One of the main (and some would say the single largest) difference between “The Cage” and what came after is the man sitting in the center seat. Originally named Robert April (and then changed to James Winter for a single draft), the character that would become Christopher Pike was created with a very different actor in mind: Lloyd Bridges.
Roddenberry reported in The Star Trek Interview Book that he approached Bridges even before he’d written “The Cage,” because he had a definite sort of captain in mind, someone who could pull off military gravitas but still have sufficient charm to be compelling for the audience. Bridges, however, wasn’t interested in doing science fiction, which at the time meant Flash Gordon serials and Captain Video to the vast majority of people in the entertainment industry.
Among the forty or so actors that Roddenberry looked at seriously were Peter Graves, Robert Loggia, Jack Lord, Leslie Nielsen and even William Shatner, but that certain something that Roddenberry wanted was missing. Majel Barrett even recommended that he talk to James Coburn, but the man who would become Flint was at first rejected because he was judged insufficiently sexy by the production team.
After some reconsideration, though, Coburn’s name appeared a second list of names submitted to NBC that included Patrick O’Neal and Jeffrey Hunter, an actor whose most famous role had been playing John Wayne’s nephew in the western classic The Searchers. Despite the fact that Coburn and O’Neal elicited “a strong reaction” from the NBC team, Roddenberry thought Hunter had a magnetism and coolness that the role required. He even joked that Hunter’s performance as Christ in the 1961 bomb King of Kings meant that he could easily command a starship.
When we watch “The Cage” now, it’s immediately obvious how different Christopher Pike is from the man who’d succeed him in the center seat. We see a man who’s burdened by command, someone who is haunted by the deaths of two crewmembers in the recent past and is actually considering resigning his commission instead of continuing to send young people to death.
At the time, Roddenberry and director Robert Butler believed Hunter perfectly embodied the character that’d been conceived from the beginning as a far-future Horatio Hornblower, a complex personality whose drive and position alienated him from the rest of the crew. Even as he experienced the loneliness of command, Pike’s character was written to feel the plights of others. Hunter’s sober, deliberate performance is fine (especially in the context we’re used to seeing it now), but it’s easy to see how the network found his calculating, thoughtful manner off-putting.
Despite the network’s notes on the matter, Roddenberry and his team wanted to keep Hunter in the center seat and refit the character and the show around him. Hunter’s wife Barbara felt otherwise and let her feelings be known almost as soon as the pilot screening at Desilu ended. She thought her husband was above science fiction and pressured him to walk away.
Within two weeks of the pilot’s screening, Hunter wrote to Roddenberry to let him know that he wasn’t going to continue with the project despite the fact that NBC had made the unprecedented decision to give the show another shot. Roddenberry’s return correspondence shows the esteem with which he held the actor. He wrote: "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."
A second pilot was commissioned and the production team went back to its list of performers to see who might be the next captain of the Enterprise. Once again, Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lord were considered (with the former getting his second offer after Roddenberry screened “The Cage” for him to prove how Trek would be different) but it was William Shatner who got the role that would define his career.
Hunter’s career was in freefall after Star Trek, dominated by appearances in foreign-made B-movies like 1969’s Viva America. He auditioned for the role of Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch in 1968 but lost to Robert Reed. Hunter’s last TV appearance was on an episode of Insight in 1969.
On a flight back from filming in Spain, Hunter suffered stroke-like symptoms with paralysis in his right arm and loss of speech. Doctors believed that injuries he’d received on the set of the movie may have caused them, Shortly after, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and fell in his home. He died during surgery to repair the skull fracture that he suffered, just one week before “Turnabout Intruder,” Star Trek's final episode, was aired.