Tab Hunter, the tall, blond, blue-eyed movie star who as a teenage idol in the 1950s was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system — and who made an unlikely comeback in a very un-Hollywood film when he was almost 50 — died on Sunday in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his spouse, Allan Glaser, who said the cause was cardiac arrest after a blood clot moved from Mr. Hunter’s leg to his lung.
Arthur Gelien was 17 when the agent Henry Willson gave him a new name and added him to a roster of clients that included Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner and Rory Calhoun. “Acting skill,” Mr. Hunter said in his 2005 autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential” (written with Eddie Muller), “was secondary to chiseled features and a fine physique.”
He might not have had the skill, at least not yet, but he had the look; he was the epitome of the sunny all-American boy enshrined in decades of Hollywood films. His first audition for “Island of Desire” (1952) consisted of taking off his shirt. The screen test came later. On the basis of that movie, in which he played a brash Marine corporal marooned with Linda Darnell on a South Seas island, the readers of Photoplay magazine voted him the year’s No. 1 new male star.
His breakthrough movie was “Battle Cry” (1955), in which he played another Marine, at the beginning of World War II, who has a girlfriend back home and a steamy love affair with a married U.S.O. volunteer (Dorothy Malone) in San Diego. Its success led to a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
In February 1956, Mr. Hunter received a reported 62,000 Valentines. He was the dream date of teenage girls on several continents. And he had a secret.
It was not until 50 years after “Battle Cry,” when he wrote his autobiography, that he publicly discussed his homosexuality; his love affair with the actor Anthony Perkins; the rage and wrath of his parish priest when, as a 14-year-old boy, he haltingly confessed what had happened in the dark of a movie theater; and years of being “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture — where I was even less comfortable and less accepted.”
He was most comfortable on horseback, a lifelong passion. He had been discovered while shoveling manure at a riding academy in return for being allowed to ride. During his heady Warner Bros. years, he bought horses — and cars — that he could not afford. He had never had money before; now it spilled through his fingers.
His fame grew when he starred with Natalie Wood in two 1956 movies: “The Burning Hills,” a western, and “The Girl He Left Behind,” in which he played an arrogant rich boy turned into a man by the Army. (The studio also arranged to create the illusion of a romance by having the two stars be seen together in public.) When Warner Bros. made the movie version of the hit Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” about a middle-aged fan who is turned into a young baseball superstar by the Devil, in 1958, Mr. Hunter played the superstar.
His reviews were sometimes terrible. In his memoir, he quoted one: “Since Mr. Hunter discloses not one redeeming feature as an actor, the picture misses fire whenever he’s around.”
Determined to turn himself into a real actor, Mr. Hunter sought out live television. He played a murderer on “Playhouse 90” and Jimmy Piersall, the major league baseball player who came back from a nervous breakdown, in a well-reviewed adaptation of the book “Fear Strikes Out” on the series “Climax.” But Warner Bros. refused to buy the movie rights to “Fear Strikes Out” for its teenage idol, and the film was made by Paramount, with Mr. Hunter’s sometime companion Anthony Perkins.
Frustrated, Mr. Hunter bought himself out of his Warner Bros. contract in 1959. The studio already had another actor under contract and ready to take his place: Troy Donahue, who was as tall and blond as Mr. Hunter but five years younger. (In his autobiography, Mr. Hunter said he had heard that when people mistook Mr. Donahue for him, Mr. Donahue would sometimes correct them by explaining, “I’m the straight one.”)
Leaving Warner Bros. proved to be a mistake. “I was a product of Hollywood,” Mr. Hunter said in 1981. “And one morning, I woke up and couldn’t get arrested.”
He never stopped working, but he would not return to the spotlight until the maverick filmmaker John Waters cast him in his quirky “Polyester” (1981) and made him hip for a new generation.
Arthur Andrew Kelm was born in Manhattan on July 11, 1931, to a forbidding German immigrant mother and a father who welcomed his birth by tossing a nickel candy bar on his wife’s hospital bed and leaving her to carry the baby home to their tenement in a borrowed blanket. By the time Arthur was 3, Charles Kelm had departed, leaving Arthur only the memory of begging his father to stop beating his mother.
Gertrude Kelm reclaimed her maiden name, Gelien, and moved with her two sons first to San Francisco, where she was gone for weeks at a time as a stewardess on cruise ships, and then to Southern California, where she held various jobs. “The constant in my early life was my brother,” Mr. Hunter wrote. Schools and cities blurred, but his brother, Walter, 11 months older, who would die in Vietnam leaving behind seven children, was always there.
At 15, Mr. Hunter lied about his age and joined the Coast Guard. Whenever he got leave, he hitchhiked from Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley to ride. Discharged a year later when the Coast Guard discovered he was underage, he finished high school at the urging of the actor Dick Clayton, who had met him when he was 12 and working at a stable and told him, “If you ever want to get into pictures, talk to me.”
Unable to afford horses, he found a less expensive passion, figure skating — which led to a romance with Ronnie Robertson, who would win a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics.
Although, as Mr. Hunter wrote, “I didn’t long for an acting career, not in the way I longed to be on the ice or at the stables,” Mr. Clayton brokered an introduction to Mr. Willson, who had cornered the market in wholesome all-American boys. Mr. Willson gave him his name and his start, but Mr. Hunter became a client of Mr. Clayton, who had given up acting to become an agent, just before “Battle Cry” made him a star.
At around the same time, the scandal magazine Confidential revealed that Mr. Hunter had been among several people arrested five years earlier at a gay house party. (The magazine called it a “queer romp” attended by “a load of shrill nances.”) The charge, being “idle, lewd or dissolute,” was later reduced to disturbing the peace, and he received a suspended sentence and a $50 fine. But in those button-down days, such a revelation could have ruined his career.
Warner Bros. chose to ignore it, and eventually the public did too. “Remember this: Today’s headlines — tomorrow’s toilet paper,” Mr. Hunter recalled the studio’s Jack Warner telling him a few months later when Mr. Hunter was named the most promising new male personality of 1955 in an audience poll conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations. (Among those he beat for that honor were Harry Belafonte and Jack Lemmon.)
His image untarnished, Mr. Hunter remained in the public eye. Though by his own admission he was not much of a singer, his recording of “Young Love” rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957 and stayed there for five weeks. In the 1960-61 television season he starred in an NBC sitcom, “The Tab Hunter Show.”
But not long after that, Mr. Hunter — over 30, no longer under contract and no longer in demand — was considered a has-been.
He stayed busy. He made, as he put it, “a lot of Mickey Mouse movies” overseas. In his memoir he recalled that when he was in Madrid in 1967 to make “The Christmas Kid,” a western, he ran into Jeffrey Hunter, there to make a thriller that would be released as “The Fickle Finger of Fate.” Figuring that the producers wouldn’t know Jeffrey Hunter from Tab Hunter, they switched movies.
Most of Mr. Hunter’s American films in the 1960s and ’70s — among them “Operation Bikini” (1963), “Hostile Guns” (1967) and “Timber Tramps” (1975) — were similarly forgettable, although he did have small roles in the major studio films “The Loved One” (1965) and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” (1972) and even a brief stint on Broadway in an ill-fated 1964 production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” starring Tallulah Bankhead. He was also seen throughout the ’70s in guest roles on TV shows like “Police Woman” and “The Love Boat.”
But mostly there was dinner theater and summer stock, where faded movie stars were always welcome. He toured for years, from Ogunquit, Me., to Charlotte, N.C., and from Warwick, R.I., to Salt Lake City. The touring ended when Mr. Waters asked Mr. Hunter to play the suave, seductive Todd Tomorrow and cavort with the drag performer Divine, as a suburban housewife named Francine Fishpaw, in “Polyester.”
Mr. Waters, best known at the time for challenging the notion of good taste in underground films like “Pink Flamingos,” said he wanted Mr. Hunter for the part because “to me, he has always been the ultimate movie star.” His script, which sent up Hollywood clichés, made Mr. Hunter laugh, and he took the part despite warnings that it would kill his career.
It did not. “Polyester,” released in 1981, was an unexpected success, with critics as well as at the box office. It was both Mr. Waters’s first mainstream hit and Mr. Hunter’s ticket out of dinner theater.
Four years later, when Mr. Hunter reunited with Divine for the comedy western “Lust in the Dust,” he was not just the co-star but one of the producers. “Lust in the Dust” was also a hit, and Mr. Hunter and Divine planned to make more movies together. Those plans ended when Divine died suddenly in 1988.
That same year, Mr. Hunter’s comeback ended — by choice. After that, except for playing a small part in the 1992 movie “Dark Horse,” a family drama based on a story he wrote, he did no more acting and spent his last years living in Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara, with his dogs, his horses and Mr. Glaser, his business and personal partner since 1983. They married shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in California, Mr. Glaser said. He leaves no other immediate survivors.
Mr. Hunter’s last screen appearance was in a 2015 documentary titled, like his autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential.”
He called the last chapter of his autobiography “Happy to Be Forgotten.” “I can go anywhere and for the first time in my adult life be unrecognized,” he wrote.
Occasionally, he said, a fan would mistake him for Troy Donahue and tell him that she loved him in “A Summer Place.” “These days,” he said, “I might even agree to be Troy Donahue for that moment, just for the hell of it.”
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