With his blonde hair and all-American good looks, Tab Hunter was the picture of a 1950s heartthrob. At the height of his career, he made waves as a wholesome boy next door in films like “Battle Cry” (1955), “The Burning Hills” (1956) with Natalie Wood, and “Damn Yankees” (1958). He enjoyed a short career resurgence in the ’80s, after playing Divine’s love interest in John Waters’ “Polyester” (1981). On Monday, July 9, a Facebook post announced that Hunter had died. He was 86.
Hunter wrote candidly about his life as a closeted man in Hollywood in a 2005 memoir “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” including his relationships with Olympic figure skater Ronnie Roberston and “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins. Their romance is the subject of a film from J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto in the early stages of development at Paramount, tentatively titled “Tab & Tony.” Hunter’s memoir was adapted into a documentary in 2015, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. “Tab Hunter Confidential” is currently available on Netflix, and makes for fascinating viewing about the golden age of Hollywood and the boy next door who chose to live his truth, despite risking his career.
Here are seven things we learned from watching.
Not exactly easy to imagine in lights, Art Gelien’s first agent made him change his name. “We’ve got to tab you something,” Henry Wilson told him, inspiring the first name. The last name came from his equestrian background, because he rode “hunters and jumpers.” Hunter didn’t like the name at first, but Wilson told him: “Once you see ‘On pay to the order of,’ it won’t be so bad.” When Hunter left Warner Bros., the studio gave his all-American boy roles to Troy Donahue. Incidentally, Troy Donahue was one of the names Wilson once floated for Hunter.
Wilson had a Midas touch for making someone a star, and he was known for representing “the pretty boys,” as one actress put it. “Henry put the make on me every now and then, occasionally his knee would push against your knee,” Hunter recalled. Hunter suspected Wilson began the rumors that he was gay in order to divert attention from Hudson’s sexuality, by tipping off the gossip magazine “Confidential.” The headline said Hunter had been seen at a “limp-wristed pajama party.”
In addition to his many movie roles, Hunter also had a prolific recording career in the 1950s. His first single, a version of “Young Love,” was a chart-topper that eventually went gold, knocking Elvis out of first place. “Warner blew his stack,” said Hunter, angry that Hunter had recorded with Dot Records. When Hunter pointed out that Warner Bros. didn’t have a recording division at the time, he started Warner Bros. Records to release Hunter’s music.
Hunter screen-tested nine times for the role of young Marine Danny in the 1955 World War II drama “Battle Cry.” He beat out Newman and Dean, who were also part of the Warners talent pool at the time. Early in his career, Hunter was considered a B-list actor with A-list looks. “Battle Cry” announced him as a serious actor, cementing his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest young romantic leads.
A competitive skater himself, Hunter was friends with many “Ice Capades” skaters, which is how he met Robertson. “He could spin faster than anybody in the world,” Hunter said proudly. They were careful not to be seen together often, but Hunter accompanied Robertson to the 1956 world figure skating championship. Robertson was told he wouldn’t win if Hunter attended. “The fact that I was there with Ronnie might have hurt his ability to win. And he should have won,” he said.
“I had a wonderful relationship with him,” Hunter said. They met at the pool at the Chateau Marmont, and Hunter was attracted to Perkins’ talent and intelligence. Perkins put his career above everything else, and betrayed Hunter by getting Paramount to buy the rights to “Fear Strikes Out.” Hunter had played the role on TV to much acclaim, and he had told Perkins he wanted Warners the buy the script for him. That was the beginning of the end of their relationship.
“I suppose I was a beard, but I was happy to be a beard because we were having a good time,” said the actress Venetia Stevenson. “I knew the game and we were playing it.” Stevenson thought Perkins was more in love with Hunter than Hunter was with Perkins, but he put career above anything else. “You never really knew Tony 100 percent. There was always a secret side, and he was a bit of a game-player with people’s minds,” said Hunter.
After he broke ties with Warners and bought himself out of his contract, Hunter’s career never really recovered. He was the antithesis of angsty bad boys Marlon Brando and James Dean, his wholesomeness considered a relic of the ’50s. He did a string of B movies, TV shows, and dinner theater throughout the ’60s and ’70s before taking a huge risk on “Polyester” in 1981. When his agent tried to dissuade him from doing it, he thought, “What have I got to lose?” Waters said he could only afford Hunter for one week. “I’m sure it was the least Tab Hunter had ever been paid, and it was the most I ever paid an actor,” said Waters. “Polyester” was a hit, reviving Hunter’s film career.
Hunter loved working with Divine so much in “Polyester,” he produced the 1985 comedy “Lust in the Dust,” a Western satire starring Hunter, Divine, Lainie Kazan, and a young Noah Wylie in his first film role. His partner and producer Allan Glaser suggested Perkins for a role. Hunter visited Perkins’ home with his wife to ask, but he turned down the role. It was the last time Hunter saw Perkins before his death in 1992 of AIDS-related pneumonia.