Tab Hunter, Star of 'Damn Yankees,' Dies at 86

Tab Hunter Confidential Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

Tab Hunter Confidential Still - H 2015

The 1950s fan favorite also appeared in two films opposite Divine and was the reason that Warner Bros. Records was launched.

Tab Hunter, the chiseled 1950s heartthrob who portrayed Joe Hardy in the Damn Yankees! movie, had a No. 1 record and starred in two outlandish films with the drag queen Divine, has died. He was 86. 

Hunter died Sunday night in Santa Barbara from a blood clot that caused a heart attack, Allan Glaser, his romantic partner of more than three decades, told The Hollywood Reporter, describing his death as "unexpected and sudden." A Facebook page linked to the star also announced his passing with a message that read: "SAD NEWS: Tab passed away tonight three days shy of his 87th birthday. Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that."

After decades of silence, the leading man confirmed long-standing rumors about his homosexuality in his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, published in 2005.

Hunter said he had been told by Glaser that someone was planning to write a book about him. "I thought, 'Look, get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone,'" he told THR's Scott Feinberg in 2015. "I didn't want someone putting a spin on my life."

THR reported in June that the story of the relationship between Hunter and Anthony Perkins, who played Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is in the works as a film from Zachary Quinto and J.J. Abrams.

The film, titled Tab & Tony, is based on Hunter’s account of coming to terms with his sexuality in 1950s Hollywood. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions and Quinto are producing, along with Glaser and Neil Koenigsberg.

With his Malibu-style, boy-next-door looks and stage name dreamed up by Henry Willson — the agent for Rock Hudson as well — the blondish Hunter was a constant presence on the front of fan and teen magazines in his heyday. (A photo of him bare-chested was used as the cover of the 2000 book Shirtless! The Hollywood Male Physique.)

After Hunter beat out James Dean and Paul Newman to portray a young Marine in Raoul Walsh's Battle Cry (1955), Warner Bros. picked up his option and signed him to a seven-year contract, and he appeared in The Girl He Left Behind (1956) and Burning Hills (1956).

Studio head Jack Warner then purchased the film rights to the Tony-winning Broadway musical Damn Yankees! (1958) for Hunter to star in as Washington Senators slugger Hardy. He replaced Stephen Douglass as the lone principal actor who did not make the transition from the stage.

In The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "Tab Hunter may not have the larynx that Stephen Douglass had as the original hero, but he has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star. He is really appealing with Miss [Gwen] Verdon in the boogie-woogie ballet, "Two Lost Souls," which is done in a smoky, soft-lit setting and is the dandiest dance number in the film."

In a similar athletic vein, Hunter played troubled Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall on a 1955 episode of the CBS anthology series Climax! Like the 1957 movie that starred Anthony Perkins, it was based on the ballplayer's memoir, Fear Strikes Out.

Hunter's recording of "Young Love" for Dot Records in 1957 reached No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks, knocking Elvis Presley's "Too Much" out of the top spot and prompting the creation of Warner Bros. Records. (Jack Warner was annoyed that his studio did not have a record company to capitalize on Hunter's vocal skills, so he started one.)

Skewing his surfer-boy image, Hunter played Todd Tomorrow, a dashing owner of a drive-in, opposite Divine in the John Waters black comedy Polyester (1981), which introduced Odorama to theaters via a scratch-and-sniff card. (Among the scents: "Flatulence," "Model Building Glue" and "Smelly Shoes.")

And in a saucy send-up of Westerns, director Paul Bartels' Lust in the Dust (1985), Hunter reteamed with Divine. He and Glaser also produced the film.

He was born Arthur Andrew Kelm on July 11, 1931, in New York City. When he was young, his family moved to California, where his natural athleticism flourished, and he became an avid horseman.

At 15, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, lying about his age. Following the service, he was introduced by actor Dick Clayton to Willson, who decided that his birth name did not have the right commercial ring and that the actor needed a new "tab" (slang for "name" at the time).

Hunter made his movie debut in The Lawless (1950), then appeared opposite Linda Darnell in the romantic South Sea adventure Island of Desire (1952), in which he stripped down to skimpy swim trunks.

He studied under the influential acting teacher Jeff Corey and worked on such United Artists films as Gun Belt (1953) and Return to Treasure Island (1954) before signing with Warners.

Hunter, Dean and Natalie Wood were the last three actors to land contracts at Warner Bros. in the waning days of the studio system, and he received a massive PR buildup. He was given the nickname "The Sigh Guy" and from 1955 to '59 was Warners' top-grossing star.

Even as the studio was sponsoring "Win a Date With Tab Hunter" contests, Hunter was keeping his sexual orientation a secret while being seen in public with the likes of Wood, Sophia Loren and Debbie Reynolds.

"I never mentioned my sexuality to Warner Bros. at all, and they never mentioned it to me, thank God," Hunter told Feinberg. He did have a serious relationship with Perkins, however.

In a 2015 column written for THR, Hunter said that Louella Parsons of the Los Angeles Examiner and Hedda Hopper of the Los Angeles Times "would never openly discuss my sexuality — they couldn't in those days — but both periodically made subtle references to it in their columns, wondering when I was going to settle down with a nice girl and then, after the studio began pairing me with my dear friend Natalie Wood on faux dates, asking if I was 'the sort of guy' she wanted to end up with."

His career was put in jeopardy after Confidential magazine published a story about how he had been arrested at a party attended by gay people shortly after he arrived in Hollywood.

Hunter starred for a season (1960-61) on NBC's The Tab Hunter Show, playing a bachelor cartoonist who lives in Malibu. (Future Community actor Richard Erdman played a playboy and his best friend.)

He starred in such films as That Kind of Woman (1959), Operation Bikini (1963) and Man With Two Faces (1964), but then the countercultural '60s had arrived, and Hunter's teen-idol image went out of fashion. Long hair and rebellion were in, epitomized by anti-establishment stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.

Yet Hunter rode with the cultural wave instead of against it, seeking out balmy, offbeat projects. He co-starred in a mordant satire of the funeral industry, The Loved One (1965), with such loony luminati as Liberace and Jonathan Winters.

Paul Newman ordered his lynching in John Huston's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and on the syndicated TV satires Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Forever Fernwood, his character, after being removed from a chemical accident, came to look exactly like — voila! — Tab Hunter.

He also appeared on such shows as Burke's Law, The Virginian, Cannon, McMillan & Wife, The Six Million Dollar Man, Ellery Queen, The Love Boat, Benson and Masquerade.

He played the substitute teacher Mr. Stuart in Grease 2 (1982) and a decade later penned the story for Dark Horse (1992), which starred Ed Begley Jr. and Mimi Rogers in a story about a spoiled girl who goes to a horse ranch.

Hunter's sole Broadway credit was in the 1964 production, directed by Tony Richardson, of Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, in which he appeared as a young stud caught trespassing on the Italian estate of a dying, wealthy woman, played by Tallulah Bankhead. Slightly revised by Williams following its poorly received Broadway premiere the year before, the play fared no better, closing after just a few days.

A feature documentary about him, also titled Tab Hunter Confidential, was released in 2015 and produced by Glaser.

"If I had come out during my acting career in the 1950s, I would not have had a career," Hunter said in an October 2017 interview. "Not much in Hollywood has changed in 60 years. I really didn't talk about my sexuality until I wrote my autobiography.

"My film career had long since been over by then. I believe one's sexuality is one's own business. I really don't go around discussing it. Call me 'old school' on that topic."

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.