Tab Hunter, Star of 'Damn Yankees,' Dies at 86


The 1950s fan favorite also appeared in two films opposite Divine and was the reason that Warner Bros. Records was launched.

Tab Hunter, the chiseled 1950s heartthrob who portrayed Joe Hardy in the Damn Yankees! movie, had a No. 1 record and starred in two outlandish films with the drag queen Divine, has died. He was 86. 

Hunter died on Sunday (July 8), just shy his 87th birthday, a spokesman for Hunter confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. A Facebook page linked to the star also announced his passing with a message that read: “SAD NEWS: Tab passed away tonight three days shy his 87th birthday. Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that.

After decades silence, the leading man confirmed long-standing rumors about his homosexuality in his autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making a Movie Star, published in 2005. Hunter said he had been told by Allan Glaser, his romantic partner more than three decades, that someone was planning to write a book about him. “I thought, 'Look, get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone,'” he told THR's Scott Feinberg in 2015. “I didn't want someone putting a spin on my life.”

With his Malibu-style, boy-next-door looks and stage name dreamed up by Henry Willson — the agent for Rock Hudson as well — the blondish Hunter was a constant presence on the front fan and teen magazines in his heyday. (A photo him with his bare chest was used as the cover to the 2000 book Shirtless! The Hollywood Male Physique.)

After he beat out James Dean and Paul Newman to portray a young Marine in Raoul Walsh's Battle Cry (1955), Warner Bros. picked up his option and signed him to a seven-year contract, and he appeared in The Girl He Left Behind (1956) and Burning Hills (1956). Studio head Jack Warner then purchased the film rights to the Tony-winning Broadway musical Damn Yankees! (1958) for Hunter to star in as Washington Senators slugger Hardy. He replaced Stephen Douglass as the lone principal actor who did not make the transition from the stage.

In The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “Tab Hunter may not have the larynx that Stephen Douglass had as the original hero, but he has the clean, naive look a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company a first-rate star. He is really appealing with Miss Gwen] Verdon in the boogiewoogie ballet, “Two Lost Souls,” which is done in a smoky, st-lit setting and is the dandiest dance number in the film.”

In a similar athletic vein, Hunter played troubled Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall on a 1955 episode the CBS anthology series Climax! Like the 1957 movie that starred Anthony Perkins, it was based on the ballplayer's memoir, Fear Strikes Out. Hunter's recording “Young Love” for Dot Records in 1957 reached No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks, knocking Elvis Presley's “Too Much” out the top spot and prompting the creation Warner Bros. Records. (Jack Warner was annoyed that his studio did not have a record company to capitalize on Hunter's vocal skills, so he started one.)

Skewing his surfer-boy image, Hunter played Todd Tomorrow, a dashing owner a drive-in, opposite Divine in the John Waters black comedy Polyester (1981), which introduced Odorama to theaters a scratch-and-sniff card. (Among the scents: “Flatulence,” “Model Building Glue” and “Smelly Shoes.”) And in a saucy send-up Westerns, director Paul Bartels' Lust in the Dust (1985), Hunter reteamed with Divine. He and Glaser also produced the film.

He was born Arthur Andrew Kelm on July 11, 1931, in New York City. When he was young, his family moved to California, where his natural athleticism flourished, and he became an avid horseman. At age 15, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, lying about his age. Following the service, actor Dick Clayton introduced him to Willson, who decided that his birth name did not have the right commercial ring and that the actor needed a new “tab” (slang for “name” at the time).

Hunter made his movie debut in The Lawless (1950), then appeared opposite Linda Darnell in the romantic South Sea adventure Island Desire (1952), in which he stripped down to skimpy swim trunks. He studied under the influential acting teacher Jeff Corey and worked on such United Artists films as Gun Belt (1953) and Return to Treasure Island (1954) before signing with Warners.

Hunter, Dean and Natalie Wood were the last three actors to land contracts at Warner Bros. in the waning days the studio system, and he received a massive PR buildup. He was given the nickname “The Sigh Guy” and from 1955-59 was Warners' top-grossing star. Even as the studio was sponsoring “Win a Date With Tab Hunter” contests, Hunter was keeping his sexual orientation a secret while being seen in public with the likes Wood, Sophia Loren and Debbie Reynolds.

“I never mentioned my sexuality to Warner Bros. at all, and they never mentioned it to me, thank God,” Hunter told Feinberg. He did have a serious relationship with Perkins, however.

In a 2015 column written for THR, Hunter said that Louella Parsons the Los Angeles Examiner and Hedda Hopper the Los Angeles Times “would never openly discuss my sexuality — they couldn't in those days — but both periodically made subtle references to it in their columns, 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 guy' she wanted to end up with.”

His career was put in jeopardy after Confidential magazine published a story about how he had been arrested at a party attended by gay people shortly after he arrived in Hollywood. Hunter starred for a season (1960-61) on NBC's The Tab Hunter Show, playing a bachelor cartoonist who lives in Malibu. (Future Community actor Richard Erdman played a playboy and his best friend.)

He starred in such films as That Kind Woman (1959), Operation Bikini (1963) and Man With Two Faces (1964), but then the countercultural '60s had arrived, and Hunter's teen-idol image went out fashion. Long hair and rebellion were in, epitomized by anti-establishment stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. Yet Hunter rode with the cultural wave instead against it, seeking out balmy, fbeat projects. He co-starred in a mordant satire the funeral industry, The Loved One (1965), with such loony luminati as Liberace and Jonathan Winters.

Paul Newman ordered his lynching in John Huston's The Life and Times Judge Roy Bean (1972), and on the syndicated TV satires Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Forever Fernwood, his character, after being removed from a chemical accident, came to look exactly like — voila! — Tab Hunter. He also appeared on such shows as Burke's LawThe VirginianCannonMcMillan & WifeThe Six Million Dollar ManEllery QueenThe Love BoatBenson and Masquerade.

He played the substitute teacher Mr. Stuart in Grease 2 (1982) and a decade later penned the story for Dark Horse (1992), which starred Ed Begley Jr. and Mimi Rogers in a story about a spoiled girl who goes to a horse ranch. A feature documentary about him, also titled Tab Hunter Confidential, was released in 2015 and produced by Glaser.

“If I had come out during my acting career in the 1950s, I would not have had a career,” Hunter said in an October 2017 interview. “Not much in Hollywood has changed in 60 years. I really didn't talk about my sexuality until I wrote my autobiography. “My film career had long since been over by then. I believe one's sexuality is one's own business. I really don't go around discussing it. Call me 'old school' on that topic.”​

This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.