Tab Hunter, the blond actor and singer who was a heartthrob for millions of teenage girls in the 1950s with such films as “Battle Cry” and “Damn Yankees” and received new attention decades later when he revealed he was gay, died at 86 on Sunday — three days shy ofdis 87th birthday.
Producer Allan Glaser, Hunter’s husband, said died Sunday at a hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif., of a blood clot in a leg that caused cardiac arrest.
Glaser told the Los Angeles Times, “He collapsed in my arms in the front lawn, and I called 911, and we raced him to the hospital. It was sudden and unexpected.”
Hunter had five years of intense fame. In addition to his hit movies, his recording of “Young Love” topped the Billboard pop chart in 1957.
In his 2005 memoir “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” Hunter recounted the stresses of being a love object to millions of young women when he was, in reality, gay.
“I believed, wholeheartedly — still do — that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” he wrote. “The dilemma, of course, that was being true to myself — and I’m talking sexually now — was impossible in 1953.”
Harvey Fierstein on Monday said Hunter was a “gay icon” and a “true gentleman,” adding, “We shared some good laughs back in the ’80s. I was always fond of this dear man.”
Among others who lauded him, Zachary Quinto on Instagram called Hunter a “pioneer of self-acceptance” who moved through the world “with authenticity as his guide.”
Born Arthur Andrew Kelm, Hunter’s screen tab — the slang at the time for “name” — was fabricated by Henry Willson, the same talent agent who came up with the names Rock Hudson and Rory Calhoun, among the slew of Hollywood stars in those days with manufactured names.
The legend goes that Willson said to the young man: “We’ve got to find something to tab you with. Do you have any hobbies?”
His client answered, “I ride horses. Hunters.” Agent: “That’s it! We’ll call you Tab Hunter.”
Hunter began his career as a young actor of unlimited good looks but decidedly limited talent. With no dramatic training, he was cast in a minor role in the 1950 drama “The Lawless.”
The fuss over the young actor began two years later when he appeared bare-chested opposite Linda Darnell in the British-made “Island of Desire.” Soon, his handsome face and muscular build appeared on magazine covers. And Warner Bros., alert to the increasingly important youth market, signed him to a contract.
Hunter made a flurry of movies in the latter half of the 1950s aimed at capitalizing on his popularity with young girls. The films included such war dramas as “Battle Cry” (with Van Heflin) and “Lafayette Escadrille” (which featured Clint Eastwood in a small role).
He made the Westerns “The Burning Hills” (with Natalie Wood) and “They Came to Cordura” (with stars Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth).
And he made romantic comedies like “The Pleasure of His Company” (with stars Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds.)
A highlight was the 1958 “Damn Yankees,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston in their Tony-winning New York roles and the original director, George Abbott, sharing direction with Stanley Donen. The New York Times’ critic wrote that Hunter “has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star.”
Besides the movies, Hunter displayed his athletic skills — he had been a figure skater as well as horseman — in the TV special “Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.”
As with so many pop idols, his fans grew up and a new generation sought-other favorites. His slide followed the classic pattern, to:
• A television series (“The Tab Hunter Show” on NBC from 1960 to 1962).
• European films (“The Golden Arrow”).
• And cheap kid flicks (“Ride the Wild Surf.”)
In his memoir, he took pains to note that “Ride the Wild Surf” was his only beach-party movie. His “Operation Bikini,” despite its title, was “yet another war movie.”
Over the years, he also had small roles in “The Loved One,” ”The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Grease 2.”
In the 1980s, he won new fans by appearing in cult movies with Divine, the 300-pound drag performer, notably John Waters’ 1981 “Polyester” and Paul Bartel’s 1985 “Lust in the Dust,” which Hunter co-produced.
Of “Polyester,” Hunter wrote: “Everybody got the joke. … For both John and me, our collaboration paid huge dividends: I’d helped ‘legitimize’ his brand of movie, and he made me ‘hip’ overnight.”
Hunter appeared on Broadway in 1964 in Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” opposite the formidable Tallulah Bankhead. The play closed within days, and he said it was “completely buried under Tallulah’s offhanded trademark campiness.”
Hunter was born in 1931 in New York City, the second son of a mechanic and his German immigrant wife. His father left the family two years later, and the boy took his mother’s name, Gelien. Young Arthur Gelien grew up in San Francisco and Long Beach, California, and joined the Coast Guard at 15, lying about his age.
While in New York, he saw Broadway plays and became interested in acting.
Back in California, Willson arranged for a two-word role in the minor Western “The Lawless.” He got $500 — and a new name.
In his memoir, he wrote that his career flourished despite some innuendo and smear articles in the scandal sheets — “clear evidence that despite its self-righteous claims, ‘Confidential’ magazine did not influence the taste and opinions of mainstream America.”
Writing the book was difficult, he told The Associated Press in 2005, “because I’m a really private person. I grew up full of denial. I just didn’t like any suggestions or questioning of my sexuality.”
In 1960, Hunter’s boy-next-door reputation took a hit when he was charged with cruelty for allegedly beating his dog. He was acquitted.
In recent years, Hunter appeared in dinner theaters and organized film projects.
After living on a ranch in New Mexico for a time, he moved to a home in Montecito, Calif., in Santa Barbara County with Glaser.
He didn’t dwell on his Hollywood career or regret losing it.
“I had my fling, and I was very fortunate,” he said. “But that’s all in my past.”