Tab Hunter, the matinee idol best known for his role as star baseball player Joe Hardy in the screen adaptation of musical Damn Yankees, has died. He was 86.
The star died Sunday night from a blood clot that caused a heart attack, his partner, Allan Glaser, told The Hollywood Reporter. The news of his passing was also announced on a Facebook page linked to a documentary about his life, Tab Hunter Confidential. The post 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.”
In addition to his lengthy acting career, which took off courtesy of his boyish good looks in the 1950s, Hunter released a number one record, “Young Love,” in 1957, which prompted Jack Warner to launch Warner Bros. Records to feature the vocal talents of his young contract star.
Hunter was also an icon in the LGBTQ community, having publicly come out in his 2005 memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, in which he talked publicly about being gay in 1950s Hollywood and his affair with fellow actor Anthony Perkins. Just last month, it was announced that J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto have a film about the affair in the works, tentatively titled Tab and Tony,.
The memoir was accompanied by a 2015 documentary of the same name. On his decision to address his sexuality, Hunter said in the doc, “I thought, you know, get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone. Because you know someone’s going to put a spin on it.”
Tab Hunter was born Arthur Andrew Kelm on July 11, 1931 in New York City. His family moved to California when he was young, and he joined the Coast Guard at 15 after lying about his age. While in the service, he earned the nickname “Hollywood” for his love of watching movies.
Hunter met agent Henry Willson, who rechristened him with the name Tab Hunter, after being discharged from the Coast Guard. He made his film debut in the 1950 noir The Lawless before going on to star opposite Linda Darnell in 1952’s Island of Desire, a role which caught the attention of fan magazines for a scene in which he strips down to his swim trunks.
After a string of films at United Artists, including Gun Belt opposite George Montgomery, he became one of the last three actors alongside James Dean and Natalie Wood to sign a contract with Warner Bros. in the twilight days of the studio system.
At Warners, Hunter broke out in The Sea Chase in a supporting role alongside John Wayne and Lana Turner, but he became a major star with the release of 1955’s World War II drama Battle Cry. Based on a novel by Leon Uris, the film followed young Marine Danny (Hunter) who has an affair with an older woman before marrying the girl next door.
Hunter also starred opposite Wood in two films, The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind, at Warner Bros. before Jack Warner purchased the rights to the stage musical Damn Yankees! as a vehicle for the young heartthrob. He was the only member of the cast who was not an original member of the stage show, and he starred opposite Gwen Verdon’s Lola, the temptress sent to get young Washington Senators baseball player Joe Hardy (Hunter) to break his deal with the devil. Nicknamed “The Sigh Guy,” he was Warner Bros. number one grossing star from 1955-59.
Though Hunter kept his sexuality a secret and Warner Bros. even actively sponsored “Win a Date with Tab Hunter” contests, his career was nearly derailed in 1955 when Confidential magazine published a story about how he was arrested at a gay party in Hollywood in 1950 for “disorderly conduct.”
He also found success on the music front, releasing “Young Love” with Dot Records in 1957, which stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for six weeks and dethroned Elvis Presley tune “Too Much.” Another song “Ninety-Nine Ways” was also a hit for Hunter, reaching number 11 on the charts.
Hunter dabbled in television early in his career, appearing on his own sitcom NBC’s The Tab Hunter Show for one season from 1960-61. He continued to work steadily in films, appearing in projects such as The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, That Kind of Woman, Operation Bikini, and The Pleasure of His Company.
In the 1980s, Hunter appeared in two films that sent-up his matinee idol image. In 1981, he played Todd Tomorrow, a riff on his surfer-boy persona, opposite Divine in John Waters’ Polyester. The film was notable for its introduction of Odorama to theaters, which gave audience members a scratch-and-sniff card to accompany their viewing experience. He re-teamed with Divine on 1985’s Lust in the Dust, a parody of Westerns.
He continued to work well into his later years, appearing on TV shows, including Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Forever Fernwood, The Virginian, The Six Million Dollar Man, Ellery Queen, and The Love Boat. Grease fans will recognize him as substitute teacher Mr. Stuart in the cult classic sequel, Grease 2. He also took to writing and producing later in his career, penning the script for 1992’s Dark Horse and producing a litany of films with his life partner Allan Glaser. Glaser is also attached to produce the film about Hunter’s affair with Perkins, alongside Quinto and Abrams.
Hunter is survived by Glaser, his partner of over 35 years. Several of Hunter’s collaborators, including Zachary Quinto took to social media to mourn his passing. See a sampling of posts below, including one from an account managed by the estate of the late Divine.