Willson notably turned Roy Scherer into Rock Hudson, Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr into Ty Hardin and Arthur Gelien into Tab Hunter.
After a handful of small roles, Hunter secured a contract with Warner Bros and was cast in The Sea Chase, with John Wayne and Lana Turner, and later Battle Cry, with Van Heflin and Anne Francis.
Hunter also starred in two films with actress Natalie Wood: The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind.
Those two films framed Hunter in one of Hollywood’s oldest lies: a false romance with Wood, intended to create a protective smoke screen in front of his homosexuality.
In fact, as his star was soaring in Hollywood, Hunter was involved romantically with actor Anthony Perkins and champion figure skater Ronnie Robertson.
His private life – specifically, an arrest in 1950 for disorderly conduct – was also bartered by Willson (along with another story, about actor Rory Calhoun’s prison record) to the tabloid magazine Confidential in exchange for the scuttling of another story, about Rock Hudson’s homosexuality.
Even in a more permissive era, such backroom deals remain a form of hard currency between stars, their minders and tabloid publications.
Writing in his memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which was published in 2005, Hunter spoke openly of his struggle with his public and private lives.
“I believed, wholeheartedly — still do — that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” Hunter said. “The dilemma, of course, was that being true to myself, and I’m talking sexually now, was impossible in 1953.”
Hunter also starred in the 1958 musical film Damn Yankees, his own television series The Tab Hunter Show, and The Pleasure of His Company, opposite Debbie Reynolds, with whom the studio crafted for him another fictitious real-life romance.
One of the first Hollywood stars to cross over into pop music, Hunter recored a song in 1957, Young Love, which shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; it went on to sell over one million copies.
Though Hunter’s blonde hair and bare torso would become enmeshed with the “beach party” genre, he in fact only ever made one of them: Ride the Wild Surf, which was filmed on location in Hawaii and co-starred Fabian, Barbara Eden and James Mitchum.
Though his fame soared in the 1950s and 1960s, Hunter later faded from sight, returning in the 1980s to a second act of a sort as the star of cult films, notably John Waters’ Polyester (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985); Hunter also starred in Grease 2.
During the early 1980s, Hunter also met the man who would become his partner of now more than 35 years standing, producer Allan Glaser.
Glaser and Hunter co-produced Lust in the Dust, in which Hunter played a gunslinger who becomes involved with dance-hall girl Rosie Velez (Divine) and saloon owner Marguerita Ventura (Lainie Kazan) in pursuit of a missing treasure.
The pair also co-produced Dark Horse in 1992, about a young girl who, with her beloved horse, is injured and must find the courage to ride again; the film starred Hunter, Ed Begley Jr, Mimi Rogers and Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner.
And Hollywood, in that strangely serendipitous way, has one final act of Hunter’s life to replay: a month ago the studio Paramount announced it was developing a film from J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto about Hunter’s relationship with Perkins.
The film, titled Tab & Tony, will be produced by Abrams, Quinto, Glaser and Neil Koenigsberg.
Hunter died just three days before his 87th birthday, his death described by Glaser as “sudden and unexpected”.
“He collapsed in my arms in the front lawn and I called 911 and we raced him to the hospital,” Glaser told The Los Angeles Times; Hunter later died at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
Glaser said he wanted people to know “what a good man” Hunter was. “That was most important to him than being an actor and a recording artist; he didn’t place importance on his movie career or his celebrity,” Glaser said.
Michael Idato is a Senior Writer based in Los Angeles for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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