Tab Hunter Appreciation: A Star Who Survived Both the Studio System and Hollywood Homophobia

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“To ask ‘Whatever happened to Tab Hunter?'” a reporter for The New York Times once wrote, “is to ask ‘Whatever happened to America?'”

As we remember Hunter — the Hollywood heartthrob who died this week a few days shy of his 87th birthday — it’s clear that his own career and personal path follows America’s (and Hollywood’s) arc of understanding homosexuality in the post-WWII era. A performer who was once deeply closeted in the industry could, in his later years, make two outrageous comedies in which his romantic co-lead was played by legendary drag queen Divine.

Born Arthur Gelien, Tab Hunter was one of a stable of performers (including Rock Hudson, with whom he had a thing or two in common) groomed for stardom by agent Henry Willson, who gave the neophyte performer his name and his first forays onto the big screen.

Hunter made his big-screen debut in 1950 and would become one of the decade’s biggest stars, both as an actor and as a pop singer, working alongside performers like Sophia Loren (“That Kind of Woman”) and Natalie Wood (“The Burning Hills”) and great filmmakers, including Raoul Walsh (“Battle Cry”), Stanley Donen (“Damn Yankees!”) and William Wellman (“Lafayette Escadrille”).

A darling of the fan magazines, where he was often photographed stepping out with Wood and other ingénues of the era, Hunter had a big secret — he was gay in an era when polite society never spoke of such things, where public acknowledgment would have been a career-ending scandal in almost any profession, but especially for a movie star. (After posing for the cameras with his studio-arranged dates, Hunter would often meet up with “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins, with whom he had a relationship for several years. Their tempestuous pairing is the subject of the upcoming film “Tab & Tony.”)

Hunter’s career had its ups and downs, with years of work in television and dinner theater followed by his audacious, career-redefining role in John Waters’ 1981 indie “Polyester,” an experience that prompted Hunter to reteam with co-star Divine in the Western spoof “Lust in the Dust” four years later.

It was on that latter film that he got to know producer Allan Glaser, who became Hunter’s romantic and professional partner for the rest of the actor’s life. (Glaser is currently producing “Tab & Tony” alongside Zachary Quinto and J.J. Abrams.)

On screen, Hunter had the good fortune to have a career that spanned from the golden age of the studio system to the independent-film explosion. And off screen, he knew joy and tragedy and love and heartbreak, all of which he has shared eloquently in his riveting memoir “Tab Hunter Confidential,” which was later adapted into Jeffrey Schwarz’s fascinating documentary of the same name.

Fame as a teen idol is always fleeting, but Tab Hunter has left behind a fascinating array of film roles, along with an exemplary off-screen life, one that saw him hearty, healthy and riding his beloved horses well into his 80s.

The gossip columnists who once hounded him are now long gone; Hunter, by living well, has enjoyed the best revenge.

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