The world lost Tab Hunter yesterday. Thankfully, he is a movie star, so we still have him in photographs and film. He was two days shy of 87th birthday when his final credits rolled.
Young Arthur Andrew Kelm Gelien was a champion equestrian and figure skater before a certain agent, Henry Willson, got a look at him and turned him into Tab Hunter. Willson is the same agent that came up with the name Rock Hudson; clever agent.
Hunter appeared in over 40 films and worked on stage and in television. My favorite Hunter role is Joe Hardy in the film version of the musical Damn Yankees (1958). There is just something about Hunter being stuffed in to that baseball uniform. Plus, he sings and dances. Telling of how strong his star power was 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 studio chief Jack Warner, and it was a chance for him to work with the best: director Stanley Donen and choreographer Bob Fosse.
In 1954, Hunter was just 23-years-old, blond haired and blue eyed, the perfect product of a popular perceptibility, as free from cynicism and care as a cloudless sky. He was the Number One American 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 and Paul Newman. Warner Brothers gave him a seven-year contract. Dean, Natalie Wood and Hunter were the last three actors signed to Warners in those last days of the old studio system, and the last to get the kind of push and publicity that a big studio could make possible for their young, up and coming stars.
Hunter was all over the fan magazines. He became known as “The Sigh Guy”. By the end of the 1950s, he was Warner Bros. top star. He was also number one on the pop music charts with Young Love, topping Elvis Presley (not easily topped).
Warners was sending him out on dates with pretty starlets to film premieres, industry parties, and the Academy Awards. The studio frequently paired him with Wood, who was 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 as 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 guys. The gossip rag had been tipped off to the story by Willson, now Hunter’s ex-agent, in exchange for killing a story about Rock Hudson’s gay life in Hollywood. Somehow, 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 and he became the next Tab Hunter. Hunter, at 28-years-old, was more or less over. Then he began a 46-year spiral into spaghetti westerns (Hunter describes them as “short on the meat sauce”), television series guest spots, dinner theater, infomercials, and the film Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).
Hunter wrote that Hollywood in the 1950s had its own version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that he called: “Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain”, letting the studio take care of the actors, and allowing the public draw its own conclusions. Hunter:
“Hollywood will just take you, chew you up, spit you out, dump you on the side and go on to the next, and it’s all kind of tragic.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, 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. For Polyester (1981), Waters chose Hunter, who had once starred opposite John Wayne, to play opposite the divine Divine. His work in Polyester reinvented and reimagined Hunter as an ironic illustration of his own Hollywood iconography.
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 and gone.”
“Life was difficult for me, because I was living two 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 and succeed… the word ‘gay’ wasn’t even around in those days and 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, and the press was pretty darn cruel.”
Hunter had a long romance with actor Anthony Perkins. The studio arranged for the two to double-date with starlets and the magazines would photograph them, then Hunter and Perkins would see the girls back to their places and then go home together. Hunter lived to tell his tale in an era when the closet door could finally be opened a crack, a fate not afforded to Perkins. He left this world in 1992, taken by HIV, leaving behind a wife and two sons.
Hunter had an affair with figure skater Ronnie Robertson before settling down with his partner of 40+ years, Allan Glaser, a handsome film and television producer. Glaser is the producer of the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), directed and written by Jeffrey Schwarz. It is streaming on Netflix. The couple lived in Montecito, along with their dogs and horses.
He was one of my very first crushes. I think Tab Hunter was and remains a heartthrob. Anyone that I have talked with who met Hunter at a book signing, a party, or film set, has imparted that he was a warm, genuine, engaging man.
For more see World of Wonder writer Trey Speegle’s #RIP here.