The peak of Tab Hunter’s career was brief. The ’50s icon’s stardom barely outlasted the decade in which it shot forth. His resume is slim when it comes to quality work. He never won any major awards. He was a teen idol, but like many teen idols, he was not taken seriously.
This is not entirely fair.
Hunter was an impossibly handsome man. Blonde and bronzed by way of the California sun, he first gained notice for being shirtless in Island of Desire – a film about two castaways with a plot semi-similar to The Blue Lagoon, and just about as reputable. It would be two more years before Hunter would get his first quality credit in support of Robert Mitchum in William Wellman’s Western, Track of the Cat. A year later he was in the largely forgotten but huge hit at the time, Battle Cry, in which he could be seen holding his own onscreen with the likes of Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, James Whitmore, Anne Francis, Dorothy Malone, and Raymond Massey.
A few more parts in nondescript movies followed before Hunter hit upon his defining role as the lead in George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s huge hit from 1958 Damn Yankees, a faithful take on the hit Broadway musical from two years prior. As “Shoeless” Joe Hardy, Hunter’s handsomeness and physicality were never put to better use. At least that’s what I thought the first time I saw it in the early ’80s. I later learned that even in the most successful film of his career, Hunter received lukewarm notices. Matching up against the great Gwen Verdon was no easy piece, but I found Hunter to be relentlessly charming and engaging. It’s hard not to think that Hunter may have paid a price for being too beautiful.
Upon failing to get the lead role of Tony in West Side Story, Hunter briefly turned to television with The Tab Hunter Show. Despite being a huge hit in Britain, it lasted only a year.
After that, Hunter’s career quickly declined. He picked up roles in just three more notable movies. 1961’s The Pleasure of His Company, performed across from Debbie Reynolds and Fred Astaire, was his last significant starring role. 1965’s The Loved One and 72’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean garnered him smaller roles in worthwhile projects.
Beyond those three pictures, Hunter mostly parodied his own persona in films rarely worthy of mention.
But something interesting happened as the years went by. The former teen idol gained respect. A contingent of critics offered favorable reappraisals of his work, resulting in a new appreciation for his accomplishments. It’s worth noting that Hunter was so popular during his short run of fame that he managed to land three songs on the Billboard top 40, including the massive #1 charter titled “Young Love.” The truth of the matter is that Hunter was better than he was given credit for. Not many entertainers find success in multiple mediums, but Hunter was a star in theaters, onscreen, and on the radio. Quite a trifecta.
Perhaps even more significantly, many years after becoming a teen icon, he became a gay one. Once Hunter came out, he spoke clearly and honestly of his experience in Hollywood as a gay man: what it was like to hide his love away and pretend to be something he was not. The most significant stretch of Hunter’s career was spent keeping his true self from view. Hunter had significant romantic relationships with Anthony Perkins and figure skater Ronnie Robertson. He eventually settled down with producer Allan Glaser, with whom he was linked for over 35 years.
For those who would like to see the real Tab Hunter on display, I highly recommend the fine documentary from 2015, Tab Hunter Confidential. It’s a lovely film about a lovely man.
Tab Hunter died on July 9, three days before his 87th birthday. He was far more than he was thought of during his heyday. I think people know that now, and that is a very good thing.