Preppy Hunt Block Takes the Long Jump to Hollywood as a Winner in the First Olympics

updated 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If he didn't exist, somebody would have had to invent him: Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe Michelangelo. Maybe a press agent with a brave imagination. The name's Hunt Block, short for Huntington MacDonald Block. This Harvard grad, who is the star of NBC's mini-series The First Olympics—Athens 1896, has dark blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled features and a body that could play Chippendale's.

In the five-hour opus he's Robert Garrett (1875-1961), a Princetonian underdog who copped two gold medals (for discus and shot put) in the first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896 after a 1,500-year hiatus. The show traces the recruiting and training of the 13-member U.S. team, which began as a laughingstock in the eyes of the experienced Europeans and ended up winning nine out of 12 gold medals in track and field. "It's astonishing to me that this story has never been told before," says Hunt, 30.

A natural athlete, Block excelled early in football, swimming and track. At college he added sprinting, pole vaulting and the long jump. None of the sports in which Garrett won medals are ones that Hunt participated in, but television took care of that. "The process of filming, with repeated takes of us running and jumping, was training in itself," he says. "By the time we got to Greece I felt like I was watching a real track team."

Like his TV alter ego, Block is not exactly underprivileged. Born in Washington, D.C., where his father insures artworks for museums and galleries, Hunt attended the requisite prep school—St. George's in Rhode Island. A self-proclaimed introvert, he spent up to four hours a day on his own in the gym.

His curiosity about other cultures manifested itself in sudden bursts of teenage wanderlust. "I have an inherent sense of transience," he says. "A lot of people don't have the fire chasing them that I do." He spent one summer working with the Sioux Indians in South Dakota, another with a family in Bolivia. Following his second year at Harvard, where he majored in anthropology and film, he decided to "find himself" by going to New Guinea. On the plane he read about Fiji and got off there. "I saw men in skirts with bullet-shaped hairdos and women with no clothes," he says. "My solitude hit me." Or, as they say in California, Hunt was finally getting in touch with his feelings.

After nine months in the South Pacific and the Orient, Block went back to college renewed and rid of his painful shyness. "I had confronted my problems by exposing them to an alien culture and alien situations," he says. "I got my perspective on an island between New Guinea and New Britain."

But he got perspective on performing on Manhattan island. He studied directing, then acting. An agent saw him in an off-off-Broadway show and helped find him soap and commercial jobs. When he went to L.A. a year ago, he was cast as a wind surfer in a TV movie, Summer Girl, which didn't quite capitalize on Hunt's acting lessons or Ivy League education.

He is not married or serious about any particular woman. "I know when I fall, I'll fall like a ton of bricks," he says. In New York home is an old cream-cheese factory turned loft that he shares with a cat named Mingus—"a cross between Charlie Mingus and Shelley Winters." In L.A. he rents a one-bedroom beachfront Venice apartment. Through an open window in that colorful community, Hunt points out some of his pals: an ex-Marine in a wheelchair, an Indian named Crow and a saxophone player.

In The First Olympics the result of Robert Garrett's historic quest is already known. What's not determined is whether Hunt will get the Hollywood gold. But he doesn't think going the distance is a problem. "I started late in this business," he says, "but boy did I start."

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