Hunter, as is often the case with Hollywood-manufactured talent (especially the hunks), came from difficult beginnings. An absentee father, a mother with mental issues and other concerns led him to lie about his age and run off to join the Coast Guard at 15. “Discovered” by notorious agent Henry Willson (who gave the young Arthur Gelien his new moniker), he was eventually groomed and placed into films around 1950.
He was always appealing and wholesome-seeming onscreen with good looks and a great, lean physique, but he lacked charisma on the screen at the level that was expected of top-billed stars. However, by 1955, he had gained sufficient experience to make a big impression in the hit war film Battle Cry. From here, he enjoyed a brief, but stellar, ride as a leading man in a variety of films, adored by teen girls and usually written off by critics.
Beneath the bland presence onscreen lurked all sorts of things such as innate shyness, typecasting frustrations and closeted homosexuality, the latter leading directors to use him in military roles and tough westerns in order to establish a manly persona. In later years he would quip with regards to Troy Donahue, a man he was frequently confused with, “People get us confused. They’re always accusing him of being gay and me of being straight!” and Tab did present a solid heterosexual image most of the time. He loved working on westerns, in particular because, more than anything else in the world, he adored horses. He still does.
Warner Brothers (I’m on a WB kick right now, which is odd because Universal, Universal-International to be specific, is my favorite classic studio!) paired him with Natalie Wood on and off screen in 1956. In The Burning Hills, she played a half-Mexican girl, a bit of a prelude to her Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story (incidentally, Tab, a legitimate singer, wanted to play Tony, but wasn’t granted the role.) They were then paired in the military duty flick The Girl He Left Behind, which Nat jokingly referred to as “The Girl with the Left Behind.” They had fun pretending to be dating, but, oddly, never seemed to reconnect socially once they had grown into adulthood.
The studio put him through plenty of faux dates with Debbie Reynolds and others (see him at the premiere of The High and the Mighty with starlet Karen Steele) and some really oddball photo shoots. One has Roddy McDowall and him in skimpy shorts calling girls on the phone and cooking up hot dogs together (!) and another has him listening in on a phone call of hunk o’spunk John Bromfield’s. John’s snug, embroidered trunks would fetch a pretty penny on eBay these days!
A hit single “Young Love” only enhanced his female fan base more and by 1958 he was starring in William Wellman’s pet project (and swan song) Lafayette Escadrille and The big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical smash Damn Yankees! He was the sole cast member not brought in from the stage version and was easily upstaged by Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, but he did look cute with his buzz cut hair. Sadly, despite the locker room setting, he had no shirtless scenes with which to help draw attention to him.
Having left Warner’s, he also left the security and protection that they gave him and, thus, was subjected to plenty of tabloid rag gossip and a nasty and unfounded court case from a neighbor who accused him of repeatedly beating his dog. It was thrown out when she was determined a fraud, obsessed with him, but the negative publicity stung. Anyone who knew him could vouch that Hunter would never be cruel to a pet (though he did get his last name as a nod to his skills at hunting for sport.)
Not too long after appearing (and looking damn good as well) in the beach-oriented film Ride the Wild Surf with Fabian and Peter Brown, Hunter moved to Spain for a while and kept busy there in various genres. Once back in the States, Hunter worked in episodic television and did the occasional movie. He attempted a major image overhaul with Sweet Kill aka The Arousers as a sex maniac and murderer and showed up in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean with his pretty face all covered up with a scruffy beard. (His former lover Anthony Perkins had a role in this film as well.)
He gained cult status with two films in particular in the early 80s. One was John Waters’ Polyester, in which he romanced the rotund female impersonator Divine, who he would pair off with again later in Lust in the Dust. The other was the tragically bad, but nonetheless beloved by many, Grease 2. He played a teacher who gives the students a lesson in “Reproduction” as told in a raunchy song.
There hasn’t been a great deal of note since then, but he made quite a splash in 2005 with the release of his autobiography. Here, he discussed his career in detail and finally admitted publicly to his homosexuality. (It had long been a subject of speculation by the media. When he costarred with Tallulah Bankhead in the notorious Broadway flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a reporter asked her if he was gay and she famously replied, “He never sucked my cock!”)
Though Hunter revealed some of his love affairs, including one with the dance great Rudolf Nureyev, there wasn’t a great deal of insight or rumination on the inner turmoil involved in being a closeted actor or much of an examination into what led him into and out of the relationships he had. It was, however, an interesting read and contained plenty of anecdotes about the various famous people he worked with in his 30+ year career.
Though he caught some heat for (sort of) staying in the closet as long as he did, he can be credited at least with finally coming out while he’s still alive and for taking on the wave of publicity that it created. Richard Chamberlain did a similar thing. Meanwhile, more than one star from the same era has written a “tell-all” autobiography and completely glossed over any homo or bisexuality in his life.
Tab has been with the same partner now for more than 25 years and leads a pretty quiet life among, what else, his horses. Considering the fact that he’s pushing 80, he looks extremely good! Though he never was and never could be an actor of the caliber of Paul Newman, he has that same quality of fine aging to his credit.