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Former U.S. Sen. John Tunney, Inspiration For Redford's 'The Candidate,' Dies At 83

John Tunney, the former U.S. senator who looked briefly like the future of the Democratic Party and whose rise inspired the Robert Redford film, The Candidate, has died, his brother confirmed to NPR on Saturday.

Tunney died of prostate cancer Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 83.

The son of a former boxing heavyweight champion, Tunney became one of the youngest senators elected in the past century when he defeated Republican incumbent George Murphy in 1970 at age 36.

The young Democrat had to "quiet some of his idealism" and move toward the center to beat Murphy, according to the AP.

A poster for Michael Ritchie's 1972 satirical comedy-drama, 'The Candidate', starring Robert Redford.
Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

Just two years after that victory, The Candidate was released to critical and commercial success. Director Michael Ritchie had worked on Tunney's campaign, and Robert Redford's "Bill McCay" was based on the fast-rising senator.

Tunney drew comparison to the Kennedy brothers, and found himself more popular than even then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1974, according to The New York Times.

But a Republican wave was bubbling. And within two years, he was faced with that issue, along with the fact that many liberal Democrats were frustrated with him for being too slow to turn against the Vietnam War.

"Conservativism came sweeping in like a mudslide," the senator's brother, Jay Tunney, told NPR.

Tunney lost his re-election bid in 1976 to Republican S.I. Hayakawa, the 70-year-old president of California State University.

Tunney had graduated from Yale University with a degree in anthropology and from the University of Virginia School of Law prior to entering politics. He returned to practicing law after the defeat.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 14, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Tunney graduated from Yale Law. While he did graduate from Yale University, he, in fact, earned his law degree from the University of Virginia.