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Tab Hunter, Hollywood Heartthrob, Dies at Age Eighty-Six

by Rob Blauwhuis in Media & entertainment , 26 september 2018

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Last July, 1950s movie star Tab Hunter died three days prior to his eighty-seventh birthday after a cardiac arrest. Despite his age, his partner Allan Glaser, with whom Hunter had been together since 1983, described his death as “sudden and unexpected.”

Tab Hunter was born in Manhattan, New York City, on July 11, 1931 as Arthur Andrew Kelm, but grew up in California. At fifteen he joined the United States Coast Guard, for which he had to lie about his age. His mates and colleagues there gave him the nickname “Hollywood” as he preferred watching movies over visiting bars while on liberty. When his true age surfaced, he was discharged. In his early teens he had already discovered that he was “different,” but, as he once said, he would “have gone crazy” if someone had asked him if he was gay.

with John WayneLikely due to these feelings of insecurity, he was a loner, who spent a lot of time at the local horse stables. Per chance he met actor Dick Clayton at the stables, who was there for a photo session with the actress Ann Blyth. Clayton encouraged him to pursue an acting career.

Hunter made his Hollywood debut in 1950 with a minor role in “The Lawless,” a film directed by Joseph Losey. In this movie he uttered only one sentence, which could easily have meant the end of his career. Hunter had been “discovered” by Henry Willson, to whom he had been introduced by Clayton.

Willson, who also gave Arthur Andrew Kelm the name Tab Hunter, had been working as a talent agent in Hollywood since the 1930s, where he had been at the cradle of Lana Turner’s career. When he took Hunter under his wing, however, Willson was best known for the many young, attractive men who were his clients, such as Roy Harold Scherer Jr., whom he made world-famous as Rock Hudson. He was also largely responsible for the “beefcake craze,” which got hold of Hollywood from the 1950s, in which attractive, young actors were only dressed in a swimsuit to show off their muscular body for movie magazines.

The fact that Willson’s choice of clients did not exclusively have business motives was generally known. According to one of Willson’s few female clients: “If a young, handsome actor had Henry Willson for an agent, it was almost assumed he was gay, like it was written across his forehead.”  

After the relative “flop” of “The Lawless,” Willson pulled some strings to give Hunter another chance. He got his chance in the 1952 movie “The Island of Desire,” which also appeared under the title “Saturday Island.” Although this was also not a major role, his performance in swimming trunks aroused the interest of the public. “There was an immediate reaction to my persona on screen,” Hunter recalled later.

In the 1950s in the United States, and certainly in the dream factory Hollywood, homosexuality was a big taboo and Hunter had to keep his erotic preference a secret. In public, he appeared with female colleagues With Anthony Perkinssuch as Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood, and the publicity departments of the studios fired rumours about possible romances. Meanwhile, Hunter had to hide that he was in long-standing relationships with, among others, actor Anthony Perkins (the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho”), and champion figure skater Ronnie Robertson.

In 1955, when Hunter’s career had just got off to a good start, a press scandal could have quickly ended it all. The gossip rag “Confidential,” which positioned itself independently of the studios, was planning to make Rock Hudson’s sexual preference public, and his manager Henry Willson wanted to prevent this at all costs. As Hunter had just exchanged Willson for another agent, the agent made a deal with the magazine out of spite. “Confidential” was to leave Rock Hudson alone and in return Willson gave them information about the years in prison of movie and television star Rory Calhoun as well as the arrest of Tab Hunter.

Many years later, Hunter recalled: “He made them aware of the fact that five years earlier, before I was anybody, I had been arrested for disorderly conduct when police raided a party at which I — and a number of other gay people — were in attendance. ‘Confidential’ then ran the story on its cover and described it as ‘a pyjama party,’ insinuating that it had been some sort of gay orgy. It was all bullshit. I had been invited to the party by a friend and attended it solely for the free food. When I arrived, there happened to be a couple of guys dancing with a couple of guys and a couple of gals dancing with a couple of gals, so I looked and said, ‘Oh, it’s one of those parties,’ and then proceeded to the refrigerator.

Moments later, the cops showed up and arrested all of us. That’s exactly how innocent it was. When the ‘Confidential’ article came out, though, I thought my career was over. Thankfully, at just about the same time, ‘Photoplay,’ which had a much bigger circulation, came out with an issue featuring me and Natalie Wood on the cover, identifying us as the year’s most popular new stars. That probably saved me.” Or as he recalled on another occasion: “What moviegoers wanted to hold in their hearts were the boy-next-door marines, cowboys and swoon-bait sweethearts I portrayed.”

Like many movie careers, that of Tab Hunter also had its highs and lows. He did, however, perform alongside drag queen superstar Divine in John Waters’ “Polyester” (1981). In an interview, Hunter remembered how Waters approached him: “He said, ‘How would you feel about kissing a three-hundred pound transvestite?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a helluva lot worse!’ I loved doing it... one of the best experiences I ever had making a film.” In 1985 he again played alongside Divine in a film by John Waters, the Western spoof “Lust in the Dust,” which he and his partner Allan Glaser also co-produced.

Despite of these roles and the fame of Waters and Divine, Tab Hunter only officially came out of the closet in 2005 with the publication of his autobiography “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” written in collaboration with Eddie Muller.

This honest glimpse into the hypocritical and oppressive world of Hollywood formed, ten years later, the basis for a documentary of the same name, produced by Hunter’s partner Glaser and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 326, October 2018

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