Tab Hunter, Hollywood matinee idol in 1950s and 1960s, dies at 86

Tab Hunter, a silver screen hottie and matinee idol in the 1950s and ‘60s who came out as gay in 2005, died Sunday in Santa Barbara, three days before his 87th birthday, Allan Glaser, his partner of 35 years, told CNN.

Glaser said the cause of death was a blood clot that caused cardiac arrest.
 
“We were walking home and he collapsed in my arms in our front yard,” Glaser told CNN. “He said he couldn’t breathe, so I called 911, and we went to the hospital.”
 
“This was sudden and unexpected,” Glaser added. “He was athletic, more like a 60-year-old not an 86-year-old.”
 
The first news of Hunter’s death was posted early Monday morning on the official Facebook page for “Tab Hunter Confidential,” the 2015 documentary that chronicled Hunter’s life in Hollywood and coming out of the closet.
 

SAD NEWS

“SAD NEWS: Tab passed away tonight three days shy of his 87th birthday.,” the post said. “Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that.”

No other information was posted.

Tab Hunter dies

Tab Hunter wrote his autobiography and agreed to make the documentary on his life because he wanted people to “get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone,” he said in numerous interviews. Photo: Tab Hunter Confidential Facebook page.

‘TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL’

Hunter publicly came out in 2005, at the age of 74, when he published his autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” which inspired the documentary.

The book was Hunter’s first person account of his rise to Hollywood heartthrob status in the 1950s, as well as his personal struggle with revealing his sexuality during his career. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was taboo and close to impossible to live as an openly gay man.

Hunter wrote his autobiography and agreed to make the documentary because he wanted people to “get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone,” he said in numerous interviews.

Tab Hunter dead

His all-American, boy-next-door good looks (blond hair, blue eyes and chiseled torso) also made him one of the most sought-after bachelors. But Hollywood’s golden boy was gay and living in the closet. Hunter shared his story in his 2005 autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential,” which inspired the 2015 documentary of the same name. Photo: “Tab Hunter Confidential” movie.

“I believed, wholeheartedly—still do—that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The dilemma, of course, that was being true to myself—and I’m talking sexually now—was impossible in 1953.”

BORN ARTHUR KELM

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.

In 1933, Gertrude and her two sons, Arthur, 2, and Walter, 3, came to San Francisco and moved to Long Beach four years later. Hunter lived in Long Beach for three years before the family moved to Los Angeles. Hunter, lying about his age, joined the Coast Guard at 15. In the 1950s, Gertrude lived in an apartment in Long Beach where Hunter was a frequent visitor.

TAB HUNTER HEARTTHROB

Hunter’s screen name was created by Henry Willson, the same talent agent who came up with the names Rock Hudson and Rory Calhoun.

Willson said to Gelien: “We’ve got to find something to tab you with. Do you have any hobbies?” His client answered, “I ride horses. Hunters.” Wilson then remarked, “That’s it! We’ll call you Tab Hunter.”

With no acting training, Hunter was cast in a minor role in the 1950 drama, “The Lawless.” But two years later, when Hunter appeared shirtless opposite Linda Darnell in “Island of Desire,” his muscular body took the spotlight. He starred in a bunch of films in the mid to late 1950s, including 1958’s “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.

Hunter was a star for several years. In addition to his hit movies, his recording of “Young Love” topped the Billboard pop chart in 1957.

TAB HUNTER WORKS WITH DIVINE

Hunter’s career had a brief resurgence in the 1980s thanks to John Waters, who cast Hunter in his 1981 film “Polyester” opposite drag queen Divine. Hunter played Todd Tomorrow, the owner of an art house movie theater, who catches the eye of Francine Fishpaw (Divine), a frustrated housewife.

Four years later, Hunter and Divine teamed for “Lust in the Dust,” which Hunter and Allan Glaser produced. After being lost in the desert, Rosie Velez (Divine) is helped to safety by Abel Wood (Hunter), and the two go looking for gold.

TAB HUNTER, ANTHONY PERKINS

Among the stories Hunter shared in the book and discussed in the documentary was his secret love affair with Anthony Perkins (who starred as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 thriller “Psycho”).

Their story will be made into a movie, “Tab & Tony,” by Zachary Quinto and J.J. Abrams, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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