‘Star Trek”s Jeffrey Hunter: The Pete Best of Science Fiction
When work was completed on the first Star Trek pilot “The Cage” on Jan. 22, 1965, there was no guarantee that the project’s future was secure.
In fact, it was one of the last secure moments of star Jeffrey Hunter’s career – although he couldn’t know that. The misfortune that Hunter endured with Star Trek bears comparison to what had happened to former Beatles drummer Pete Best three years earlier.
Hunter had been a movie actor until a change in contracting made it more difficult for him to find work. That’s why he’d signed up to make the Star Trek pilot. In the episode that remained unaired for decades, he played Christopher Pike, captain of the USS Enterprise, as the crew answer a distress call only to find themselves captured by aliens who have plans for them.
“We run into pre-historic worlds, contemporary societies and civilizations far more developed than our own,” Hunter said of Star Trek in a rare interview. “It’s a great format because writers have a free hand – they can have us land on a monster infested planet, or deal in human relations involving the large number of people who live in this gigantic ship.” He added that he was intrigued about the fact that plots had been inspired by theories developed by the Rand Corporation, an influential think tank.
“Except for the fictional characters, it will be like getting a look into the future and some of the predictions will surely come true in our lifetime,” he enthused, reporting that he’d know “within several weeks” if the show had been sold. “With all the weird surroundings of outer space, the basic underlying theme of the show is a [philosophical] approach to man’s relationship to woman. There are both sexes in the crew and, in fact, the first officer is a woman.”
As it transpired, NBC studio execs didn’t like “The Cage” – but they didn’t hate it either, and took the unusual decision to commission a second pilot from Desilu Productions. That presented a problem for producer Herbert F. Solow, who’d decided Hunter’s performance merited a return. “When you hired an actor, at least at that time, you hired an actor to do the pilot with an option on the series,” he said. “You didn’t hire an actor to do a pilot with an option for a [second] pilot with an option for a series. We had no rights to exercise…” All he could do was to invite Hunter to a viewing of “The Cage,” explain the changes they planned to make, and ask him to sign a new contract. “Jeffrey’s wife comes down,” the producer said. “Is Jeffrey coming? ‘No, I’m here to look at it on his behalf.’ Lights do down… lights go up. ‘No, I’m sorry, Jeffrey Hunter is not available for this.’”
Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike in ‘The Cage’
The conversation paved the way for William Shatner to take the role of Captain James T. Kirk in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second pilot, which launched one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history. Much of its success must be credited to Leonard Nimoy, whose portrayal of Vulcan science officer Spock proved to be the breakout character, attracting more fan mail than Shatner. Nimoy – the only actor to transfer directly from the first pilot to the second – recalled of Hunter: “What I was given to understand – and it may be the simple truth – is that he wanted to renegotiate… he was a movie star, and he was concerned about his movie career [so] he asked the studio to guarantee him a feature movie role or roles as part of his deal for acting in the series. They were not in a position to do that – they didn’t have movies to offer him. So they couldn’t make the deal and they let it go.” He went on to say that Shatner’s “ball of energy” performance “gave me a place to exist as Spock; much more so than I ever would have had, with all due respect, to Jeff Hunter.”
It’s an unfortunate sequence of events that English drummer Best would probably understand too well. Three years before Hunter’s drama played out, Best had separated from the Beatles just months before their ascension to the pinnacle of the music industry began. When he’d joined the band in 1960, he’d just left the Black Jacks, a band he’d formed in Liverpool, who were arguable bigger than the Beatles at the time. Paul McCartney is reputed to have wanted Best to join because, firstly, he was a solid drummer, and secondly, he had a reputation for being “mean, moody, and magnificent.”
Best auditioned in Liverpool before flying out to Hamburg to begin work, but it was later revealed the audition wasn’t necessary because no one else had volunteered to take on the German role. He played his first official show on Aug. 17, 1960 in Hamburg’s Indra Club, before the group found a better booking at the Top Ten Club. Best can be heard on “My Bonnie,” the 1961 single cut with singer Tony Sheridan that featured the Beatles as backing band “the Beat Brothers,” and took part in two further studio sessions. In 1962, after manager Brian Epstein had secured the band a recording contract, producer George Martin decided he wanted another drummer in the band. “I decided that the drums, which are really the backbone of a good rock group, didn't give the boys enough support,” he said in 2003. “I said to Brian, ‘Look, it doesn't matter what you do with the boys, but on record, nobody need know. I’m gonna use a hot drummer.’”
Pete Best Plays with the Beatles
That led to McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison asking Epstein to fire Best on their behalf, although it’s long been speculated that they jumped on Martin’s decision as a cover story. By that time, the other three had forged an incredibly close friendship both on and off stage, while the quieter drummer tended to spend time away from them.
Regardless of the reasons, Epstein wasn’t sure, saying in his 1964 memoir A Cellarfull of Noise that he “was not anxious to change the membership of the Beatles at a time when they were developing as personalities… I asked the Beatles to leave the group as it was.” He was also concerned because the drummer was a very popular member of the group among fans. However, he ultimately decided that “If the group was to remain happy, Pete Best must go.”
The drummer was fired on Aug. 16, 1962, to be replaced by Ringo Starr two days later. The other Beatles later said they regretted how it had been handled, with Lennon going as far as to say they’d behaved like “cowards.”
Best gave up drumming for 20 years before starting the Pete Best Band in the ‘80s. “To this day, hand on heart, I don’t know the actual reason why,” he said of his dismissal in 2018. “There are plenty of people out there today who are more concerned with why or how I left the Beatles than I am. It happened nearly 60 years ago. … I’m not reflecting back on it all the time – I’ve got my own band and I do performances around the world. I’m a busy guy, and I love it.”
The end of his Beatles adventure was much happier than the end of Hunter’s Star Trek adventure. Best was paid between £1 million and £5 million when the band’s Anthology arrived in 1995, and offered him the confidence to share his recollection about his time in the pre-Beatlemania group. In contrast, Hunter appeared in several more movies to no great reaction. In 1968 he suffered an accident on set that may have triggered an unidentified health issue. Soon afterwards he collapsed and broke his skull at home, and died the same week the final episode of Star Trek: the Original Series was broadcast.
When the decision had been made to recut parts of “The Cage” into the two-part first season episode “The Menagerie,” Hunter had once again missed out on playing Pike; due, it was reported, to either being unavailable or unaffordable. Instead a heavily-disguised Sean Kenney took on the role. “He had no career after [‘The Cage’],” producer Solow reflected. “None. He could have had a career.” But it’s worth considering that Star Trek might not have made it without the onscreen chemistry between Shatner and Nimoy – and that the Beatles might not have made it without their chemistry with Starr.
Captain Pike in ‘The Menagerie’