With his blonde hair, blue eyes, and his tanned California good looks, it’s easy to understand how Arthur Klem transformed into Tab Hunter—one of the leading heartthrobs of the 1950s and 60s. Famous for playing romantic leads on screen, the leading man lived a lie off screen. Get ready: We're unveiling the scandalous life of Hollywood's most surprising hunk, Tab Hunter.
Before he became "Tab Hunter," he was Arthur Andrew Klem. Born in Manhattan on July 11, 1931, the baby's birth was far from celebrated. His father Charles reportedly celebrated his son’s birth by throwing a candy bar on his wife’s hospital bed. He then left her to literally carry her newborn infant home alone. She had to borrow a blanket from a nurse. Unsurprisingly, Charles' parenting left a lot to be desired.
Hunter didn’t remember much about his life in New York, but the memories he did have weren't very happy. As he detailed in his memoir, one of Hunter's earliest memories is of his father beating his mother in their apartment. Luckily, a guardian angel arrived in the form of his grandfather Opa who acted quickly when he discovered their situation.
Opa wasn’t going to let his beloved daughter and his grandchildren stay in an abusive household. He bought the boys coats, shirts, ties, and short pants, and sent them across the country to San Francisco. Once there, the ragtag family began to live under their mother's maiden name, Geilen. Life in California wasn’t perfect, but it was much safer and happier than their time in New York.
All Hunter’s mother wanted was to give her boys a better life than what she had. Sadly, this had some negative consequence. Because of his mother’s efforts to improve her sons' childhoods, the family constantly moved as she looked for new opportunities. After a few years of this, Hunter learned not to get close to anyone. It just hurt too much to leave them behind. But he wasn’t completely without close bonds.
Supporting two kids as a single mother during the Depression couldn’t have been easy. Hunter’s mother's work as a shipboard stewardess meant that her sons wouldn’t see her for several weeks at a time. Walter, Hunter's older brother by 11 months, often felt like Hunter's primary caregiver. Tragically, that relationship ended when Walter lost his life in Vietnam.
Money was scarce for Hunter’s mother, but she was a master at finding cheap entertainment. One day she took her young sons to Pier 35 to watch a ship sail for Hawaii. This was where Tab caught sight of Shirley Temple on the gangplank. It was the first time that Hunter ever heard the term “movie star.” Seeing people get so excited over a kid like him made young Tab want to pursue fame for himself.
When Hunter was 12, he met the person who would set him on the path for acting. Then-actor Dick Clayton was doing a photo shoot for a movie magazine at the riding academy where Hunter worked as a stable boy. Clayton told Hunter to look him up if he ever wanted to get into acting. At the time, Hunter didn’t, but as we know, that would change a few years later.
Hunter’s mother was fervently believed in her Catholic faith, but Hunter didn't have strong feelings about religion--at least, until his mother sent Hunter and his brother Walter to attend Catholic school. Immersed in the faith, Hunter quickly became committed to the church. That is, until a major betrayal. Hunter's choir master began to inappropriately touch him.
At age 14, Hunter found his religious devotion tested yet again. He experienced consensual intimate encounters with a man at his local movie theatre and felt confused about whether they were allowed by the church. Instead of giving him absolution, the priest made young Hunter feel ashamed and unworthy. Alone, confused, and deeply hurt, Hunter abandoned Los Angeles for the sea just one year later.
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When Hunter was 15, he lied about his age and joined the US Coast Guard. Maybe his youth was why he chose to watch movies during his off time instead of going to bars like his fellow Coast Guardsmen, but either way, it earned him the nickname "Hollywood." Suspicious about why their new recruit didn't want to party with the rest of the group, Hunter's superiors soon discovered his true age. They discharged him, but he landed on his feet.
As soon as Hunter got back, he took Dick Clayton up on his offer. Little did he know, that meeting would change his life. Clayton introduced Hunter to an agent named Henry Willson. Willson was a Hollywood kingmaker known for representing muscular pretty boys. He made the careers of stars like Rory Calhoun, Rock Hudson, and Robert Wagner. With Willson’s help, Hunter landed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. His acting career had finally begun--and with Hollywood fame came nosy gossip hounds...
It didn't take long for Hunter to weather his first Hollywood scandal. In October 1950, Hunter was arrested for attending a gay pajama party in Beverly Hills. Unfortunately, the press covered the event, with the article nearly ruining Hunter's rising career. At the time, Hunter got out of the mess by claiming that he didn’t know what kind of party it was. Playing dumb worked for a while. Hunter got the charges reduced--but the scandal wasn't over.
Hunter was always an athletic man, so it made sense that he would turn to figure skating. He participated in both individual and pairs events, and through the sport, he made friends with many of the skaters in the Ice Capades. One of these athletes had more of an impact on Hunter. His name was Robbie Robertson, and he became Hunter's first serious partner.
Hunter’s first agent Henry Willson didn’t think that "Art Gelien" was a great Hollywood name for the 17-year-old actor, so he came up with a new one. The last name Hunter is a reference to Hunter’s passion for riding “hunters and jumpers." The first name was because, as Willson said, “We’ve got to tab you something.” Hunter wasn’t initially thrilled about the new name, but as Willson said, he'd feel better once he saw his name on a marquee sign--or better yet, a fat check.
While they were dating, Hunter and Robertson rarely appeared together in public, except when Hunter travelled with him to the 1955 World Figure Skating Championship. What Hunter didn’t realize was that people were already gossiping about them. He later found out that someone in the U.S. Figure Skating Association said that Robertson “didn’t have a chance at the worlds” if they were together. The relationship fizzled out once Robertson turned Pro. The whole experience was a tough pill to swallow for young Hunter.
With Willson’s help, Hunter started auditioning for boy next door roles. After booking a role, he finally made his film debut with a minor part in the 1950 film Lawless. Hunter’s career could have ended right there. He had no acting experience or name recognition, and the producers cut his only line of dialogue. Luckily, his good looks saved him.
Hunter’s audition for the 1952 film Island of Desire made it clear that his role was pretty cosmetic. All the young actor had to do was take off his shirt and complete a quick screen test before he got the lead. While the role didn't let Hunter do a lot of acting or wear very much clothing, he still looked good and that's what mattered! With this breakout role under his belt, Hunter's star was on the rise.
It took nine intense screen tests for Hunter to secure the role of the heroic Marine Danny in the 1955 film Battle Cry, but the effort was well worth it. Hunter somehow managed to beat out A-listers such as Paul Newman and James Dean and booked the coveted role. At the time, Hunter was far down on the totem pole that was the Warner Brother’s talent pool, but after this victory, he didn’t stay at the bottom for long.
In 1955, Hunter's arrest from five years earlier nearly came back to destroy his career just as it was finally taking off. The ironically-named tabloid Confidential leaked the fact that Warner Brothers' new star had been caught red-handed at a suspiciously all-male sleepover party. But here's the kicker: The person who told Confidential about the soiree was none other than Henry Willson--Hunter's own agent.
Why would Willson risk ruining his own client's career? According to Hollywood historians, he probably did it to distract the presses from rumors that would have hurt his other big-ticket actor, Rock Hudson. In 1955, rumors about Hudson's own bedroom preferences were beginning to spread. Desperate, Willson may have thrown Hunter under the bus to protect his other client. Luckily, the news story didn't do too much damage, but that didn't mean Hunter could publicly live as a gay man. Far from it.
Thanks to his breakout performance in Battle Cry, Hunter solidified his status as the hot new heartthrob. Girls all around the world dreamt of kissing the young star in their bedrooms, and in February 1956, he received 62,000 valentines which must have been a record. Little could they have guessed that his romantic leading-man persona was a façade.
Warner Brothers invested a lot of money in Hunter’s leading man image, and Hunter understood that for the sake of his career he had to keep up appearances. In public, he kept up his end of the bargain. He fake-dated Debbie Reynolds and took Natalie Wood to the Oscars to make sure he maintained that image. Behind the scenes however, his dates couldn't have been more different.
When Hunter met Psycho star Anthony Perkins at Los Angeles' Chateau Marmont pool, Hunter already admired the other actor’s work. They started talking and realized they had a lot in common. Both were closeted gay actors on the rise in Hollywood--and soon enough, they started a romantic relationship. If Warner Brothers knew about their romance, they didn’t say so to Hunter. But Paramount, where Perkins worked, made it clear that they were not fans of the new couple.
The studio executives at Paramount had strict policies regarding same-sex relationships. They told Perkins that they didn’t want him to see Hunter anymore. Hunter and Perkins ignored their demands and privately continued their romance, but the good times would soon come to an end. Perkins would seriously damage their relationship with a classic Hollywood betrayal.
Hunter many not have been romantically interested in the pretty young co-stars Warner arranged for him to date, but that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy their company. He would take the women to parties, night clubs, and movie premieres. They never questioned why he didn’t come onto them, because as Debbie Reynolds once said, Hunter "wasn’t on the make, and women like that.”
Of all the women that Hunter spent time with, his favorite was Wood, whom he loved like a younger sister. Dating Hunter also provided a convenient cover story for Wood, who was secretly dating someone else. As Hunter explained, once the press had their fill, they’d quietly sneak out the back door, and she’d go meet Dennis Hopper, and he'd go meet his date.
For people who knew that Hunter was gay, his studio-manufactured romance with Natalie Wood led to a clever nickname. Insiders called the faux-couple "Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn't."
When Hunter was dating Perkins, if they wanted to go to the movies, they would either wear baseball caps as a disguise or they’d arrive at the cinema at separate times and meet up in the specific theater. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it helped keep the rumor mill from spinning out of control. Unfortunately, their happiness didn’t last.
For Perkins, career mattered more than anything. Hunter quickly realized that he would always come in second to Perkins’ ambition. Perkins even convinced Paramount to buy the sports drama Fear Strikes Out, even though he knew that Hunter was desperate to play the lead role for Warner Brothers. After that, Hunter and Perkins' relationship was over.
At the height of Hunter's career, his personal life reached its lowest point. His mother began to struggle with mental health issues and, on one car ride through Los Angeles, became nearly catatonic. Desperate, Hunter decided to place her in an asylum where she received painful rounds of electroshock treatment. In his memoir, Hunter describes that decision as one of the worst moments of his life.
At one point in his career Hunter thought about marrying his Lafayette Escadrille co-star Etchika Choureau to keep people from talking, but he couldn’t go through with it. Even though many of his gay co-stars had married women without a second thought, he felt that he could either sin (by dating men) or lie (by disingenuously marrying a woman). He chose to simply be with men and avoid a fake marriage.
When he was a kid, Hunter sang in his Church choir. Years later, he used those skills to dip into the music business, hoping to give himself additional career choices. In 1957 he recorded the single “Young Love” with Dot Records. It was so successful that the track knocked Elvis Presley himself out of the number one spot on the charts. The song remained on top for six weeks. It should have been a triumph for Hunter, but instead it made his boss Jack Warner absolutely furious.
Jack Warner was livid that Hunter recorded the hit song with Dot Records and not with Warner Brothers. His anger, however, was deeply misguided. At the time, Warner Brothers didn’t even have a record label! In the end, Hunter’s unexpected musical success led Warner to create Warner Bros. Records. Though none of Hunter’s other songs were quite as big as his smash debut, his brief recording career did lead to one of his most memorable roles.
Hunter may not have gotten to star in his serious baseball movie, but his singing ability inspired Warner Brothers to make a film version of the baseball musical Damn Yankees. With choreographer Bob Fosse’s help, Hunter rose to the challenge of dancing in the film. Ironically, he had much more trouble with singing. He was the only cast-member whose voice was dubbed. Ouch.
Hunter really hated labels of any kind, but they were especially unavoidable in Hollywood. Studio executives and Hollywood reporters called him "The Sigh Guy" and "Swoon Bait," while Warner Brothers seemed determined to typecast him in “boy next door” roles. He became more and more frustrated as the days passed, and eventually, he lashed out.
Hunter wanted to be a serious actor, and tired of playing fluffy roles, he decided to buy out his Warner Brothers contract and attempt to be a star on his own terms. Sadly, this proved to be the wrong decision. The studio immediately replaced him with Troy Donahue—a younger blonde heartthrob. Hunter had to watch as Donahue became a star. Meanwhile, Hunter was struggling to climb out of his clean-cut image.
Next to ending his contract with Warner Brothers, Hunter’s biggest career mistake was turning down an offer to replace Paul Newman in the Broadway run of the Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth. Hunter said no to the prestigious part because he hoped to win the role of Tony opposite Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Needless to say, Hunter didn’t get the role or the play. Soon, he settled for a weekly sitcom instead.
Hunter’s self-titled sitcom only lasted one season, and as he entered his 30s, he started to unravel. He had no contract and no real movie offers to speak of. To keep himself busy, he made what he described as “a lot of Mickey Mouse” movies overseas, including a thriller that he originally wasn’t supposed to be in. Hunter's low point came when he moved from movies to TV to the stage and finally, to the world of dinner theater. At one point, he even advertised his acting talents in the newspaper in an effort to find new gigs.
Hunter's career may have been lagging, but his love life was going pretty well. He briefly dated the dancer Rudolf Nuryev.
Hunter’s freelance career never really took off, but a phone call from the cult film-maker John Waters pulled him back from obscurity. Waters offered Hunter a role in his risky new film Polyester. The part paired Hunter with the legendary drag queen Divine. When asked how he’d feel about kissing her, Hunter replied “Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a lot worse!”
Against all odds, the movie was a success. Hunter had so much fun filming Polyester, that he helped get the funding for the 1985 follow-up flick Lust in the Dust. The film proved fruitful both on screen and off. During production, Hunter met his future business partner and love Allan Glaser. The movie also gave Hunter long-due closure on his most impactful past relationship.
After their breakup, Hunter and Perkins fell out of touch, but when Glaser suggested that Perkins play a role in Lust in the Dust, Hunter welcomed the chance to reunite with his old flame. He visited Perkins and his wife in their home to offer the part to him, but Perkins turned it down. That was the last time they saw each other. Perkins suddenly passing in 1992 due to AIDS-related pneumonia.
When Lust in the Dust also became a hit, Hunter and Divine immediately planned to do more movies together. Sadly, they never got the chance. Tragedy struck when Divine unexpectedly passed from an enlarged heart in 1988. Hunter could have continued acting, but instead chose to go into retirement. He once said that not even an offer from Martin Scorsese would change his mind.
Hunter was always a private person and even after coming out, he kept details about his personal life close to his chest. In 2005, Hunter finally released his own tell-all memoir. In it, he confessed to being gay, but only did so because his partner told him that someone else was going to write a salacious book. Rather than let a stranger tell his story, he decided to let them “get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's a**.”
After confessing to dating Robertson and Perkins in his memoir, it was natural for journalists to wonder if Hunter also dated Rock Hudson. Even though they occasionally discussed their shared experiences as closeted gay men in Hollywood, the answer is a definite no. Although the men shared an agent, were both heartthrobs and A-list actors, Hunter said Hudson just wasn’t his type. Too bad. They probably would have been a great couple!
One of the things about Hunter that always surprised Glaser was how nonchalant he was about the end of his acting career. He always viewed his time in Hollywood as part of his “past life,” and if he ever saw one of his old movies on TV, he acted like it was no more important than “a dog food commercial.” How rare is that?
Putting his personal life in the spotlight was difficult for Hunter. While he was never fully happy with the label of gay rights spokesperson, he also recognized that there were many men like him who had kept their lives hidden. He hoped his memoir and documentary would make them feel better about themselves, but he wouldn’t have changed anything about his own coming out.
Hunter’s mother was a strict and traditional German woman. He grew up believing that his private life, and especially his sexual orientation, were private. As a result, he never officially came out to his mother, but she still knew about her son's personal live. During a conversation about why Perkins never came around anymore, Hunter became convinced him that she knew. After explaining that he and Perkins had “drifted apart as friends,” Hunter's mother paused and said, “I’ve never been in love.”
Hunter was always athletic, and that’s why his sudden demise at 86 was such a shock to his partner Glaser. According to Glaser, Hunter seemed more like 60 than 86, but a heart attack caused by a blood clot led him to his collapse. The Hollywood icon who previously survived a stroke and a heart attack eventually passed a few days shy of his 87th birthday. At least Glaser and Hunter enjoyed many happy years together.
Recently, director JJ Abrams announced that he was teaming up with actor Zachary Quinto and Hunter’s partner Glaser to produce a new film based on Hunter's memoir. It will be called Tab and Tony and will feature the secret three-year relationship between Hunter and Perkins. No word yet on who will play the lead roles, but it’s just a matter of time before they find the perfect actors to portray these iconic men.
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