An actor somewhat notable in the fifties and sixties, his most famous roles were starring with John Wayne in The Searchers and as Jesus Christ in King of Kings. "I was told I had arrived when, during the shooting of The Searchers, they gave me almost as much ammunition as they gave John Wayne."

He was cast in the original pilot for Star Trek, "The Cage (TOS)", as Captain Christopher Pike. Hunter joked that if he could rule over Christianity, he could easily handle the crew of a starship. NBC hated "The Cage," and rejected the pilot and most of the cast. The only character to stay was Spock, and that was because Gene Roddenberry fought for the Vulcan tooth and nail. NBC thought Hunter was too wooden (but they also thought the cage was "too cerebral"), but Hunter was asked to stay on as the Captain, now renamed James T. Kirk.

The usual story is that Hunter turned down the role of Kirk. Typical reasons cited are that he wanted too much money, or had a film commitment, or that his wife at the time, a former model named Joan Bartlett, convinced him that science fiction was beneath him. William Shatner claims that Hunter was actually fired. He says Bartlett, who hated "The Cage," began to show up at production meetings and unleashed a barrage of tantrums, demands, and ultimatums. Roddenberry decided, according to Shatner, that if this was what it was like before the series even began, he was not going to spend the next several years coping with her.

Hunter also missed out on another famous role, Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch. He lobbied producer Sherwood Schwartz for the part, but Schwartz felt that Hunter was "too good looking to be an architect."

In Spain, Hunter was filming what would be his last movie, a mob flick called ¡Viva América!. In the film, an explosion kills his character, Frank Mannata, and during the filming of this scene, Hunter was injured. He started to suffer from dizziness and headaches, and was hospitalized back in the states, but soon released. At his home, he suffered a cerebral hemmorhage, fell down a flight of stairs and struck his head, causing a skull fracture. He was found unconscious but died during surgery. He was 42.

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