Friday 24 January 2020

Obituary: Tab Hunter

Hollywood actor who kept his sexuality a secret at a time when the industry was not ready for an openly gay heartthrob

HOLLYWOOD ICON: Actor Tab Hunter with actress Tuesday Weld at a dinner reception in Los Angeles in 1959. Photo: AP
HOLLYWOOD ICON: Actor Tab Hunter with actress Tuesday Weld at a dinner reception in Los Angeles in 1959. Photo: AP

Tab Hunter, the film actor who died last Sunday aged 86, was one of the last stars to emerge from the Hollywood studio system; in later life, once most of the movies of his 1950s' heyday were deservedly forgotten, he became best-known as a frank memoirist of his years as a closeted homosexual.

Hunter once observed that, at the age of 20, he had been "packaged and advertised [like] a box of cereal" in Hollywood. Possessed of healthy, blond good looks, he was publicised as "the Bobby-soxers' Dreamboat" and an "All-American Golden Boy", and his effect on movie-going teenage girls was such that he was nicknamed "the Sigh Guy".

Like many other stars of his generation, however, he suffered from miscasting at the hands of the studios. Pictures such as Damn Yankees (1958), a musical parody of the Faust legend in which he played a fanatical baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil in order to win championships, showed that his forte was light comedy. But he was more commonly cast in stirringly titled adventures such as Gun Belt (1953), The Sea Chase (1955) and Ride the Wild Surf (1964). His public certainly preferred him in romantic mode, and in 1957 he released a mawkish ballad, Young Love, which knocked Elvis Presley's Too Much off the top spot and became one of the biggest-selling singles of the decade.

With the demise of the studios, Hunter's career foundered, but he had never been comfortable with his screen image and was quite happy to send it up, leading to a late career revival when he starred in John Waters's cult black comedy Polyester (1981) as the square-jawed Todd Tomorrow, who romances the downtrodden housewife Francine Fishpaw, played by the drag queen Divine.

"Divine's a really nice guy," Hunter observed, "but boy, when he gets into his costume he sure is a lot of woman".

Such was Hunter's popularity as the kitsch hero that he went on to appear with Divine for a second time in the spoof western Lust in the Dust (1985).

He consolidated his appeal to a new generation of teenagers with his role as a singing supply teacher in Grease 2 (1982).

His bestselling memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (2005) was almost unprecedented in its candour about what it was like to be a secretly homosexual matinee idol. He revealed that while supposedly engaged to the actress Lori Nelson, he was in a relationship with the ice skater Ronnie Robertson, and while the public saw him squiring an endless parade of starlets such as Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood (those in the know dubbed them "Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn't") he spent some years living with the Psycho actor Anthony Perkins. He was also involved for a time with Rudolf Nureyev.

Tab Hunter was born Arthur Kelm in New York City on July 11, 1931. His mother, Gertrude, was a German Catholic immigrant; his Jewish father, Charles Kelm, was abusive and rarely present. While he was still a child, his mother obtained a divorce, changed the surname of her two sons to her maiden name of Gelien, and took them to live in Los Angeles, where she remarried. Arthur and his brother Walter were educated at various boarding schools and enrolled at St John's Military Academy. He later recalled his childhood as "a boring, hard and lonely time".

At 16 he ran away from school and, having lied about his age, joined the United States Coast Guard; he lasted a year before his real age was discovered and he was sent home to finish his education. He became successful as a figure skater in amateur competitions, studied ballet and competed in show jumping trials. In 1949 he was introduced to the agent Henry Wilson, who specialised in "pretty boy" film stars including Rock Hudson and Robert Wagner. Wilson decided that Gelien was too foreign-sounding a name; Tab was renamed Hunter after his favoured breed of horse.

He made his film debut as an extra in Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950). He took the lead role as a US Army corporal marooned in the South Pacific in the romantic adventure Saturday Island (1952); he had been cast immediately upon removing his shirt at the request of the director, Stuart Heisler, during his audition.

In 1954, Hunter, James Dean and Natalie Wood became the last stars to be signed to Warner Bros on an exclusive contract. He played a series of earnest soldiers and cowboys but while critics found him wooden, fans inundated the Warner Bros press office with requests for photographs.

He did more interesting work on television, notably for the anthology drama series Playhouse 90, and his sitcom The Tab Hunter Show (1961), although only a middling success in the US, was extremely popular in Britain.

But in film, he still found himself, in his 30s, being marketed to a teenage audience: "I was still being given lines like, 'Dad, can I borrow the car tonight?' and I was just too long in the tooth."

He decided to move to Europe in emulation of Clint Eastwood's success in spaghetti westerns, but without success. "The difference was that Clint was working for Sergio Leone and I wasn't," he said. "You could only describe the films I made as tatty and on the fringes of the scene." He left Italy and divided his time between Spain and Britain, where he settled in the Midlands and spent most of his time with the equestrian Anneli Drummond-Hay, who taught him to hunt.

He then returned to the US and spent more than a decade working the "dinner theatre" circuit (he recalled one man telling him: "My wife came for the play, I came for the roast beef.")

He performed for up to 50 weeks a year, staving off homesickness and loneliness by travelling with his favourite horse. A heart attack in 1980 forced him to give up the work, but then came his reinvention as what he called a "king of kitsch". Latterly he worked successfully in Hollywood as a producer.

Tab Hunter is survived by his partner of 30 years, the film executive Allan Glaser, who in 2015 produced a critically acclaimed documentary based on Tab Hunter Confidential. Glaser once commented that the biggest names in Hollywood would have envied the roles Hunter turned down in his later years, but he preferred life on his ranch in Montecito with his horses and dogs.

© Telegraph

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