Today In Gay History: Tab Hunter
By Andrew Belonsky
Tab Hunter, the '50s-era Hollywood actor known for his roles in classics like Damn Yankees and The Burning Hills, as well as for a fabricated relationship with Natalie Wood, turns 82 today.
This is worth celebrating, of course, and not only for the fact that 82 is itself a milestone. Though not as legendary as some of his peers, like fellow Warner Bros. star James Dean, Hunter left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry at large. In fact, one could argue that without Hunter we wouldn't have Madonna.
Born in New York City as Arthur Andrew Kelm (later Gelien, his mother's maiden name), the man who would become Hunter moved to California as a toddler, and then, after many years as a figure skater, he left civilian life to join the Coast Guard at the age of 15. He had to fib a little to register, of course, and unfortunately there would be more lies to come after Hunter left the Guard and entered Tinsel Town, first in the 1952 movie Island of Desire and then, three years later, the more successful Battle Cry, a World War II drama. It wasn't long before Tab Hunter -- a name chosen by Henry Willson, closeted agent to the equally closeted celebrities, including Rock Hudson -- was a star and heartrhrob. And it's not hard to understand why: blond and blue-eyed Hunter exemplified the new era of the strapping but sensitive hunk. (Casper Van Dien is basically a carbon copy, if that helps put things in perspective.)
Hunter, his looks, and his string of roles in movies like The Girl He Left Behind with Wood and James Garner and Damn Yankees helped define the emerging Hollywood culture. There was no way he could reveal he was spending his weekends with men in Palm Springs, which is why Willson and the rest of Hollywood insiders insisted Hunter create fake relationships like the one he had with Wood.
Hunter was such a massive star that like so many after him, he decided to try his hand at music-making. His 1956 single "Young Love" became such a hit that his record company optioned a second album. But that company was with Paramount, rival to Warner Brothers, the studio who essentially owned Hunter. Thus, to satisfy their star and to help expand their business, Jack Warner started Warner Bros. Records, a label that has since released albums by Madonna, k.d. lang, Seal and distributed overseas acts like The Smiths, Depeche Mode and The Cure, gay favorites all.
(Hunter's 1956 single, "Young Love.)
As anyone who knows Hollywood can tell you, parts dry up and fan bases move on and Hunter hit a rough spot in the mid-60s. He had a few roles and tried his hand at writing and directing, but with far less successful results. He had a brief resurgence when John Waters fulfilled a life-long dream and cast Hunter as Todd Tomorrow in 1981's Polyester and then in again in 1986, when he starred in Paul Bartel's Western comedy Lust in the Dust, also co-starring Divine, but it really seemed that Hunter was destined to fade away into obscurity, known only to old movie buffs. But then, in 2006, Hunter released Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, a memoir in which he confirmed decades-old rumors about his homosexuality and revealed to the world that though the mid-century tabloids said he was dating Wood, Hunter was in fact involved with Psycho actor Anthony Perkins and figure skater Ronnie Robertson. He eventually settled with film producer Allan Glaser, with whom he's been with for over four decades.
In honor of Hunter's career, the actor's impact both subtle and apparent, and his 82nd birthday, here's a small collection of images from Hunter's Hollywood heyday.