Tab Hunter, the blonde and blue-eyed star whose Hollywood career soared highest in the late 1950s and early ’60s, has passed away at the age of eighty-six. The news broke earlier today on the official Facebook page of Tab Hunter Confidential, a 2015 documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. The film focuses on Hunter’s years as a closeted gay man when homosexuality was still among the biggest of film industry taboos. The secret history of queer life during that repressive period remains a source of fascination. Just last month, word came from the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg and Borys Kit that Zachary Quinto and J. J. Abrams were setting up Tab & Tony, a drama about Hunter’s secret affair with Anthony Perkins, which Hunter wrote about in his 2005 memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.
Hunter wouldn’t have written the memoir if Allan Glaser, his partner for over three decades, hadn’t told him that there was an unauthorized biography in the works. Even after the book became a best seller, Hunter remained reluctant to work with Schwartz on the documentary. “I just have never been comfortable talking about my sexuality,” Hunter told Gerard Raymond in an interview for Slant in 2015. “I think it was easier with the movie because it was quite a few years later after the book. But it’s still not my comfort zone. I was just brought up that way. I’m very old-fashioned.”
Born in New York but raised in California, Hunter was “so Adonis-like that the girls in his high school used to chase him around in mobs,” as Michael Schulman notes in the New Yorker. After a brief stint in the Coast Guard—he was discharged when it was discovered that he was only fifteen—Hunter was introduced to Henry Willson, an agent who, as Ronald Bergan points out in the Guardian, “had an eye for good-looking men whom he would rename and get into films, sometimes in return for sexual favors. It was Willson who turned Roy Fitzgerald into Rock Hudson, Robert Mosely into Guy Madison, Merle Johnson, Jr. into Troy Donahue, Francis McCown into Rory Calhoun, and Arthur Gelien into Tab Hunter.”
His breakthrough performance came with Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry (1955), in which he plays a young Marine who cuts off an affair with a married woman and returns to his innocent girlfriend back home. The Hollywood Reporter’s Duane Byrge and Mike Barnes note that he “beat out” James Dean and Paul Newman for the role. The film’s success scored Hunter a contract with Warner Bros., and the studio paired him with Natalie Wood, both on-screen and, for the sake of appearances, off. His career peaked with Damn Yankees (1958), a baseball musical with a Faustian twist directed by George Abbott (with assistance from Stanley Donen).
When Hunter left Warner Bros., he quickly faded from the public eye, and he spent much of the ’70s on the dinner theater and summer stock circuit. At the time, few could have predicted that it would be John Waters who’d revive his career when the “Pope of Trash” asked him to play Todd Tomorrow opposite Divine’s Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981). In the New York Times, Aljean Harmetz quotes Waters explaining that he wanted Hunter because “to me, he has always been the ultimate movie star.”
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