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Tab Hunter, Gay Actor Who Became '50s Heartthrob, Dies at 86

Tab Hunter

Tab Hunter, a Hollywood heartthrob of the 1950s and early ’60s who came out as gay in his autobiography in 2005, has died at age 86.

Hunter died Sunday night in Santa Barbara, Calif., of cardiac arrest caused by a blood clot in his leg, his longtime partner, Allan Glaser, told Variety.

Born Arthur Gelb in New York City July 11, 1931, Hunter grew up in California with his mother after his parents’ divorce. He became a protégé of agent Henry Willson, who also helped launch Rock Hudson’s career. The blond, handsome, all-American Hunter projected a wholesome image ideal for the 1950s. Hunter soon signed a contract with Warner Bros.

He made some noteworthy films, among them Battle Cry (1955), a World War II drama based on a novel by Leon Uris; Lafayette Escadrille (1958), another war movie, this time set in World War I and directed by William Wellman; and, also in 1958, the Broadway musical adaptation Damn Yankees, with Hunter starring as a fan of the lowly Washington Senators baseball team who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to help them win the pennant over the hated New York Yankees. Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon costarred.

Hunter became a singing star as well, with the hit “Young Love” topping the charts in 1957. He acted opposite many of his era’s top actresses, including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Malone, Debbie Reynolds, and Sophia Loren. Studio publicists put out stories about him romancing Wood and Reynolds in an effort to counter rumors about his homosexuality. A story in the gossip magazine Confidential essentially outed him.

He had a love affair with fellow star Anthony Perkins for a few years, but Perkins’s studio, Paramount, ordered him to end the relationship, Hunter told The Advocate in 2015. In 1992, he recalled, he “had a hunch to call [Perkins] and touch base,” only to hear, before he could pick up the phone, that Perkins had died of AIDS complications.

Hunter’s studio, Warner Bros., “never said a word to me about my sexuality,” he recalled to The Advocate. But, according to an Internet Movie Database biography, he ended his contract with the studio because he found it overly restrictive in other ways. Many of his movies were mediocre or worse, but he didn’t find better ones after leaving the studio, and he had a short-lived TV series. He was also a victim of changing tastes as the 1960s went on, with audiences preferring edgier stars. He turned to appearing in summer stock, dinner theater, TV guest shots, and so-called spaghetti Westerns.

He was introduced to a new audience in 1981 by appearing in the John Waters film Polyester, starring as Todd Tomorrow, owner of an art-house drive-in who romances unhappy housewife Francine Fishpaw, played by Waters muse Divine. Hunter and Divine teamed again for 1985’s Lust in the Dust, a Western spoof in the Waters style, directed by Paul Bartel and co-produced by Hunter and Glaser.

In 2005 he published the autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which was adapted by Jeffrey Schwartz into a documentary film, also titled Tab Hunter Confidential, released in 2015.  The hardest thing about writing the book was ‘coming out to myself,’ he told The Advocate. “I’m a very private person who grew up with a strict German mother who believed “loose lips sink ships.” Without a doubt, my sexuality was something that I just never discussed, especially in the 1950s. But we heard that someone was going to write an unauthorized biography, so I thought, Why not get it from the horse’s mouth, instead of some horse’s ass after I’m gone?

His advice to young gay actors, he told The Advocate, was “be truthful and honest to yourself, and do what you think is right. Being gay, it’s going to be difficult to be a leading man or woman. But somewhere under all the crap there is a pony.”

One of those young gay actors, Zachary Quinto, posted on Instagram that Hunter was “a pioneer of self-acceptance” who moved “through this world with authenticity as his guide.” Quinto is developing a film about Hunter’s relationship with Perkins. Among other out celebrities, Elton John eulogized Hunter on Twitter as a “most handsome and special man,” and the cast of The Boys in the Band thanked him “for always living your truth.”

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