Hollywood golden boy forced to hide his sexuality

Born: July 11, 1931;

Died: July 8, 2018

TAB Hunter, who has died aged 86, was an actor who, for a time, was the golden boy of Hollywood and one of its biggest stars. Good-looking, blond, fresh faced and apparently well-behaved, he was the nice young man to James Dean’s rebel and was hugely popular with girls at the start of the teenage revolution in the 1950s.

However, at the height of his success as a teen idol, actor and singer (his single Young Love knocked Elvis off the number one spot), he was hiding a major secret. In public, he was pictured with the likes of Natalie Wood, but in reality he was gay at a time when there were serious consequences for being so – the bottom line was he had to hide sexuality or it would have been the end of his career. “I had the ability to live behind the wall,” he said. “You were rewarded for pretending you were something you were not.”

In the end, though, it was not Hunter’s sexuality that killed off his career but changing fashions, a succession of poor films and rumours that he was “difficult”. He appeared in more than 40 films, including The Burning Hills with Natalie Wood and That Kind of Woman with Sophia Loren, but by the 1970s, his film career was effectively over and it was not until the 1980s, when he was cast by John Waters in a couple of outlandish films opposite the transvestite performer Divine, that he started having hits again. Indeed, after the years of obscurity when people would ask: whatever happened to Tab Hunter?, he became something of a cult figure.

Born Arthur Andrew Gelien, his childhood was not happy. His mother Gertrude was a German immigrant who arrived in America with her parents and siblings in 1927, but Hunter’s earliest memory was of her being beaten by his father Charles and he and his brother pleading for it to end.

Eventually, Gertrude left with the children, but this was Depression America and raising the family on her own was not easy. They moved around a lot in search of security, which made it hard for the young Arthur to make friends. Introverted and shy, he would spend as much time as he could at local horse stables, which began a love of the animals that would never leave him.

The young Arthur was also struggling with the realisation that he was gay. “I hated myself,” he said of that time. “I went to confession and this one priest made me feel like the most miserable person. I came away from that more fearful than ever.” Later, he would blame his religious upbringing for much of the struggle he endured over his sexuality. “I felt if you were with a man, you’d be sinning,” he said, “and if you were with a woman, you were lying.”

For a while he dreamed about becoming a professional skater and later had a relationship with the figure skater Ronnie Robertson - his first with a man. “In 1948,” said Hunter, “I had far more interest in horses and skating than in being a movie actor. I didn’t long for an acting career, not in the way I longed to be on the ice or at the stables.”

However, it was the agent Henry Willson who thought he could make Arthur Gelien a movie star. Willson was known in the 1950s for his team of young, attractive male stars including Rock Hudson and Robert Wagner and had been put on to the young Arthur after he was spotted by the actor Dick Clayton. The first thing that would have to change, Willson told Arthur, was his name and Tab Hunter was chosen.

Hunter’s first role was in the 1950 file The Lawless in which he had one line – “Hi Fred” – but by 1952, he had won the lead in Island of Desire, a hysterical film in which he and a nurse played by Linda Darnell are stranded on a south sea island after their ship is torpedoed. An RAF veteran then crash-lands on the island and the two men compete for the woman’s affection. “The first time I saw Island of Desire it made me sick,” said Hunter. “Critics, by and large, shared my reaction.” Even his mother could find nothing nice to say about the film - “you were lousy” she told him.

Hunter’s next film, Return to Treasure Island, was just as bad, but he then landed the lead in the 1955 war film Battle Cry, beating off competition from James Dean and Paul Newman, and it made him a star. The film was released as a double bill with East of Eden starring Dean, with Hunter being marketed as the wholesome alternative. That year, he, Dean and Natalie Wood were Warner Bros’ biggest stars.

The studio knew they were on to a good thing and made The Burning Hills, which combined the boy from Battle Cry with the girl from Rebel Without a Cause; it was seen as a dream team for the teenagers and every moment Hunter and Wood spent together was photographed and marketed. However, the truth was that Hunter had already started a relationship with the actor Anthony Perkins, who would later star in Psycho.

Hunter and Wood went on to make another film, The Girl He Left Behind, but Hunter wasn’t happy with the direction of his career - the studio wanted him and Wood to make more films together, but Hunter thought the scripts were bad and refused. Instead, he made Western Gunman’s Walk, which was considerably better than what had gone before and not only made use of Hunter’s skills as a horseman but cast him against type as a heavy.

The critics liked it and for the first time in his career Hunter received good reviews although he still felt smothered at Warners and bought himself out of his contract, which was the beginning of a decline in a career that never quite achieved the early promise. He made a TV sit-com, The Tab Hunter Show, which flopped and slowly the film roles started to dry up. A new style of acting was also becoming fashionable and faced with the edginess of Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, Tab Hunter was starting to look far too safe.

By the 70s, the major film roles were gone and Hunter invested money in a horse breeding business while also doing the odd movie and guest roles in TV shows such as Hawaii Five-O and Hart to Hart. The director John Waters, who was casting his 1981 black satire Polyester, then put a proposition to him. “How would you feel about kissing a three-hundred pound transvestite?,” he asked, to which Hunter replied “Well, I'm sure I've kissed a helluva lot worse!'" and, against the advice of his agent, Hunter took the part.

The result was some of the best reviews of Hunter’s career and one of the best experiences he had ever had making a film. It also reminded producers that he was still around and he was cast in Grease 2. Later, Hunter wrote a book about his life, Tab Hunter Confidential, in which he spoke about his sexuality in public for the first time. It was later made into a successful documentary.

By the 1990s, though, Hunter was happy to be out of movies for good and stay at home with his horses and his partner, the film producer Allan Glaser. In Tab Hunter Confidential, the actor said one of the most serious relationship of his younger years was with Perkins - "Tony and I had a very, very good relationship," he said – but he lived happily with Glaser for more than 30 years. Glaser survives him.