Tab Hunter: how Hollywood’s boy next door became a gay icon

The actor, who died on Sunday at the age of 86, kept his sexuality a secret at a time when the industry wasn’t ready for an openly gay heartthrob

“Tab passed away tonight three days shy of his 87th birthday,” read a post on the late actor’s Facebook page early Monday morning. “Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that.”

A product of an era that was famously inhospitable to gay entertainers, Hunter kept up secret romances with film star Anthony Perkins and figure skater Ronnie Robertson as movie studios trotted him out alongside screen sirens Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds, with whom he’d go on pretend dates. Before the LGBT rights movement broke open in the late 60s, Hunter’s sexual orientation, like that of his contemporary Rock Hudson, was handled with innuendo by journalists covering the revolving door of romances among Tinseltown’s top brass.

The gossip columns of the day, penned by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, “made subtle references” to his sexuality, as Hunter wrote in the Hollywood Reporter in 2015, “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”.

Ultimately, Hunter would end up with producer Allan Glaser, his partner of 36 years. But not before an article in Confidential, the bimonthly gossip rag from which Hunter’s memoir borrows its name, reported on the then 24-year-old’s involvement in an arrest at a “limp-wristed pajama party” where other gay males were in attendance. The article, Hunter felt, insinuated he’d been party to a “gay orgy”, a rumor that might have torpedoed his career given the contemporaneous moral panic around homosexuality and the “lavender scare” that led to mass firings.

“When the Confidential article came out,” he recalled, “I thought my career was over.”

But Hunter, who by the late 50s felt “the publicity had exceeded the product”, was actually entering the most prolific stretch of his career. In 1956, he starred opposite Wood in The Burning Hills, a Western revenge tale about a pair of young lovers. The two teamed up again two years later in the 1958 romantic comedy The Girl He Left Behind. A year before that, Hunter’s version of the song Young Love charted at number one on the Billboard Top 100, introducing the world to his dreamy baritone. And, in 1958, he proved his musical bona fides yet again starring in Damn Yankees, an All-American movie musical that cemented Hunter’s status as the comely golden boy opposite James Dean’s rebel without a cause.

Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film adaptation of the 1955 musical in the New York Times, said Hunter was in possession of “the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star”.

That star, however, would begin to dim in the early 1960s, when Hunter bought himself out of his contract with Warner Bros for $100,000 and was replaced by Troy Donahue. He’d continue to make movies and appear on television – most notably in the short-lived Tab Hunter Show – but found himself mostly in B pictures like Operation Bikini while working the dinner theatre circuit in shows like Bye, Bye Birdie and The Tender Trap. As the studio era ended, the movie business changed inalterably; Hunter, as he says in his memoir, had to bite the hand that fed him stardom.

“In my professional life, I longed to be more than the sigh guy,” he wrote in Tab Hunter Confidential, which was made into a documentary of the same name in 2015. “In my personal life, I was quite a different Boy Next Door than the one Mr and Mrs Middle America imagined me to be.”

Through the 60s and 70s, Hunter decamped to Europe, where he spent time in Capri, Monte Carlo, and Rome liaising with Luchino Visconti and Etchika Choureau while carrying on an affair with the Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. What he really wanted, though, was to “chuck the whole rat race and move to Virginia’s horse country”. So, in 1973, he began leasing farms in rural getaways like Oregon and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, paying the bills by touring with a dinner theatre troupe.

In 1977, Hunter attempted a comeback when he replaced Philip Burns as George Shumway in the late-night series Forever Fernwood. But what would revitalize his career in earnest was a phone call from John Waters, the transgressive gay film-maker whose campy sensibility hadn’t yet been fully embraced beyond midnight moviegoers. Waters had called to cast Hunter in Polyester, opposite drag queen and Waters muse Divine.

“How would you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?” Waters supposedly asked Hunter. “Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a hell of a lot worse!” he replied. The film would become a resounding success, Waters’ first in the mainstream, and the unlikely pairing that was Hunter and Divine would be reprised in the 1985 comic western Lust in the Dust. It was on the set of that film where Hunter met Glaser, the producer with whom he’d spend the next three and a half decades.

It was not until 2005, though, that Hunter came out publicly, using his memoir (co-written by Eddie Muller) to pre-empt another tell-all that was also in the works. Its opening words – “I hate labels” – reflect Hunter’s discomfort with an industry hellbent on typecasting him as the Sigh Guy, the Boy Next Door and “the even more ludicrous Swoon Bait”. But, in its Inside Baseball approach to revealing the inner workings of Hollywood before, during and after the studio era, it is a remarkably insightful, confident account of and by one of Hollywood’s first gay movie stars, a label by which the famously self-effacing Hunter would surely be chagrined.

In death, though, Tab Hunter’s legend won’t fade. The 2015 documentary adapted from his memoir, which can be seen on Netflix, helped usher in a wave of discourse about the ills of the studio era – homophobia, misogyny and abuse among them – a topic that was revisited last year in Feud, the fictitious television recounting of the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And, just last month, JJ Abrams, Zachary Quinto, and Glaser announced they’d be producing a film called Tab & Tony, about the secret years-long dalliance between Hunter and Perkins.

Hunter, at any rate, preferred solitude and privacy to having his dirty laundry aired, the same way he preferred horses to humans. But there is a kind of poetic justice in that a man who spent much of his life in the shadows lived long enough to see his forbidden romance developed as a movie, one produced, as it ought to be, by two openly gay men.

Hunting Season – Season 1, Episode 1

Hunting Season is the hit comedy series ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY called „an update of Sex and the City that delves into the sexual exploits of gay New Yorkers.“

Hunting Season - Season 1, Episode 1

Tab Hunter, 1950s Gay Hollywood Icon, Dies At Age 86

Actor and 1950s Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter, who later came out as gay, has died at age 86. 

Hunter’s partner for more than three decades, producer Allan Glaser, said the actor died Sunday at his Santa Barbara County, California, home from a blood clot in his leg that led to cardiac arrest, according to The Associated Press. Glaser described Hunter’s death as “sudden and unexpected.”

The actor’s death was first announced on his Facebook page: “Tab passed away tonight three days shy of his 87th birthday,” the post read. “Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that.”

Born Arthur Andrew Kelm, Hunter was given his on-screen moniker by talent agent Henry Willson, who discovered Hunter and was also responsible for naming Rock Hudson, another successful actor and closeted gay man back then.

Hunter rose to fame in the 1950s starring in a slew of popular films like “Battle Cry” (1955), “The Girl He Left Behind” (1956), “Burning Hills” (1956) and “Damn Yankees” (1958). He even branched out into music, topping the Billboard charts with “Young Love” in 1957.

With his signature blonde locks and chiseled jaw, Hunter was often labeled the all-American boy and became the public object of affection for teenage girls. Warner Brothers, with which he had a multiyear contract, dubbed him “The Sigh Guy.”

In the press, Hunter was linked to famous stars like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds during his heyday. But as he later revealed in his 2005 memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, he was actually carrying on a long-term relationship with “Psycho” actor Anthony Perkins.

“I believed, wholeheartedly — still do — that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” Hunter wrote. “The dilemma, of course, was that being true to myself — and I’m talking sexually now — was impossible in 1953.”

In 1955, Hunter was nearly outed by the magazine Confidential when it highlighted his five-year-old arrest for disorderly conduct at a “pajama party” attended by a number of gay people. But the article didn’t impact his star power, thanks to his box office successes and a rumored relationship with Wood, whom he later referred to as his “kid sister.”

Hunter bought himself out of his contract in 1959 to pursue other opportunities ― a decision he said he later regretted ― but his career still faded. One notable later role came in John Waters’ 1981 film “Polyester,” in which Hunter starred alongside the iconic drag performer Divine. 

Many who were touched by Hunter’s legacy paid tribute to the late actor on social media ― including Andrew Rannells, Harvey Fierstein and Zachary Quinto, who is set to produce a film with J.J. Abrams about Hunter’s romance with Perkins. 

A post shared by Zachary Quinto (@zacharyquinto) on Jul 9, 2018 at 6:27am PDT

Sad to report that Tab Hunter, the gawjuss gay icon, and true gentleman, has left the building. We shared some good laughs back in the 80’s. I was always fond of this dear man.

A post shared by theandrewrannells (@andrewrannells) on Jul 9, 2018 at 7:48am PDT

Hunter’s memoir was adapted into a critically acclaimed documentary of the same name, released in 2015. During the film’s press tour, he talked about the ups and downs of being a closeted actor during Hollywood’s golden age. 

“In life we have to be contributors. It’s very, very important. And I look up there and I think I’ve contributed,” Hunter told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m very grateful for this road that I’ve been on — it’s been a good one. … It’s been a tough one, at times, too.”

Tab Hunter, 1950s Gay Hollywood Icon, Dies At Age 86

‘Young Hunter’: Film Review

Marco Berger adopts thriller elements to mixed effect in this well-played story of a blackmailed gay teen, astutely treating coercion as the problem rather than sexual activity among adolescents.

 ‘Young Hunter’: Film Review

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PREAMBLE

The College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) recently spoke about sexual identity and invited Anglicans “to discern these matters within their own diocesan communities and ministries.” ACNA bishops have privately provided pastoral guidance to local churches, with at least one bishop offering guidance to his clergy that can be read publicly.

To continue this public discernment, the ACNA bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people who have signed below humbly offer this letter of confession and commitment to gay Anglicans, with unwavering commitment to the authority, mission, and community of the ACNA.

If you’re a gay/same-sex attracted lifelong Anglican committed to a traditional sexual ethic, a gay agnostic curious about getting to know Jesus in an Anglican context, or anyone in between, this letter is to you. We pray you will experience God’s love and wisdom in the churches who have signed below.

DEAR GAY ANGLICANS,

We affirm what is good and true from the recent Pastoral Statement on Sexuality and Identity from ACNA Bishops, including its continued commitment to a traditional sexual ethic and a recognition that God has made everyone for healthy intimacy in the context of human family.

We confess that while each of our sexualities is broken, churches have often treated different brokenness differently. As the Provincial Statement humbly recognizes, churches have inconsistently applied God’s wisdom for sexual stewardship by holding same-sex attracted people to a higher standard than straight people regarding vocational singleness, procreation, divorce, and remarriage.

We confess that many gay Anglicans committed to a traditional sexual ethic have labored faithfully in their sanctification but struggled to thrive because our churches have failed to take the practical steps necessary to promote flourishing. In the words of the Provincial Statement, many same-sex attracted Christians are “fighting the good fight to become more like Jesus” but have “felt ignored by fellow followers of Jesus to the point of feeling invisible.”

We confess that Christians have perpetrated destructive reparative/conversion therapies, leading many sexual minorities to lose their faith or die by suicide. Even as God possesses the power to heal any brokenness in this world, none of us are promised relief from temptation.

We welcome the Provincial Statement’s recognition of the trauma these reparative/conversion therapies have caused Christians who experience enduring same-sex attraction. Research has demonstrated that these therapies have been 96% ineffective at eliminating same-sex attraction while increasing the risk of suicide attempts by 92%. Instead, we commend churches who offer pastoral care that strengthens any Christian’s spiritual health and capacity to resist temptation, knowing that the already-not-yet nature of our salvation means that many will manage enduring temptations for a lifetime. 

We recognize the various arguments for and against using the phrases same-sex attraction and gay Christian. In the words of the Provincial Statement, “neither of the identifying phrases is ideal,” universally understood, or free of baggage. While spirit-filled Christians disagree about the wisest language for sexual minorities to use to describe themselves, we echo the Provincial Statement’s respect for “those within our ACNA family who may disagree with our conclusions and yet remain true to the biblical witness.”

We commit to supporting gay/same-sex attracted Anglicans as they discern before God, in Scripture, and with trusted friends and family the best ways to testify faithfully to God’s goodness in that part of their story. Nor do either of these phrases affect our identity in Christ. As the ACNA Catechism states, faith in Christ signaled by baptism is all that is required to be securely in Christ and to have one’s identity in Christ (ACNA Catechism, Q12 & 14). 

We commit to take practical steps to become churches where gay Anglicans can share all of their story, find community, and seek support. We affirm the Provincial Statement’s call to lead conversation about God’s love and wisdom for same-sex attracted people across the lifespan so children and teenagers feel safe to share early with parents and pastors. 

We commit to take practical steps to train pastors to provide compassionate and effective pastoral care to same-sex attracted people, as called for by the Provincial Statement. We commit to provide the teaching and practical support gay Anglicans in vocational singleness or mixed-orientation marriage need to thrive in their vocations with reasonable effort. 

We commit to develop and deliver the practical resources necessary to equip parents and pastors to extend Christ’s love to sexual minorities. 

We pray God would give us the courage to fulfill these commitments so that gay Anglicans thrive according to God’s wisdom in our churches and lead us with their preaching, prayer, and song.

Latest

Director-writer Marco Berger has been playing with same-sex seduction since his debut, “Plan B,” frequently pitching one confident gay man against a more closeted or curious conquest. Eleven years after that first feature, his latest, “Young Hunter,” continues to riff on the same theme, here exhibiting parallels with the entrapment scenario of 2011’s “Absent” in the story of a teen duped into making a sex tape and then blackmailed into recruiting younger unsuspecting students. Far more transgressive than this premise is the casual acceptance of a 13-year-old’s sexual hunger, which is likely to discomfort viewers queasy about acknowledging the reality that maturity and sexual maturity can be mutually exclusive. Oddly world premiering in the amorphous Big Screen Competition section at Rotterdam, “Young Hunter” will be more at home in queer fests and LGBTQ distribution networks.

Berger’s enjoyment in playing with thriller elements is especially drawn out here, both through observational visuals and a score that keeps jumping the gun whenever anything potentially unsettling is on-screen. Ezéquiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), 15, is left home alone by his parents for a few months while they tootle around Europe with his younger sister (the generally tight script frustratingly neglects to explain this highly unusual situation). His big house and nice pool make it easy to invite male classmates over to chill out, allowing him to test whether they’ll return his overtures. Frustratingly none of them does, but then he meets the eyes of older skater dude Mono (Lautaro Rodríguez), and soon he becomes Ezéquiel’s third-ever sexual partner.

The relationship seems to be moving at a nice pace, but things feel strangely unsettled when Mono brings him to hang with his older “cousin” Chino (Juan Barberini) and they get it on while Chino nips out. After that night, Mono stops returning messages, and he disappears from the skate park. Then comes a text from Chino, revealing he filmed Ezéquiel and Mono having sex. The video’s going to go out on a pay site with blurred faces, and what’s more, he needs Ezéquiel to recruit younger boys for videos just as Mono did with him.

While initially disturbed by the turn of events, Ezéquiel seems to gain confidence as he begins to seduce Juancito (Patricio Rodríguez), a cheeky 13-year-old with ear and nose piercings that emphasize his youth. By now Ezéquiel’s parents are back, but none of the adults finds it strange these two have become fast pals despite an age gap unusual for teenage friends. It’s in oversights like this that Berger’s script falls down, unable to sustain believable plot twists when gaps in plausibility suddenly open wide. Both teen characters are well-conceived, each a credible jumble of emotions stemming from burgeoning desires and a gradual understanding of the power that comes with youthful attractions. Ezéquiel in particular is a sympathetic figure, nicely embodied by Cestaro’s canny alternation of hesitancy, assurance and finally a realization that he’s in deeply over his head. The closing scene is effective but would have been even better had Berger worked harder at developing backgrounds and relationships that, while on the side, remain crucial.

In keeping with the push for a thriller vibe, the camera often adopts a warily watchful gaze, and nighttime scenes are designed to be pregnant with tension. Berger’s tendency to overplay his hand with music has been a running criticism with several of his films, and “Young Hunter” is no exception.