Tab Hunter, 1931–2018
The Hollywood heartthrob who became a gay icon
For much of the 1950s, Tab Hunter was Hollywood’s golden boy. Hunky, blond, and apparently well behaved, the actor was adored by both teenage girls and their parents. Hunter received 62,000 valentines following the release of his breakthrough movie, 1955’s Battle Cry—in which he played a Marine who has a torrid affair with a married woman—and was photographed stepping out in public with the likes of Natalie Wood. But it was all an act. Hunter was gay, and hid his relationships with Anthony Perkins, star of Psycho, and figure skater Ronnie Robertson out of fear of being exiled from the movie business. He finally came out in his 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential, in which he described years of feeling “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture—where I was even less comfortable.”
He was born Arthur Kelm in Manhattan “to a forbidding immigrant mother” and a violent father who walked out on the family when Hunter was 3, said The New York Times. Following a brief stint in the Coast Guard as a teenager, he was introduced to Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who specialized in “pretty-boy beefcake stars,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Willson gave Arthur his stage name and added him to a roster of clients that included Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue. “Having made an impression in his swimming trunks” in the 1952 shipwreck romance Island of Desire, Hunter signed a seven-year deal with Warner Bros. He starred as slugger Joe Hardy in 1958’s Damn Yankees! and was paired with Natalie Wood in The Burning Hills, a Western, and The Girl He Left Behind, about a spoiled rich kid made into a man by the Army.
As the countercultural 1960s arrived, “Hunter’s teen-idol image went out of fashion,” said HollywoodReporter.com. He kept busy, taking small roles in major studio movies and on TV, and experienced something of a career revival after being cast opposite drag performer Divine in the box-office hit Polyester, director John Waters’ 1981 camp ode to ’50s kitsch. Hunter retired in 1991 and was hailed as a gay icon following the publication of his memoir. Yet he never felt entirely at ease discussing his sexuality. “It’s still not my comfort zone,” Hunter said in 2015. “I’m very old-fashioned.”