TAB HUNTER: LEG­END

Fifty years ago, a chis­eled young star fired up the box of­fice and cre­ated the stan­dard for mod­ern Hol­ly­wood’s heart­throb he­roes. That screen leg­end was Tab Hunter, who died re­cently at age 86.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT - By Matt My­ers

Fifty years ago, a chis­eled young star fired up the box of­fice and cre­ated the stan­dard for mod­ern Hol­ly­wood’s heart­throb he­roes.

Look­ing at pho­to­graphs of Tab Hunter in his prime, with his chis­eled good-looks, ath­letic physique and a pearly smile, it’s easy to imag­ine him suited-up to play a Marvel hero or Dis­ney prince in a 20-teens block­buster. “With blond hair and a tan,” Tab Hunter was the pro­to­type Franken­furter de­sired when he cre­ated Rocky.

Tab em­bod­ied the pris­tine 1950s boy-next-door in Eisen­hower’s Amer­ica. He was so dreamy, Hol­ly­wood coined the phrase, “the sigh guy” es­pe­cially for him. But be­hind the movie-star vis­age was hum­ble Arthur Kelm, a sen­si­tive, clos­eted, gay man.

While many of Tab’s con­tem­po­raries suf­fered the pit­falls of fame and the stu­dio sys­tem, Tab/Arthur man­aged to avoid them and live hap­pily – al­though there were bumps along the way.

Born in 1931, Arthur Kelm grew up in sunny Cal­i­for­nia along­side his older brother Wal­ter, who was later killed in the Viet­nam War. He never knew his fa­ther, and he looked af­ter his mother, Gertrude, well into the lat­ter stages of his own life. In his youth he joined the coast guard, be­came a cham­pion horse­back rider and a fig­ure skater. Dur­ing his act­ing ca­reer, he also be­came an ac­com­plished singer, re­leas­ing over 45 sin­gles.

Arthur’s en­try into Hol­ly­wood, af­ter be­ing re­named Tab Hunter by his agent, got off to a great start with roles along­side John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum play­ing sol­diers, sailors and cow­boys. His lead­ing ladies in­cluded Sophia Loren, Lana Turner and Natalie Wood. In 1955 he co-starred in two of that year’s high­est gross­ing films, Bat­tle Cry and The Sea Chase. He es­corted Natalie Wood to the Academy Awards in 1956, fu­el­ing spec­u­la­tion that they were a cou­ple.

There was a scan­dalous at­tempt to out Hunter in 1955. It was part of a ploy to pre­vent the out­ing of a much big­ger star, Rock Hud­son. Hunter’s for­mer agent, Henry Will­son, pro­vided a no­to­ri­ous tabloid mag­a­zine, Con­fi­den­tial with a story about Hunter’s ar­rest at a “limp-wristed pa­jama party” in ex­change for the mag­a­zine’s si­lence on Hud­son.

The story had no dis­cern­able ef­fect on Hunter’s

ca­reer. Per­haps the pub­lic sim­ply couldn’t con­ceive that an ac­tor of Tab Hunter’s ilk could be gay.

His best-known film from his pin-up days is the 1958 mu­si­cal Damn Yankees. When he missed out on the lead for West Side Story, he moved into tele­vi­sion with his own sit­com The Tab Hunter Show (the ro­man­tic ad­ven­tures of a Mal­ibu bach­e­lor).

By the end of the ’50s, Hunter had cut ties with Warner Broth­ers but, with­out the pro­tec­tion of com­pany pa­tri­arch, Jack Warner, found free­lanc­ing as an ac­tor dif­fi­cult. His film ca­reer con­tin­ued through­out the ’60s in less ac­claimed roles, and he also took to the stages of Broad­way. By the late ’60s he was liv­ing in the south of France and star­ring in spaghetti west­erns, which proved prof­itable.

He sat out the ’70s in a se­ries of largely for­get­table Amer­i­can films like Won Ton The Dog Who Saved Hol­ly­wood and Katie: Por­trait Of A Cen­tre­fold.

But in the ’80s, some­thing sur­pris­ing hap­pened. He was re­dis­cov­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion of provo­ca­teurs, in­clud­ing cult film direc­tor John Wa­ters, per­haps be­cause Hunter’s pri­vate gay life had slowly be­come pub­lic knowl­edge.

In 1981, still hand­some, Hunter had no prob­lem tak­ing on roles in Wa­ters’ Polyester and Paul Bar­tel’s Lust In The Dust in 1985. He played op­po­site plus-sized drag queen, Di­vine in both. He may have been for­got­ten by the Baby Boomers but he was em­braced by the geeks, freaks and gays of Gen­er­a­tion X.

When asked by John Wa­ters how he’d feel about kiss­ing Di­vine, Hunter replied, “I’m sure I’ve kissed a hell of a lot worse!”

In his 2005 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Tab Hunter Con­fi­den­tial: The Mak­ing Of A Movie Star, and sub­se­quent 2015 doc­u­men­tary, he spoke of his re­la­tion­ships with fel­low ac­tor An­thony Perkins and cham­pion fig­ure skater Ron­nie Robertson. He also had flings with bal­let dancer Ru­dolf Nureyev and ac­tor Scott Mar­lowe.

How­ever, it was while shop­ping around the idea for Lust In The Dust in 1983 that Hunter met his life-part­ner, pro­ducer Allan Glaser. De­spite a 30-year age dif­fer­ence, the cou­ple re­mained in­sep­a­ra­ble for the next 35 years.

Hunter’s ca­reer resur­gence also led to other no­table roles in­clud­ing school­teacher Mr Stu­art in Grease 2. Maxwell Caulfield, who played the film’s lead along­side Michelle Pfeif­fer, re­mem­bers Hunter well, and at­tended his re­cent me­mo­rial ser­vice.

“Tab was a class act, pos­sessed of great man­ners and charm,” he told DNA. “He was very well pre­served, of course, which in­di­cates a healthy life­style and a happy home life.”

Caulfield, also re­mem­bers a joint 1982 in­ter­view con­ducted with Hunter for Andy Warhol’s In­ter­view mag­a­zine. In its unique for­mat, one star would ques­tion an­other; in Caulfield and Hunter’s case it was like a pass­ing of the teen idol ba­ton.

“Tab gave me a great deal of ca­reer guid­ance at a point in my life where I fig­ured I knew it all,” says Caulfield. “In a very sweet and gen­tle way he told me that pub­lic­ity was a nec­es­sary evil. He called it the hot fudge sundae of life! He said, ‘It may seem like an aw­ful lot of bull­shit, but it’s very im­por­tant be­cause peo­ple are gen­uinely in­ter­ested, and if it’s not you it’ll be some­one else to­mor­row’.

“He also told me to do one very im­por­tant thing – go back to the the­atre and keep go­ing back be­cause it’s so im­por­tant. He did it be­cause he loved it and it was very good to him.

“But Tab also im­parted some great wis­dom from his favourite direc­tor, Sid­ney Lumet,” Caulfield re­mem­bers. “He adored Lumet and said when he was work­ing on a scene with Sophia Loren in the film That Kind Of Wo­man (1959), Sid­ney told him, ‘Tab, you’re play­ing it safe! If you’re go­ing to play it safe, you might as well stay in bed all day. It’s the safest place to be… You’ve got to put your­self on the line. We have to be risk peo­ple in life!’”

From heart­throb to pop star and cult movie star, Hunter sur­vived the treach­ery of Hol­ly­wood and took the reins of his life. We still his like­ness to­day, in the faces of Chris Hemsworth, Zac Efron, Chris Pine and Ryan Kwan­ten.

Tab in Bat­tle Cry (1955).

With Di­vine in Polyester, 1981 (above) and Lust In The Dust in 1985.

The golden boy.

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