July 11, 1931– Arthur Andrew Kelm Gelien was a champion equestrian & figure skater before an agent, Henry Willson, turned him into Tab Hunter (the same agent that came up with the name Rock Hudson). Hunter has appeared in over 40 films & has worked on stage & TV. My favorite Tab Hunter role is Joe Hardy in the 1958 film version of the musical Damn Yankees. Telling of his star power at the time, Hunter was the only actor in the film who had not been in the original Broadway cast. The property had been purchased especially for Hunter to show off his special talents, a gift from Jack Warner, & a chance to work with director Stanley Donen & choreographer Bob Fosse.
In 1954, the year of my birth, Hunter, then just 23 years old, blond haired & blue eyed, the perfect product of a popular perceptibility, as free from cynicism & care as a cloudless sky, was the #1 USA male box-office star, with a hit film, Battle Cry. Closet case Merv Griffin had nudged Hunter to read the Leon Uris book of Battle Cry, which he knew was in pre-production. Hunter screen-tested a dozen times before landing the role, beating out James Dean & Paul Newman. Warner Brothers. gave him a 7 year contract. Dean, Natalie Wood & Hunter were the last 3 actors signed to the studio in those last days of the old studio system & the last to get the kind of push & publicity that a big studio could make possible for their young stars. Hunter was all over the fan magazines, known as “The Sigh Guy.” At the end of the 1950s, he was Warner’s top-grossing star. He was also #1 on the pop music charts with Young Love, topping Elvis Presley (not easily topped).
The studio was sending him out on dates with starlets to movie premieres, industry parties, & the Academy Awards. Warners most frequently paired him with Natalie Wood, just off of Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Hunter:
“I just loved going out with Natalie. She was like my kid sister.”
Hunter’s career might have unraveled just when it was taking off because Confidential Magazine published a story about how Hunter had been arrested at a “pajama party”, a euphemism for a shindig attended by gay people. The gossip rag had been tipped off to the story by his ex-agent Willson in exchange for killing a story about Rock Hudson’s gay life in Hollywood. The story didn’t end up hurting Hunter, just weeks later he was proclaimed Most Popular Young Star by Warner Bros.
But, by 1960 his fame ride was running out of gas. Troy Donahue had been invented & he became the next Tab Hunter. Hunter, at 28 years old, was more or less over. He began a 46 year spiral into spaghetti westerns (Hunter describes them as “short on the meat sauce”), TV series guest sots, dinner theater, infomercials, & the film Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).
Suddenly in the 1980s, after the long trip through the depths of cinematic dreck, plus a heart attack, Hunter was rediscovered by our hero John Waters. In Polyester (1981), Waters chose Hunter, who had once starred opposite John Wayne, to play opposite the divine Divine. His work in Polyester reinvented Hunter as an ironic illustration of his own Hollywood iconography.
Hunter said Hollywood in the 1950s had its own version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that he calls “Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain”, letting the studio take care of the actors, & allowing the public draw its conclusions.Hunter:
“Hollywood will just take you, chew you up, spit you out, dump you on the side & go on to the next, & it’s kind of tragic.”
In 2005, Hunter released a terrific & very readable memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making Of A Movie Star. In the book he finally publicly came out of the closet, 50 years after the start of his career. He claims that he wrote to book because:
“You should get the story from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead & gone.”
“Life was difficult for me, because I was living 2 different lives at that time. A private life of my own, which I never discussed, never talked about to anyone. Then my Hollywood life, which was just trying to learn my craft & succeed… the word ‘gay’ wasn’t even around in those days & if anyone ever confronted me with it, I’d just kinda freak out. I was in total denial. I was just not comfortable in that Hollywood scene, other than the work process. There was a lot written about my sexuality, & the press was pretty darn cruel.”
Hunter enjoyed romances with gay actor Anthony Perkins & figure skater Ronnie Robertson before settling down with his partner of 40 years, Allan Glaser, a handsome producer. Glaser is the producer of the new documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, directed & written by Jeffrey Schwarz. The film can be seen tonight at Outfest, LA’s annual LGBT film festival.
Glaser & Hunter live in Montecito, along with their 2 whippets, where they raise horses.
He was one of my very first crushes. I think Tab Hunter was & remains a blond bombshell. I don’t hate that he is a Republican… but, I do hate his Republicanism.