Tab Hunter, the 1950s epitome of the blond Hollywood heartthrob and teen icon pin-up, whose career included early A-list fare like Damn Yankees! and Battle Cry to later (much later) cult classics Polyester, Lust in the Dust, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and authorship of a memoir in part describing his life as a closeted gay movie star, has died. He was 86.
Hunter came out as gay with his 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star – later the basis for Jeffrey Schwarz’ 2015 Netflix documentary Tab Hunter Confidential – clearing up longstanding Hollywood rumors. Since his ’80s resurgence in the John Waters and Paul Bartel films costarring Divine, Hunter had relaxed into a more self-amused, even self-deprecating attitude about the vast chasm between the man born Arthur Gelien in 1931 and the teen idol manufactured and rechristened Tab Hunter by Henry Willson, the agent behind such creatively named Hollywood hunks as Rock Hudson, Dack Rambo and Troy Donahue.
In the 1985 Bartel film Lust in the Dust – a spoof of spaghetti westerns that also starred Lainie Kazan and in its outlandishness is often mistakenly attributed to John Waters – Hunter was comfortable enough to take delight in the joke of his character’s name: Abel Wood, a pun that’s as much acting critique as sex joke.
Hunter wasn’t always so comfortable with the Hollywood glare, though, and later wrote in his memoir about the lengths to which he and boyfriend Anthony Perkins went in order to spend time together, often double-dating with Hollywood starlets who sometimes were, sometimes weren’t in on the game.
In a 2015 interview with Slant, Hunter said, “My sexuality was never ever mentioned to me at Warners. Thank God! I know that when Tony Perkins and I were seeing each other, Paramount told him they didn’t want him to see me anymore. But Warners didn’t say anything. They just were supportive of you. I’ll never forget the incident at the big Audience Awards, where Warners won every award that year. We were standing together—me with Jack Warner, Peggy Lee, and Natalie Wood—and all the press of the world were there taking photographs. And this guy said, ‘Turn around Tab, this is for the next issue of Confidential magazine.’ I went, ‘Oh God!’ and turned away. But Jack Warner pulled me back and said, ‘Just remember this, today’s headlines, tomorrow’s toilet paper.’ I’ll never forget that. That is the closest that they ever said anything about my sexuality.”
In his ’50s-’60s heyday, Hunter appeared in both films and TV, with credits including 1952’s Island of Desire, Battle Cry and The Sea Chase (’55), and two 1956 co-starring roles opposite Natalie Wood, The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind. TV roles included Playhouse 90, Conflict, Climax and, from 1960-61, his own romantic-comedy series The Tab Hunter Show.
His highest profile role was Joe Hardy, the baseball player who makes a pact with the Devil in 1958 musical Damn Yankees!, co-starring Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon.
During that era, Hunter also was, briefly, a pop singer, hitting No. 1 with a cover version of “Young Love” that even he, in his later years, was hard-pressed to describe as anything but a cash-in.
As his film career began to slide in the early ’60s, he took roles in drive-in fare like Operation Bikini, Ride the Wild Surf, and The Fickle Finger of Fate. He did stage work along the way, mostly summer stock and dinner theater but with a stop on Broadway in ’64 opposite Tallulah Bankhead in the Tennessee Williams failure The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
By the 1970s he was taking bit parts in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood and Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold, with an occasional bright spot like 1972’s Paul Newman starrer The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
His comeback, based in large part on his good-natured willingness to have fun with his now-faded hunk image, began with 1981’s Polyester, followed the next year with Grease 2, in which he played the substitute teacher Mr. Stuart, even getting his own song, “Reproduction.”
The Netflix documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, is currently available on the streaming service. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, the film was produced by Hunter’s partner Allan Glaser, who survives him and is developing, with J.J. Abrams, Zachary Quinto and playwright Doug Wright, a feature film based on the section in Hunter’s memoir about his affair with Perkins.