09 July 2018

1950s Hollywood dreamboat Tab Hunter dead

On Sunday 8 July 2018, Hollywood hunk Tab Hunter (1931-2018) passed away. With his blond, tanned, surfer-boy good looks, he was one of Hollywood’s hottest teen idols of the 1950s era. The American actor, singer, and author portrayed boy-next-door marines, cowboys and swoon-bait sweethearts in dozens of films, and had a huge hit with the song Young Love (1957). In the meanwhile he hid his homosexuality and his relationship with film star Anthony Perkins. When his career faded during the 1960s, he starred in Italy in Spaghetti Westerns. In the 1980s Hunter returned opposite Divine in the camp classics Polyester (1981) and Lust in the Dust (1985). Tab Hunter was 86.

Tab Hunter (1931-2018)
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. D 126. Photo: R.K.O. Radio.

Tab Hunter
Spanish postcard by Archivo Bermejo, no. 5495. Photo: Warner Bros. Publicity still for Lafayette Escadrille (William A Wellman, 1958).

Tab Hunter
Dutch postcard by Int. Filmpers (IFP), Amsterdam, no. 1144.

Tab Hunter
Vintage postcard, no. 2311.

Fetching handsomeness and trim, athletic physique

Tab Hunter was born Arthur Andrew Kelm in New York City, in 1931. He was the son of Gertrude (Gelien) and Charles Kelm. Hunter's father was an abusive man and within a few years of his birth, his parents divorced and his mother moved with her two sons to California. Tab’s older brother Walter John Gelien (1930) would die in Vietnam in 1965 leaving seven children.

As a teenager, Hunter was a figure skater, competing in both singles and pairs. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard at the age of 15, lying about his age to enlist. While in the Coast Guard, he gained the nickname ‘Hollywood’ for his penchant for watching movies rather than going to bars while on liberty. He was eventually discharged when the age deception was revealed.

Returning home, his life-long passion for horseback riding led to a job with a riding academy. He was given the stage name Tab Hunter by his first agent, Henry Willson. With no previous experience Tab made his first, albeit minor, film debut in the racially trenchant drama The Lawless (Joseph Losey, 1950) starring Gail Russell. His fetching handsomeness and trim, athletic physique landed him a role in the British production Saturday Island (Stuart Heisler, 1952) opposite Linda Darnell. His shirt remained off for a good portion of the film, which certainly did not go unnoticed, and he was signed by Warner Bros.

The Hollywood studio system artificially groomed him and nicknamed him ‘The Sigh Guy’. His co-starring role as young Marine Danny in the World War II drama Battle Cry (Raoul Walsh, 1955), made him one of Hollywood's top young romantic leads. In the film based on the Leon Uris novel, Hunter has an affair with an older woman (Dorothy Malone), but ends up marrying the girl next door (Mona Freeman).

In September 1955, the tabloid magazine Confidential reported Hunter's 1950 arrest following an L.A. raid on a ‘pajama party’ in Walnut Park. Tab was eventually fined $50 for a reduced ‘disorderly conduct’ charge after originally being charged with ‘idle, lewd or dissolute conduct.’ The article, and a second one focusing on Rory Calhoun's prison record, were the result of a deal Henry Willson had brokered with Confidential in exchange for not revealing his client Rock Hudson's sexual orientation.

Surprisingly this article had no negative effect on Hunter's career. His hit films of these years include The Burning Hills (Stuart Heisler, 1955) with Natalie Wood, The Girl He Left Behind (David Butler, 1956), and Gunman’s Walk (Phil Karlson, 1957) with Van Heflin. Hunter, James Dean, and Natalie Wood were the last of the actors placed under exclusive studio contract to Warner Bros.

In 1957, Hunter had a hit record with the song Young Love, which was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks and became one of the larger hits of the Rock & Roll era. Another hit record was Ninety-Nine Ways, which peaked at #11. His success prompted Jack L. Warner to enforce the actor's contract with the Warner Bros. studio by banning Dot Records, the label for which Hunter had recorded the single (and which was owned by rival Paramount Pictures), from releasing a follow-up album he had recorded for them. He established Warner Bros. Records specifically for Hunter.

In 1958, Hunter starred in the musical film Damn Yankees (George Abbott, Stanley Donen, 1958), in which he played Joe Hardy of Washington DC's American League baseball club. Another success was That Kind of Woman (Sidney Lumet, 1959) with Sophia Loren. Hunter was Warner Bros.' top money-grossing star from 1955 through 1959.

Tab Hunter
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam / Editions Altona, Amsterdam, no. 5128. Photo: London Records.

Tab Hunter
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam. Photo: Warner Bros Pictures.

Tab Hunter (1931-2018)
Vintage card.

Tab Hunter
German postcard by ISV, no. H 51.

Spoofing his old clean-cut image

Tab Hunter's failure to win the role of Tony in the film adaptation of West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961) prompted him to agree to star in a weekly television sitcom. In 1960, prior to the program's debut, he was arrested by the police for allegedly beating his dog Fritz. His 11-day trial started in mid-October, a month after The Tab Hunter Show debuted on on NBC. The neighbour who initiated the charges had done so for spite when Hunter declined her repeated invitations to dinner, and he was acquitted by the jury. The Tab Hunter Show had moderate ratings and was cancelled after one season.

Following the film comedy The Pleasure of His Company (George Seaton, 1961) opposite Debbie Reynolds, the quality of his films fell off drastically during the 1960s. In Italy he made the fantasy L'arciere delle mille e una notte/The Golden Arrow (Antonio Margheriti, 1962) with Rossana Podestà. In Great Britain he starred in The City Under the Sea (Jacques Tourneur, 1965) with Vincent Price. For a short time in the late 1960s, after several seasons of starring in summer stock and dinner theatre in shows such as Bye Bye Birdie, The Tender Trap and Under the Yum Yum Tree.

Hunter settled in the south of France, and acted in Spaghetti Westerns like El dedo del destino/The Cups of San Sebastian (Richard Rush, 1967) and La vendetta è il mio perdono/Shotgun (Roberto Mauri, 1968). During the 1970 he worked mainly for TV but also starred in the horror film Sweet Kill (Curtis Hanson, 1972) and appeared in the Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972).

His career was revived in the 1980s, when he spoofed his old clean-cut image by appearing opposite Divine in the camp classics Polyester (John Waters, 1981) and Lust in the Dust (Paul Bartel, 1985), which Hunter also co-produced. He then played Mr. Stewart, the substitute teacher in Grease 2 (Patricia Birch, 1982), who sang Reproduction. Hunter had a major role in the horror film Cameron's Closet (Armand Mastroianni, 1988). He also wrote, co-produced and starred in Dark Horse (David Hemmings, 1992).

Hunter's autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (2006), co-written with Eddie Muller, became a New York Times best-seller as did the paperback edition in 2007. In the book, Hunter acknowledged that he was gay, confirming rumours that had circulated since the height of his fame. According to William L. Hamilton of The New York Times, detailed reports about Hunter's alleged romances with close friends Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood, were strictly the fodder of studio publicity departments. Hunter had a long-term relationship with actor Anthony Perkins and shorter flings with dancer Rudolf Nureyev and champion figure skater Ronnie Robertson, before settling down with his partner of over 30 years, Allan Glaser.

In 2015 Glaser produced the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential (Jeffrey Schwarz, 2015), based on Hunter’s autobiography, which re-entered the New York Times Best Seller list during the release of the documentary.

Trailer for Damn Yankees (1958). Source: Tab Hunter (YouTube).

Tab Hunter sings Young Love Live at The Perry Como Show. Source: The Land Of Marcos (YouTube).

Trailer Polyester (1981). Source: Night of the Trailers (YouTube).

Trailer Tab Hunter Confidential (2015). Source: Vanity Fair (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), BBC, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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