Obituary: Tab Hunter, heart-throb Hollywood actor who was secretly gay

Tab Hunter circa 1955. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Tab Hunter circa 1955. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Tab Hunter, actor. Born: 11 July 1931 in New York City, New York. Died: 8 July 2018 in Santa Barbara, California, United States, aged 86.

Tab Hunter, the blond actor and singer who was a heartthrob for millions of teenagers in the 1950s with such films as Battle Cry and Damn Yankees and received new attention decades later when he revealed that he was gay, has died. He was 86.

Producer and spouse Allan Glaser said Hunter died on Sunday of a blood clot in his leg that caused cardiac arrest. Glaser called the death ­“sudden and unexpected”.

In addition to his hit movies, his recording of Young Love topped the Billboard pop chart in 1957. But in his 2005 memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, ­Hunter recounted the stresses of being a love object to millions of young women when he was, in reality, a gay man.

“I believed, wholeheartedly – still do – that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” he wrote. “The dilemma, of course, that was being true to myself – and I’m talking sexually now – was impossible in 1953.”

Among thee stars honouring Hunter, actor ­Harvey Fierstein called him a “gay icon” and a “true gentleman” on Twitter, adding, “We shared some good laughs in the 80s. I was always fond of this dear man.”

Zachary Quinto on Instagram also cheered Hunter’s “vital and generous nature” and called him a “pioneer of self-acceptance” who moved through the world “with authenticity as his guide”.

Born Arthur Andrew Kelm, his screen tab (slang for ‘name’ at the time) was fabricated by Henry Willson, the ­talent agent who came up with the name Rock Hudson.

The legend goes that Willson said to the young man: “We’ve got to find something to tab you with. Do you have any ­hobbies?” His client answered: “I ride horses. Hunters.” Agent: “That’s it! We’ll call you Tab Hunter.”

With no dramatic training, Hunter was cast in a minor role in the 1950 drama, The Lawless. The fuss over the young actor began two years later when he appeared bare-chested opposite Linda ­Darnell in the British-made Island of Desire. Soon his handsome face and muscular build appeared on magazine covers. Warner Bros., alert to the important youth market, signed him to a contract.

Hunter made a flurry of movies in the 1950s, aimed at capitalising on his popularity with young girls, such as war dramas like ­Battle Cry (with Van Heflin) and Lafayette Escadrille (with Clint Eastwood in a small role). He made the Westerns The Burning Hills (Natalie Wood) and They Came to Cordura (Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth). He also made romantic ­comedies like The Pleasure of His Company (Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds).

A highlight was the 1958 Damn Yankees, an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. The New York Times noted that Hunter “has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star”.

He also ­displayed his athletic skills – he had been a figure skater as well as a horseman – in a TV ­special, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.

As with so many pop idols, his fans grew up and a new generation sought other favourites. His slide followed the classic pattern – to a television series (The Tab Hunter Show, on NBC, 1960-62); European films (The Golden Arrow) and cheap kid flicks (Ride the Wild Surf).

In his memoir, he took pains to note that Ride the Wild Surf was his only beach-party movie; his Operation Bikini, despite its title, was “yet another war movie”. Over the years, he also played small roles in The Loved One, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Grease 2. In the 1980s, he won new fans in cult movies with Divine, the 300-pound drag performer, notably John Waters’ 1981 ­Polyester and Paul Bartel’s 1985 Lust in the Dust, co-produced by Hunter himself.

Of Polyester, Hunter wrote: “Everybody got the joke – for both John and me, our collaboration paid huge dividends: I’d helped ‘legitimise’ his brand of movie, and he made me ‘hip’ overnight.”

Hunter was born in 1931 in New York City, the second son of a mechanic and his German immigrant wife. His father left two years later and the boy took his mother’s name, Gelien. Young Arthur Gelien grew up in San Francisco and Long Beach, California, and joined the Coast Guard at 15, lying about his age.

In New York, he saw Broadway plays and became interested in acting. Back in California, Willson arranged for a two-word role in The Lawless. He got 500 dollars and a new name.

In his memoir, he said that his career flourished despite innuendo and smear articles – “clear evidence that despite its self-righteous claims, Confidential magazine did not influence the taste and opinions of mainstream America”.

Writing the book was difficult, he told The Associated Press in 2005, “because I’m a really private person. I grew up full of denial. I just didn’t like any suggestions or questioning of my sexuality”.

Hunter didn’t dwell on his Hollywood career or regret losing it. “I had my fling, and I was very fortunate,” he said. “But that’s all in my past.”

SHAWN MARSH