Tab Hunter: From ’50s heartthrob to dinner-theater circuit to a John Waters film comeback

Nancy Bilyeau
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Actor Tab Hunter died on July 8, 2018, in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 86.

The life of an actor is often filled with ups and downs, but even within that world, his career was one of extremes.

Hunter, billed for his “all American” good looks, his blonde hair, sculpted features, and blue eyes, was born Arthur Andrew Kelm, his mother a German emigree. He grew up in California and served in the Coast Guard before becoming an actor at 17.  His agent, Henry Willson, gave him the stage name Tab Hunter.

For his very first audition, Hunter took off his shirt. His breakthrough part was in Battle Cry in 1955 — he played a Marine who has a love affair with Dorothy Malone.

Cropped screenshot of Tab Hunter from the trailer for the film “Damn Yankees.”

According to The New York Times, “in February 1956, Hunter received a reported 62,000 Valentines. He was the dream date of teenage girls on several continents.”

However, Hunter always felt conflicted about being a sex symbol to young women and playing the parts of womanizing “hunks,” because he was gay. He went out on studio-arranged dates with costars like Natalie Wood but his real romance, a secret one, was with Anthony Perkins, who played Norman Bates in Psycho.

Other gay actors of the time, such as Rock Hudson, also sustained public images as heterosexual men and even married women for the sake of their careers. Hunter later said he did not think it was fair to do that.

Hunter with Natalie Wood at the 28th Academy Awards in 1956.

While the public was ignorant of Hunter’s sexuality, Hollywood insiders were aware. His dates with his friend Natalie were described as “Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn’t.” Some members of the media wrote coded items about Hunter, and a tabloid tried to expose him. He said later, “Life was difficult for me because I was trying to live two lives.”

In 1957, he recorded a song, “Young Love,” that became a Number One Billboard hit for six weeks.

Tab Hunter (right) with Anthony Perkins and Peter Potter on the TV show Juke Box Jury, 1957.

Hunter’s most successful film was Damn Yankees in 1958, in which he played the lead role. However, the rugged golden boy type was not as popular in the 1960s and his career faltered. For years, Hunter performed in summer stock and dinner theater, as well as appearing in a few Spaghetti Westerns. He also played guest roles on TV series. Stardom seemed to be over.

“I was a product of Hollywood,” Mr. Hunter said in 1981. “And one morning, I woke up and couldn’t get arrested.”

Tab Hunter and co-star Debbie Reynolds on set of “Tab Hunter Confidential.” Photo by RaveUn2Mike CC BY SA 4.0

Hunter’s comeback was thanks to independent director John Waters, who cast him in the 1981 film Polyester, opposite Divine.

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According to The New York Times, “Waters, best known at the time for challenging the notion of good taste in underground films like Pink Flamingos, said he wanted Mr. Hunter for the part because ‘to me, he has always been the ultimate movie star.’ His script, which sent up Hollywood clichés, made Mr. Hunter laugh, and he took the part despite warnings that it would kill his career.”

Tab Hunter in 2010. Photo by Greg Hernandez CC BY 2.0

Reportedly, Waters, when discussing the part with him, asked Hunter, “How would you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?” Hunter replied: “Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a lot worse!”

The film was a success, and his acting career was revived.

Tab Hunter in trailer for “Gunman’s Walk” (1958)

In 2005, he came out as gay when his bestselling autobiography was published: Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. Variety reported, “In it, he wrote about studio publicity efforts to mask his homosexuality by linking him with co-stars and friends such as Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood. That book inspired a 2015 documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz, also called Tab Hunter Confidential.”

Earlier this year, J. J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto announced that they were developing a movie about the secret love affair between Hunter and Anthony Perkins.

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The cause of Hunter’s death was cardiac arrest after a blood clot moved from his leg to his lung. His death was confirmed by his spouse, Allan Glaser.


Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.