note: At some point in the seventies, fans began referring to the first pilot by its pre-production title of 'The Cage' to differentiate it from the two-part, season one episode, 'The Menagerie,' which incorporated footage from the unsold pilot.  The earliest example of this I have been able to find is David Gerrold's book, The World of Star Trek, published in 1973, although it's possible the tradition began earlier, when Gene Roddenberry began screening the episode during speaking engagements on the college lecture circuit.

Update (6/24/2013): Thanks to Trek BBS user Gary7, I have added the letter from Roddenberry to Hunter, which can be found in David Alexander's biography of the writer-producer, as well as the Roddenberry papers at UCLA.

Images courtesy of Trek Core.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

'He Wanted a Divorce for Christmas,' Modern Screen (1966)

The World of Star Trek (David Gerrold, 1973; Revised 1984)

Star Trek Memories (William Shatner with Chris Kreski, 1993)

Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (David Alexander, 1994)

I Am Spock (Leonard Nimoy, 1995)

Inside Star Trek : The Real Story (Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, 1996)


  1. Hunter gave an interview (published shortly after filming the pilot) in which he was quite positive about the role:

  2. That interview with Hunter is, as far as I know, the only time he spoke publicly about STAR TREK. It's hard to judge his personal opinion of the series based on publicity comments, though.

    His willingness, in late 1964, to sign a contract with a five-year option (at the producer's discretion) does suggest he was either willing to do the series or never expected it to sell.

  3. Does this mean none of the other original cast were fired either?

  4. That's right. Their series options all expired after NBC elected not to pick up program based upon the first pilot.

    Consider this, excerpted from a May 25, 1965 memo from Gene Roddenberry to Herb Solow, concerning Leonard Nimoy's return for the second pilot:

    "My information is that he [Nimoy] has blown a couple of deals to stay available to us but may be getting a bit nervous and irritable as he waits and wonders."

    Even Nimoy, who Roddenberry wanted back for the second pilot, wasn't under contract to Desilu after NBC's turned down 'The Menagerie.' Luckily for us, he was willing to turn down other offers and wait a few weeks for STAR TREK.

  5. Thank you so much for the clarification of this issue. I always enjoyed Jeffrey Hunter and was curious about his participation in the history making Star Trek. I'm also curious about the circumstances of his death. Sounds like a serious misdiagnosis originally and a very untimely demise of a potentially great actor. Thank you.

  6. Thanks, Steve. I wish I had more information about Hunter, but that will have to be left to his biographer. I need to see more of his work, including his turn in King of Kings, which might be his most famous feature role I haven't seen yet (I have seen The Longest Day and The Searchers).

  7. I wonder why they have released 'The Cage' which is a fantastic episode, but not Hunter's version of 'Where no Man...' I'd love to see that episode.

    1. There is no version of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" with Jeffrey Hunter.

  8. The line "I'd rather deal with Jeff and his agent, or Jeff and a gorilla, than Jeff and his wife" was also used by Herb Solow. Who was interviewed for a 2000 episode of the "E" channel's "Mysteries and Scandals" series that profiled Jeffrey Hunter.

  9. I would have rather had Jeff Hunter continue on. William Shatner "is the man" since he was picked for the series and it worked..but wished JH would have decided differently.

  10. Hunter should have though better about this-his career dried up, Bartlett took him to the cleaners with their divorce, and all he had left when he died was an organ, a house, and a vacuum cleaner.

    1. Please expand on his post-divorce situation. It seems rather cryptic.

  11. It's a common method in film and TV to "fire" a cast member who is asking for too much by calling their (or their agents') bluff. It goes like this: negotiations get to the point where the actor demands something or else he/she will walk away. But rather than come back with another offer, the producers will say "Sorry to lose you. Good luck and good bye". A lot of the time, the actor has simply miscalculated their worth to the producers and will try to come back with a lower offer. Then the producers (who've had enough of the actor) simply reply, "Sorry we're already recasting. Bye". As it is all in writing, the actor can't really do anything about it. End of. In other words, the producers deliberately turn down all of actors demands until the actor makes the mistake of threatening to quit. Then it's adios amigo.

  12. I was a a good admire of Jeffery Hunter because of the movies he made.My only retreat is that he is no longer with us but is missed greatly.I loved him in the two part episode the cage and incorporate in the star trek episode the managerie.William Shatner is and always will be my favorite but Jeffery was great in the cage.

  13. The pilot was called "The Cage" and was later edited into the 2 part episode called "The Menagerie". I find irony that a blog called Star Trek Fact Check has a fact glaringly incorrect in the first sentence of the article.

    1. "The Cage" was an early title. By the time principal photography began, however, the title had been changed to "The Menagerie," and that title stuck. It wasn't reverted to "The Cage" until the eighties for broadcast and home video as a way of differentiating the first pilot from the two-parter of the same name (though certain earlier sources, like David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek from 1973, use "The Cage" as its title). For this blog, I have (perhaps stubbornly) elected to use the title of the first pilot used internally during the production of the first Star Trek television series. Thanks for reading.

  14. I believe that Mr Hunter was severely injured on set in Spain in an accidental explosion. His new wife described his being in near shock after a concussion.
    It sounds to me as if he received a misdiagnosis in California, resulting in his later fall and death.

  15. Does anyone know why did Sean Kenney play disabled Pike in "The Menagerie" 1 and 2? Did they offer the role to Hunter and he didn't wanna do it, or?

    1. We know they were thinking about re-purposing the pilot as part of a two-parter as early as March of 1966 (in other words, as soon as NBC picked up Star Trek as a weekly series).

      However, there's no documentation indicating an offer to Hunter to reprise his role as Pike. They did communicate with Hunter's agent while they were planning the two-parter, but only in regards to the terms of his original contract from 1964 and the re-use of footage from the pilot. He probably was not interested at that point, since he had also declined the series. Every version of the script - including John D.F. Black's aborted "From The First Day To The Last" - featured a disabled, disfigured Pike that made it easier to re-cast. There was never a version written with Hunter's return in mind.

  16. And to think I was enamored with Lost in Space in 1966 as a 12 year old and didnt discover ST until 1967. As a viewer later on in life of JH's The Cage it was difficult to not think that WS was the guy for the role. Something happened drastically and in a short time. It was Hollywood magic !

  17. However, I really like JH in The Cage. Especially how he and his idea of a woman in a fantastical way "find" each other. The idea of looks and love.

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  19. Michael - I REALLY appreciate your work on this blog. Great stuff!

    There's always three sides to every story: yours, mine, and what really happened. We'll never know what REALLY happened since Jeffrey Hunter was taken too soon. I'll just say I find it hard to believe that if Hunter really wanted to sign on in '66 to a five year mission of the Star Trek series - he probably WOULD NOT send his wife by herself to the meeting. Maybe she insisted, maybe he was that 'whipped, but I have to believe that at that moment in his life he thought the path he was on was better than re-visiting a reboot of the Star Trek he originally signed on for.

    I'll add that history paints Jeffrey Hunter as the victim of a severe concussion and immediately traveled at high altitude for a long distance afterwards - compounding the severity of the injury. Baseball player Ryan Church suffered a similar fate, but the medical technology of the early 2000's were able to save his life.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Dave.

      An interesting fact I discovered since writing this article seven (!) years ago is that Hunter shot a television pilot called "Journey Into Fear" from November 1-12, 1965. Filmed on the Fox lot and directed by Robert Stevens, it would have meant a series commitment had it been picked-up (it wasn't). This was well-before his divorce from Joan Bartlett. If she was serious about Hunter wanting to focus on his movie career in March of 1965 either plans changed or he stopped listening to her less than a year later.

    2. WOW! Nice nugget about "Journey Into Fear" :-)

      We'll never know what Hunter was actually thinking between the rejection of the first pilot and the filming of a second pilot without him. What's awesome about your efforts, Michael is that you've provided factual information that of course sits in contrast to the historical revision that's occurred from those who benefited from the show making it to TV.

      I was told long ago that Roddenberry was told Majel Barrett HAD to go - which contrasts Nimoy's account of the choice between keeping an alien or a female second in command. Also interesting would be to know why Hunter didn't film the second pilot and why they were ready to hire him over Shatner. I suspect once Hunter moved on the rest was done just to be civil and the screening date with Mrs. Hunter was just a nicety.

    3. A couple of interesting pieces of context about the Barrett situation.

      One, Lucy knew Barrett, who was one of her "Desilu Players" circa 1959 (you can read more about the initiative here: At least two of her early television parts (The Lucy Show in 1962, The Untouchables in 1960) were Desilu shows. Lucy would have known Barrett's name and had a good idea about her range as an actor at that time.

      Two, according to Patrick J. White's Mission: Impossible book, when Lucy found out that Barbara Bain was being considered for a starring role on Mission: Impossible AND that Bain was also the wife of Martin Landau (the key guest star in the pilot), Lucy personally required a meeting with Bain before the casting could be approved. She apparently did not want there to be a whiff of nepotism of casting "somebody's wife." Imagine how she must have felt if and when she found out Majel was Gene's mistress.