Tab Hunter, the blond actor and singer who was a heartthrob for millions of teenage girls in the 1950s with such films as “Gunman’s Walk” and “The Sea Chase”, has died. He was 86.
Producer and longtime partner Allan Glaser said Hunter died of a blood clot in his leg that caused cardiac arrest. Glaser called the death was “sudden and unexpected.” Hunter was a star for several years.
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.
Tab Hunter, born Arthur Andrew Kelm was born on July 11, 1931. Hunter was an actor, television host, pop singer, film producer, and author. He starred in more than 40 films and was a well-known Hollywood star and heartthrob of the 1950s and 1960s, known for his Golden Blond Californian surfer-boy looks. At his height, he had his own television show The Tab Hunter Show and a hit single with “Young Love”.
Hunter was born in New York City, the son of Gertrude (née Gelien) and Charles Kelm. His father was Jewish and his mother was a German (Christian) emigrant, from Hamburg. He had an older brother, Walter, and two paternal half-sisters, Sarah and Rebecca.
Hunter’s father was reportedly abusive, and within a few years of his birth, his parents divorced. He was raised in California living with his mother, brother, and maternal grandparents, John Henry and Ida (née Sonnenfleth) Gelien, living in San Francisco, Long Beach and Los Angeles. His mother reassumed her maiden surname, Gelien, and changed her sons’ surnames, as well. As a teenager, Arthur Gelien, as he was then known, was a figure skater, competing in both singles and pairs. Hunter was sent to Catholic school by his religious mother.
He joined the U.S. Coast Guard aged 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. When his age was discovered, he was discharged by the Coast Guard. He met actor Dick Clayton socially; Clayton suggested that Hunter become an actor.
Hunter’s first film role was a minor part in a film noir, The Lawless (1950). He was friends with character actor Paul Guilfoyle, who suggested him to director Stuart Heisler, who was looking for an unknown to play the lead in Island of Desire (1952) opposite Linda Darnell. The film, essentially a two-hander between Hunter and Darnell, was a minor hit.
Hunter supported George Montgomery in Gun Belt (1953), a Western produced by Edward Small. Small used him again for a war film, The Steel Lady, (1953) supporting Rod Cameron, and as the lead in an adventure tale, Return to Treasure Island (1954). He began acting on stage, appearing in a production of Our Town.
He was then offered a contract at Warner Bros.
One of Hunter’s first films for Warners was The Sea Chase (1955), supporting John Wayne and Lana Turner. It was a big hit, but Hunter’s part was relatively small. Rushes were seen by William Wellman, who cast Hunter to play the younger brother of Robert Mitchum in Track of the Cat (1955). It was a solid hit and Hunter began to get more notice.
His breakthrough role came when he was cast as the young Marine Danny in 1955’s World War II drama Battle Cry. His character has an affair with an older woman, but ends up marrying the girl next door. It was based on a bestseller by Leon Uris and became Warner Bros.’ largest grossing film of that year, cementing Hunter’s position as one of Hollywood’s top young romantic leads. He was in the third (Battle Cry) and tenth (The Sea Chase) most popular film of the year.
In September 1955 the tabloid magazine Confidential reported Hunter’s 1950 arrest for disorderly conduct. The innuendo-laced article, and a second one focusing on Rory Calhoun’s prison record, were the result of a deal Henry Willson had brokered with the scandal rag in exchange for not revealing his more prominent client Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation to the public.
Not only did this have no negative effect on Hunter’s career, a few months later he was named Most Promising New Personality in a nationwide poll sponsored by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations.
In 1956, he received 62,000 valentines. Hunter, James Dean and Natalie Wood were the last actors to be placed under an exclusive studio contract at Warner Bros. Warners decided to promote him to star status, teaming him with Natalie Wood in two films, a Western, The Burning Hills (1956), directed by Heisler, and The Girl He Left Behind (1956), a service comedy. These films also proved to be hits with audiences and Warners planned a third teaming of Hunter and Wood. Hunter rejected the third picture, thus ending Warners’ attempt to make Hunter and Wood the William Powell and Myrna Loy of the 1950s. Hunter was Warner Bros.’ most popular male star from 1955 until 1959.
Hunter received strong critical acclaim for a performance he gave on TV in “Forbidden Area”, the debut show of Playhouse 90, written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer.
Hunter had a 1957 hit record with the song “Young Love,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks (seven weeks on the UK Chart) and became one of the larger hits of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
He had another hit single, “Ninety-Nine Ways,” which peaked at No. 11 in the US and No. 5 in the UK. 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.
Hunter’s acting career was also at its zenith. William Wellman used him again in a war film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Columbia Pictures borrowed him for a Western, Gunman’s Walk (1958), a film which Hunter considered his favorite role.
Hunter starred in the 1958 musical film Damn Yankees, in which he played Joe Hardy of Washington, D.C.’s American League baseball club. The film had originally been a Broadway show, but Hunter was the only one in the film version who had not appeared in the original cast. The show was based on the 1954 best-selling book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop. Hunter later said the filming was hellish because director George Abbott was only interested in recreating the stage version word for word.
The Tab Hunter Show
Hunter’s failure to win the role of Tony in the film adaptation of West Side Story (1961) prompted him to agree to star in a weekly television sitcom.
The Tab Hunter Show had moderate ratings (due to being scheduled opposite The Ed Sullivan Show) and lasted only one season (36 episodes) but was a huge hit in the United Kingdom, where it ranked as one of the top situation comedies of the year.
Hunter had a starring role as Debbie Reynolds’s love interest in The Pleasure of His Company (1961). He played the lead in a swashbuckler shot in Italy, The Golden Arrow (1962) and was in a war movie for American International Pictures, Operation Bikini (1963).
In 1964, he starred on Broadway opposite Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
Ride the Wild Surf (1964) was a surf film for Columbia, followed by a movie in Britain, Troubled Waters (1964). He stayed in England to make another picture for AIP, War Gods Of The Deep (1965).
For a short time in the late 1960s, after several seasons of starring in summer stock and dinner theater in shows such as Bye Bye Birdie, The Tender Trap, Under the Yum Yum Tree and West Side Story with some of the New York cast, Hunter settled in the south of France, where he acted in spaghetti westerns, including Vengeance Is My Forgiveness (1968), The Last Chance (1968) and Bridge over the Elbe (1969).
Hunter had the lead role in Sweet Kill (1973), the first movie from director Curtis Hanson. He won a co-starring role in the successful film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) with Paul Newman. He had small roles in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold (1978).
1980s and later
Hunter’s career was revived in the 1980s, when he starred opposite actor Divine in John Waters’ Polyester (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985). He played Mr. Stuart, the substitute teacher in Grease 2 (1982), who sang “Reproduction”. Hunter had a major role in the 1988 horror film Cameron’s Closet. He also wrote the story for, and starred in, Dark Horse (1992), his last film.
An award-winning 2015 documentary about his life, Tab Hunter Confidential, was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Hunter’s partner Allan Glaser. A feature film is currently in development at Paramount Pictures to be produced by Glaser, J. J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto. Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning writer Doug Wright is attached to create the screenplay.
Tab Hunter in 2010
Hunter’s autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (2005), co-written with Eddie Muller, became a New York Times best-seller as did the paperback edition in 2007. The book was nominated for several writing awards. It re-entered the New York Times Best Seller list for a third time on June 28, 2015 during the release of the documentary film based on the book.
In the book, he acknowledged that he was gay, confirming rumors 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. As Wood and Hunter embarked on a well-publicized but fictitious romance, promoting his apparent heterosexuality while promoting their films, insiders developed their own headline for the item: “Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn’t.”
During Hollywood’s studio era, Hunter says, ” [life] was difficult for me, because I was living two lives at that time. A private life of my own, which I never discussed, never talked about to anyone. And then my Hollywood life, which was just trying to learn my craft and succeed…” The star emphasized that 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”, the actor says, but what “moviegoers wanted to hold in their hearts were the boy-next-door marines, cowboys and swoon-bait sweethearts I portrayed.”
Hunter had long-term relationships with actor Anthony Perkins and champion figure skater Ronnie Robertson, before settling down with his partner of over 35 years, film producer Allan Glaser.
Hunter was raised in his mother’s Catholic faith which he practiced for most of his life.
Hunter has a star for his contributions to the music industry on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6320 Hollywood Blvd.
In 2007, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
Hunter died from complications of deep vein thrombosis that caused cardiac arrest on July 8, 2018, three days before his 87th birthday. According to his partner Glaser, Hunter’s death was “sudden and unexpected”.