The Tragic Story Of Star Trek’s Original Captain Goes Beyond The Show

By Jason Collins | Published

Star Trek, as a cultural phenomenon from the 1960s, is a series of many firsts. Sure, the franchise is currently undergoing a renaissance of its own, but you might be surprised that the first pilot episode ever produced wasn’t accepted by NBC, and its lead declined to reprise his role further. Actor Jeffrey Hunter, the original Captain Christopher Pike, later died a tragic death.

Jeffrey Hunter, The Original Christopher Pike

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Jeffrey Hunter, born in 1926, is often remembered for his brief but significant role in the Star Trek universe as Captain Christopher Pike in the original pilot episode of the show, “The Cage.” While his portrayal laid the groundwork for what would later become a cultural phenomenon, NBC rejected the original pilot episode for being “too cerebral,” so the production team decided to reshoot. However, the series lead star declined to reprise his role, so William Shatner was cast as the future pop culture icon Captain James T. Kirk.

A Huge Time Commitment

In his interviews, Jeffrey Hunter told the press that, if had he accepted the role, again, he would be tied up for much longer than he cared to, deciding instead to focus more on his film roles. Star Trek didn’t find much success either; despite managing to develop a core audience. NBC wasn’t really happy with the ratings, so they decided to cancel the series following its third season.

Hunter After Star Trek

Jeffrey Hunter continued to work in both film and television but wasn’t really able to replicate the momentum of his earlier career successes. After Star Trek, he worked increasingly in Europe like many leading actors who found their initial success in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the movies he starred in at the time often failed to make a significant impact.

Hunter’s Accident

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The actor’s personal life was also marked by turmoil since he was married three times and faced various personal challenges, including health issues. While in Spain, during the filming of 1968’s Cry Chicago, a story about the Chicago Mafia, Jeffrey Hunter was severely injured in an on-set explosion. Namely, a car window near him, which had been rigged to explode outward, accidentally exploded inward, inflicting Hunter with a serious concussion.

According to his third wife, actress Emily McLaughlin, Hunter went into shock on the flight back to the US.

Hunter’s Death

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After landing in the US, Hunter couldn’t speak or move, and upon admission to the Good Samaritan Hospital in LA, doctors found other major injuries, except for a displaced vertebra and a concussion. Several months later, Jeffrey Hunter suffered a stroke while walking down the stairs of his home, knocked over a platter, and struck his head on the banister, fracturing his skull. He was found unconscious by his visiting friend. He was hospitalized immediately and taken into surgery, but he died the following morning.

Jeffery Hunter’s story and his brief tenure as Captain Pike on Star Trek remind us of the volatile nature of fame and success in Hollywood, all the while making us wonder whether Star Trek—and Hunter’s own career—would be any different if he had stayed with the show.  

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