Hunter, Tab (1931—)

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Hunter, Tab (1931—)

On the basis of his picture-perfect looks, Tab Hunter became a teenage idol and a leading man of the 1950s. Tall, blond, tan, and athletically built, he was called "Golden Boy" by the press. It was then-powerful agent Henry Willson who Hollywoodized his name, saying, "We've got to tab him something." Willson was also responsible for transforming Roy Scherer, Jr., into Rock Hudson. Like Hudson, Hunter was typical of the actors who enjoyed careers in the wane of the so-called star system: handsome and engaging, with boyish charm but limited acting range.

A native of New York, Hunter was born Arthur Kelm. He later took his mother's maiden name to become Arthur Gelien. He joined the Coast Guard at age fifteen, but was discharged when it was learned he had lied about his age. At eighteen, while working for a Southern California riding academy, a friend suggested that he try show business.

After a bit part, Hunter caught moviegoers' attention as a shipwrecked sailor opposite glamorous Linda Darnell in the 1952 title, Island of Desire. Then came the 1955 box-office hit, Battle Cry. His depiction of a young wartime Marine caught up in a love triangle proved his ticket to stardom. It also made him a darling of the fan magazines, which photographed him on dates with Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds, and invited their own readers to "Win a Date with Tab Hunter!" Along with being thrust into the spotlight, Hunter was shoved into the recording studio. "If you can carry a tune at all, we'd like you to record it," enthused a Dot Records executive. After all, the airwaves were then pivotal to the teen idol phenomenon. Hunter's resulting musical foray, "Young Love," was the country's top single for four weeks in 1957. Then under contract to the Warner Bros. studio, he went on to record for their label.

He also went on to display pronounced acting potential. A 1958 Playhouse 90 TV production, "Portrait of a Murderer," found him effectively playing against type. That same year he held his own opposite Gwen Verdon in the movie version of the hit musical, Damn Yankees. In the candid 1959 movie, That Kind of Woman, he was convincing as an idealistic soldier in love with another man's mistress, played by Sophia Loren.

But his movies became less prestigious as his fans matured. Moreover, though he had successfully weathered innuendo wrought by negative press in 1955, when the scandal magazine Confidential detailed his early arrest, at a "pajama party" where "boys were dancing with boys and girls with girls," a 1960 dog-beating trial appeared to alienate fans and the media. Accused of having beaten his pet weimaraner, the avowed animal lover was acquitted. But offers dwindled afterward. Turning to TV, he was a bachelor-artist in the short-lived The Tab Hunter Show. By the mid-1960s, the luster of his manufactured stardom had worn off, proof that Hollywood can break careers as quickly as it makes them. As Hunter himself put it, "This town uses you and discards you and goes on to the next thing."

To survive the 1970s he made movies in Europe, toured the American heartland in dinner theater, and appeared on TV game shows. In 1977 he also briefly joined the cast of the quirky TV series, Forever Fernwood; lampooning himself, he played a character who had fallen into a vat of Rust-Oleum, undergone plastic surgery, and awakened to discover that he looked like Tab Hunter. It was due to his lustrous 1950s image that Hunter was cast in Polyester, as the love interest of a disillusioned housewife played by the 300-pound female impersonator, Divine. Directed by offbeat filmmaker John Waters, and filmed in "Odorama," the movie became a cult favorite. As a result, Hunter reunited with "leading lady" Divine in Lust in the Dust, a 1985 western spoof which he coproduced. He has subsequently appeared in small roles in obscure films.

—Pat H. Broeske

Further Reading:

Broeske, Pat H. "With Hot Films, Tab Hunter's No Longer Out in the Cold." Orange County Register. March 10, 1985, L1, L6.

Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. New York, Billboard Publications, 1988.

Estrin, Eric. "Has Nonsuccess Spoiled Tab Hunter?" Los Angeles Magazine. October 1981, 134-44.