Described in the press as the heir apparent to James Stewart and Jack Lemmon, Jim Hutton broke out of the pack with his funny, awkward TV Thompson in Where the Boys Are (1960). Son of Col. Thomas R. Hutton and Helen Ryan, his parents divorced when he was an infant. Jim recalled seeing his father only twice before his death, and moved to Albany, New York, in 1938. A bright but troublesome child (claiming to have been in five high schools and a boarding school), he excelled as a writer and won a journalism scholarship when he began writing sports for his high school newspaper. At Syracuse University, he lost his position in the school of journalism (& scholarship) when he was bitten by the acting bug. He subsequently lost academic ambition and failed three classes as a freshman. He used his summers to train in summer stock, but his intentions to continue academic pursuits were ended when he was expelled from Syracuse as a sophomore and again at Niagara College as a junior.
He lived in Greenwich Village for almost a year to pursue a career on the stage, but when out of money and unable to pay his rent or buy food, he joined the army and was assigned to special services to act in training films. He was later stationed in Berlin where he founded the American Community Theater by renovating an abandoned theater for a GI production of the play “Harvey” (which he starred in). Receiving high praise from officers including official commendation, his superior officer agreed to assign Hutton to manage the theater as part of his official duties and he produced, directed, and acted in five productions over two years, receiving the European Theater Award for Best GI Theater. One of his productions, The Caine Mutiny (1954), received the attention of director Douglas Sirk, who offered him the significant role of Hirschland in A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) as a young Nazi who commits suicide. Using his entire military leave to film for 22 days, Universal was so impressed they offered him a contract, but he still had 18 months of service. Within five days of his military discharge he had married and moved to Hollywood to pursue a career, but by then the offer was off the table from Universal. He eventually landed at MGM. The first role of significance to get attention (and use his new stage name Jim Hutton) was a first season episode ofThe Twilight Zone (1959) which earned the newbie good notice within the industry. Eventually he landed his breakout role of TV Thompson in Where the Boys Are (1960), paired with newcomer Paula Prentiss. He came in third in 1960’s Golden Laurel Awards Top Male New Personality, was named one of Motion Picture Herald’s Stars of Tomorrow, was a Photoplay Favorite Male Newcomer nominee, and Screen World Award winner for Most Promising Personality.
Prentiss and Jim Hutton were immediately paired into three other films, The Honeymoon Machine (1961), Bachelor in Paradise (1961), and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962). But despite their likable personalities and on screen chemistry, none of the films captured the magic of the first film. Frustrated, Hutton campaigned for the lead in Period of Adjustment and then refused jobs for 15 months until MGM agreed give him better roles or dissolve their exclusive contract. He agreed to appear with ‘Connie Francis (I)’ in the film, Looking for Love (1964) if he were let go to pursue work independently.
Once free from contracts he was selected by Sam Peckinpah for the role of the young Lieutenant in Major Dundee. Dundee’s turbulent production was the primary subject of reviews, yet the subsequent reassessment of the flawed film (particularly by Peckinpah scholars) has garnered Hutton posthumous praise for his youthful and exuberant performance. Dundee was followed by several acting veterans taking an interested in the underused actor’s career, including Burt Lancaster, in The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Cary Grant in Walk Don’t Run (1966), and ‘John Wayne (I)’ in The Green Berets (1968). Like his later appreciated performance in Dundee, his role in The Green Berets (1968) was overlooked due to the film’s controversial political stance on Vietnam. Yet it has become common to see Hutton’s performance as one of the bright spots in the film, thanks to his ability to incorporate his natural comic skills and cocky swagger into the role of war time cynical scavenger who becomes the heroic adoptive father of a Vietnamese orphan. His work in these films, and leading roles in the underrated heist farce Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967) showed his growth as an actor. However, when all three of his 1965 releases flopped at the box-office his Hollywood stock took a major tumble, particularly when Gene Kelly dropped him from the lead in of A Guide for the Married Man (1967) one month before production started.
Film roles dried up and he was relegated to TV work, which coincided with what he called an eight year depression. It wasn’t until 1975 that he experienced a career comeback with the cult detective series Ellery Queen (1975), which coincided with an upturn of theater work and reunion with his son, actor Timothy Hutton, who moved in with him at this time at 15 years old. Tragically, his comeback didn’t last long, as he died of liver cancer in 1979, two days after his 45th birthday.