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 July 8 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 Hunter’s leg to his lung.
Arthur Gelien was 17 when agent Henry Willson gave him a new name and added him to a roster of clients that included Rock Hudson and Robert Wagner. “Acting skill,” Mr. Hunter said in his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential, “was secondary to chiselled features and a fine physique.”
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.
His breakthrough movie was Battle Cry (1955), in which he played a Marine, during the Second World War, who has a steamy love affair with a married USO 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 actor Anthony Perkins; and years of being “stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture – where I was even less comfortable and less accepted.”
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. When Warner Bros. made the movie version of the hit Broadway musical Damn Yankees, about a middle-age 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 review of The Girl He Left Behind: “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 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 Mr. Perkins.
Frustrated, Mr. Hunter bought himself out of his Warner Bros. contract in 1959. The studio already had another actor to take his place: Troy Donahue, who was as tall and blond as Mr. Hunter, but five years younger.
Leaving Warner Bros. proved to be a mistake. Mr. Hunter never stopped working, but he would not return to the spotlight until 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 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 the age of 15, Mr. Hunter lied about his age and joined the Coast Guard, but was discharged a year later when it came to light that he was underage. He finished high school at the urging of 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, Mr. Hunter 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.
Mr. Clayton brokered an introduction to Mr. Willson, who gave him his name and his start in the business. But Mr. Hunter later 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 arrested five years earlier at a gay house party. 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 days, such a revelation could have ruined his career.
Warner Bros. chose to ignore it, and eventually the public did too. 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 – more than 30, no longer under contract and no longer in demand – was considered a has-been.
He performed in dinner theatre and summer stock, but everything changed 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 such as “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’ first mainstream hit and Mr. Hunter’s ticket out of dinner theatre.
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.
After that, except for playing a small part in the 1992 movie “Dark Horse,” a family drama based on a story he wrote, he quit 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.