Golden Boy of the Silver Screen

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Wednesday July 18, 2018
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The classic Hollywood studio system that nurtured and promoted film stars had its final flowering during the 1950s. Warner Bros. popularized Doris Day, James Dean, Paul Newman, and Tab Hunter.

Hunter, born Arthur Klem in Manhattan, died on July 8, 2018, at 86. Exceptionally handsome, tall, buffed, blonde, blue-eyed, Hunter - named by agent Henry Willson, who also christened Rock Hudson - was labeled the "Sigh Guy," and had countless teenage girls (and boys) fantasizing about him during the decade.

He struggled to hide his homosexuality, but was outed by Confidential magazine in 1955, which revealed that he had been arrested at an all-male "pajama party" in a private home. Fortunately for Hunter, studio head Jack Warner supported him. The story quickly faded. "Today's headline, tomorrow's toilet paper," the mogul quipped.

Hunter had an affair with Anthony Perkins (1932-92), and in the late 1950s they often escorted starlets to Tinseltown events, were photographed, then took their "dates" home and hooked up later. Homosexuality was then considered a mental disorder; it was linked to communism; blackmailers threatened to ruin lives by exposing gays and lesbians. Consequently, the pressure to remain closeted was intense.

His abusive father abandoned the family when Hunter was three. His strict mother took him and his older brother to Southern California. She worked on cruise ships and was often away for long periods. At 15, lying about his age, he joined the Coast Guard, but was discharged when authorities learned the truth.

He drifted into acting. Dick Clayton, a former actor who would become his agent and lifelong friend, initially guided his career. He debuted in a bit part in "The Lawless" (1950), but it was his bare-chested Marine, stranded with Linda Darnell on an "Island of Desire" (1952), that resulted in readers of Photoplay magazine voting him the year's #1 star.

He made three forgettable films, learning to act under intense, often derogatory critical scrutiny. In 1954, he did well in a supporting role in William Wellman's "Track of the Cat," a solid family drama set in the 1890s. "Battle Cry" (1955), based on Leon Uris' bestseller, made him a real star. He played a callow WWII Marine who loses his virginity to a seductive older woman (Dorothy Malone). The film was a smash. Subsequent pictures, including two in which he was top-billed over Natalie Wood, were inconsequential.

Frustrated, he turned to television for better parts and did well, notably as baseball star Jimmy Piersall in "Fear Strikes Out" (1955), a powerful study of mental illness. Ironically, Perkins starred in the movie.

In 1957, his version of "Young Love" topped the charts and made him a recording star. He was back on the big screen with three films in 1958, including what is likely his finest, "Damn Yankees," a musical based on the hit Broadway show. Perfectly cast as the young baseball star Joe Hardy, he held his own with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, both from the original production. Unhappy with Warners' subsequent offers, he bought out his contract, a decision he later regretted.

His freelancing began well. Sidney Lumet's "That Kind of Woman" paired him with Sophia Loren. She's George Sanders' mistress who finds love with Hunter's paratrooper. He was effective in Robert Rossen's western "They Came to Cordura" (1959), sharing above-the-title billing with Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, and Van Heflin. Disappointed at not playing Tony in the film version of "West Side Story," he instead starred on TV's "The Tab Hunter Show," which ran for a single season (1960-61).

He was excellent in the charming "The Pleasure of His Company" (1961) with Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, and Lilli Palmer. It would be his last good picture for several years. His 1964 Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams' experimental "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," co-starring a forgetful, drunk, campy Tallulah Bankhead in her last stage role, was a failure, although it wasn't his fault.

Viewers saw him regularly on television. In the movies, he was very funny as a cemetery guide in Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" (1965), based on Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel about the funeral business. He continued making minor movies and acting on the lucrative dinner-theatre circuit. He and Perkins were among the guest stars in John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972), starring Newman. His small screen appearances included Hudson's popular series "MacMillan and Wife" (1976). He was one of many well-known names with cameos in "Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood."

His 1981 teaming with Divine in John Waters' "Polyester" was an unexpected success and introduced Hunter to new audiences. The pair was reunited in Waters' satirical western "Lust in the Dust" (1985), co-starring gay Cesar Romero and Lainie Kazan. Hunter's parody of Clint Eastwood's solitary gunman was superb. He worked until 1992.

His 2005 memoir "Confidentially Yours," written with Eddie Muller, was a well-received bestseller, revealing an intelligent, ethical man who struggled with his homosexuality before accepting it and finding contentment with Allan Glaser, his partner/spouse for 30 years. It was the basis for an excellent 2015 documentary of the same name, which marked his last screen appearance. Hunter dazzled the SRO crowd at the Castro Theatre following its showing as part of the Frameline Film Festival. His candor and modesty were impressive.

Hunter's determination to be true to himself despite tremendous pressure to be someone else, his honesty about his mistakes, his courage, and his gratitude for his unexpected if overwhelming initial success were admirable. He made few good movies, but his perseverance, his growth as a performer, his survival both professionally and personally, form an impressive cinematic legacy.