Leaving the command of the USS Enterprise and promptly dying: The Jeffrey Hunter story


There’s important stuff that I should be writing about tonight, stuff that I know would earn a lot of “likes” on social media and give rise to some good, meaningful conversation, but, since re-watching the first few episodes of Start Trek the other night with the kids, I’ve gone down a bit of a rabbit hole, and I can’t seem to pull myself free. The most recent manifestation of this obsession involves Jeffrey Hunter, the actor who was originally cast as the Captain of the USS Enterprise. As legend has it, he walked away from the series after shooting the pilot episode, titled The Cage, only to die a few years later as the result of injury suffered on the set of a B-movie being shot in Spain… No matter how hard I try to think about other things, I keep coming back to him, and wondering how things might have been different if he hadn’t left the Enterprise. I think it’s an OCD thing… this tendency I have to get caught up in “what if” cycles where I just can’t stop wondering how things might have been different, had just one thing not happened like it did.

As for why Hunter left the show, most seem to think it had to do with his wife at the time, the former model Joan ‘Dusty’ Bartlett. The following comes from a recent interview I just discovered on a Star Trek fan site with Laurel Goodwin, the actress who portrayed Yeoman J.M. Colt alongside Hunter’s Captain Christopher Pike in that first pilot. [That’s Goodwin above, with Jeffrey Hunter, who she describes in the interview as being “a good-looking, wonderful, talented, charming person.”]

[Hunter’s wife] apparently told him, “You’re a movie star. You’re not a TV star.” Now, I got this story from a very dear friend of mine back East, who was a network honcho, because we were having dinner. I knew him quite well, and we were involved in a lot of stuff in New York. I said, “So, what happened?” He said, “Well, to tell you the truth, we were going with it. We were going to go with Jeff”… So he then said that when they were renegotiating Hunter’s contract, Mrs. Hunter came and made a list of demands. He said, “We agreed to all of them. Then she came a second time, with another list, and we went along with that. She came again with a third list.” And he said, they called a meeting. “We all got together — the powers that be that make those decisions – and said, ‘You know, if this thing is successful and goes for a year or two, do we really want to put up with that woman?'” They all said, “No.” They said, “Well, let’s not do it with Jeff.” That’s how the luckiest man in the world stepped into it.

And Goodwin isn’t alone. Others have shared similar stories over the years. In his book, Star Trek Memories, William “the luckiest man in the world” Shatner, who would eventually take command of the USS Enterprise, had the following to say about the situation. “When the go-ahead came in for the second pilot, Hunter’s wife, who was an ex-model, suddenly started coming to production meetings,” Shatner said. “Evidently she hated the first pilot, and, as a result, she began to frequently storm into [Gene Roddenberry’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.'”

In Bartlett’s defense, Hunter really had been something of a budding movie star earlier in his career. Before doing that first Star Trek pilot in ’65, he had, among other things, acted alongside John Wayne in The Longest Day and played the role of Jesus in King of Kings, which critics back in ’61 referred to as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” due to Hunter’s youthful good looks. Sadly, though, the big movie roles never materialized after he left Star Trek, and. By ’67, Hunter’s marriage to Bartlett had dissolved. And, by ’69, when the original Star Trek series was in its third season with Shatner and company, Hunter was dead… The following comes by way of Wikipedia.

While in Spain in November 1968 to film Cry Chicago (¡Viva América!), a story of the Chicago Mafia, Hunter was injured in an on-set explosion when a car window near him, which had been rigged to explode outward, accidentally exploded inward. Hunter sustained a serious concussion. According to Hunter’s (third) wife Emily, he “…went into shock” on the plane ride back to the United States after filming and “..couldn’t speak. He could hardly move.” After landing, Hunter was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles but doctors could not find any serious injuries save for a displaced vertebra and a concussion.

On the afternoon of May 26, 1969, Hunter suffered an intracranial hemorrhage while on a three-stair set of steps at his home in Van Nuys, California. He fell, knocked over a planter, and struck his head on a banister, fracturing his skull. He was found unconscious by his wife and taken to Valley Presbyterian Hospital where he underwent brain surgery to repair his injuries. He died at about 9:30 a.m. the following morning at the age of 42.

For what it’s worth, Hunter’s son Christopher, in an interview for the E! series Mysteries & Scandals, said that, while he felt the explosion in Spain had cracked his father’s skull, contributing to his death a few months later, substance abuse was likely also a factor. “I think alcoholism contributed to his death as much as anything else,” he said.

And now, as the rest of my family is peacefully sleeping, I’m sitting awake in bed, wondering if, just maybe, had he never laid eyes of Dusty Bartlett, Hunter might still be alive today, enjoying the success that would eventually become Shatner’s. Would Star Trek have been the same success with him at the helm? If not Hunter, would another B-movie actor have died as the result of that exploding car window in Spain? I just find it infinitely fascinating to consider how these seemingly little things ripple through time, changing so may other things as they go. And I’m compelled to keep digging… Had Hunter not been available to do Cry Chicago in ’68, I wonder, who would have gotten the role his place? And would Goodwin have kept her job on the Enterprise had Hunter not either left or been fired?


I should add, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame the fact that Hunter left Star Trek on Bartlett. It’s quite possible that she was just relating messages to Roddenberry on the behalf of her husband. I think it’s probably safe to say, though, that things may have played out differently had the two of them never met. And it’s also worth noting, of course, that, according to some, Hunter’s real mistake wasn’t his relationship with Bartlett, but having the audacity to portray Jesus, thereby leaving himself open up to the curse. [Bartlett and Hunter can be seen above in happier times.]

Oh, and here’s one other thing I discovered while following leads through the Trekosphere. Grace Lee Whitney, who portrayed Yeoman Janice Rand in the first eight episodes of the series to air, was born in Ann Arbor. She was also in the cast of the great Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot, alongside Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe.

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  1. XXX
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Speaking of the Captains and their wives, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole you should look into the theories surrounding the death of Shatner’s wife.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    It’s also said the Grace Lee Whitney, back in the 50s, was the inspiration for the Chicken Of The Sea mermaid.

  3. Posted September 12, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Interesting reactions to an important post.

  4. A.N.
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Just as importantly.


  5. Chris T.
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    If Shatner hadn’t gotten the Star Trek gig, it’s doubtful that TJ Hooker would have ever come to be, which means that the career of Heather Locklear may have floundered after getting her initial break as a teenager on the “Satan’s Angels” episode of CHiPs.

  6. Eel
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    More importantly, if Hunter hadn’t quit or been fired, there would be no Michael Myers and no Halloween.

  7. Bob
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Calling Shatner the luckiest man in the world seems a little unkind. That dude has had one of the longest careers in showbiz. He just finds, or makes hits. Decade after decade. You gotta give him credit.

  8. K2
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    According to Shatner, when he wife died, a tabloid told him that, if he did’t give them an interview about her death, they were going to publish a story about him being a suspect in the case. Shatner says agreed to do the interview, but under the condition that they also pay him a lot of money, which he says he then used to create a charity in his wife’s name to help addicted women.


  9. M
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Crazy wife. Ends your life.

  10. Lynne
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    If this kind of thing gets your mind racing, whatever you do, don’t start thinking about that multiverse theory in physics ;)

  11. Kat
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    According to Shatner, when his wife died, a tabloid told him that, if he did’t give them an interview about her death, they were going to publish a story about him being a suspect in the case. Shatner says agreed to do the interview, but under the condition that they also pay him a lot of money, which he says he then used to create a charity in his wife’s name to help addicted women.


  12. Larry Dickman
    Posted April 12, 2020 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Hunter had a small role in The Longest Day. He was the second lead, after The Duke, in John Ford’s classic The Searchers.

  13. Dennis D
    Posted October 25, 2020 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I here Robert Culp was also considered for the role. Ultimately I think they hired the right guy.

  14. Portnoy
    Posted January 24, 2021 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Too bad the story isn’t true and Jeff Hunter himself said, “I was asked to do it, but, had I accepted, I would have been tied up much longer than I cared to be….I love doing motion pictures and expect to be as busy as I want in them.”

    And he was busy on set when “The Menagerie” was made, thus the use of Sean Kenney in heavy makeup as the disfigured Pike.

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