Tab Hunter, a dazzlingly handsome actor who became one of the most popular teen idols of the 1950s, and who struggled to prevent his gay identity from derailing his career, died July 8 at a hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif. He would have turned 87 on Wednesday.
The cause was cardiac arrest triggered by a blood clot in his leg, said his husband, producer Allan Glaser.
Like many stars of his era, Mr. “Hunter” was largely an invention of Hollywood. As a tousle-haired, square-jawed teenager named Arthur Gelien, he was discovered while shoveling manure in a Los Angeles stable, given an unlikely new name and cast as a (mostly) upright, (mostly) shirtless lead in Westerns, military dramas and beach flicks.
While appearing on the covers of fan magazines with his female co-stars, he maintained closeted relationships with men such as actor Anthony Perkins, who later starred in “Psycho.”
“I believed, wholeheartedly — still do — that a person’s happiness depends on being true to themselves,” he wrote in a 2005 memoir. “The dilemma, of course, was that being true to myself — and I’m talking sexually now — was impossible in 1953.”
Mr. Hunter landed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. after starring in the World War II film “Battle Cry” (1955), beating out James Dean and Paul Newman to play a Marine recruit going into battle. For about four years he was the studio’s most lucrative young star, dubbed “the Sigh Guy” for his enchanting effect on women.
He even supplanted Elvis Presley at the top of the pop charts in 1957, after recording the song “Young Love” at the suggestion of an executive at Dot Records. The track stayed at No. 1 for six weeks and spurred Warner Bros. to create its own music division. It also led the studio to film “Damn Yankees” (1958), an adaptation of the baseball musical, with Mr. Hunter playing a devilishly good ballplayer alongside Tony-winner Gwen Verdon and the show’s original Broadway cast.
“Tab Hunter may not have the larynx that Stephen Douglass had as the original hero, but he has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star,” wrote New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther.
Mr. Hunter said he had a sometimes strained relationship with Warner Bros. executives, who paired him with co-star Natalie Wood on publicity tours in an effort to present the two performers as an item. (Insiders, the Times later reported, came up with their own name for the duo: “Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn’t.”)
Yet he also credited the studio with standing behind him when he received negative publicity, most notably when Confidential magazine reported in 1955 that he had been arrested for disorderly conduct at a “limp-wristed pajama party” attended by several other gay men.
In a 2015 column for the Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Hunter wrote that the gossip publication learned about the arrest only because his former agent — Henry Willson, sometimes known as the “gay Svengali” — traded information to keep Confidential from outing his client Rock Hudson as gay. Around the time of the story’s publication, Mr. Hunter and Wood were featured in a fawning cover story by the magazine Photoplay. “That probably saved me,” he wrote. “After all, in Hollywood, everybody talks, but nothing matters more than the bottom line.”
After the success of “Damn Yankees,” Mr. Hunter was inspired to buy his way out of the Warner Bros. contract and search for more ambitious acting roles as a freelancer. He was mostly unsuccessful. Troy Donahue had succeeded him as Hollywood’s leading blond-haired heartthrob, and he alienated some fans and producers after he was charged, but ultimately acquitted, with beating his dog.
Mr. Hunter headlined a short-lived television series on NBC, “The Tab Hunter Show”; performed alongside Tallulah Bankhead in a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”; appeared in dinner theater; and decamped to Italy, where he appeared in spaghetti westerns that were, he joked, “short on meat sauce.”
He experienced a career resurgence after director John Waters cast him alongside the drag star Divine in “Polyester,” a 1981 comedy that employed the scratch-and-sniff gimic Odorama. As Mr. Hunter remembered it, Waters called him for the part asking, “ ‘How would you feel about kissing a 300-pound transvestite?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a helluva lot worse!’ ”
Mr. Hunter went on to produce and star in a second film with Divine, the Western comedy “Lust in the Dust” (1985), directed by Paul Bartel. To a certain extent, the roles marked Mr. Hunter’s first public acknowledgment of his sexuality. He later confirmed he was gay in his memoir, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” written with Eddie Muller.
“Making out with Divine, that’s beyond the bravery of coming out,” Waters told the Times that year. “He was hassled about being gay. You couldn’t come out. It was illegal. But he had a sense of humor about the glamour he was caught in. He’s a great sport, and a great star.”
Arthur Andrew Kelm was born in New York City on July 11, 1931, and grew up in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. He took his mother’s maiden name, Gelien, after she separated from her husband, whom Mr. Hunter described as physically abusive.
His mother, a nurse, later suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution.
Mr. Hunter said he was molested by the choirmaster at his Catholic parish when he was 12; three years later, he ran away from home and entered the Coast Guard. He was eventually kicked out for lying about his age and was working at a stable in Los Angeles when he met actor Richard Clayton, who introduced him to Willson.
According to Mr. Hunter, the agent gave him his name (or screen tab), saying: “ ‘We’ve got to tab you something.’ So, I rode horses, hunters and jumpers, so it became Tab Hunter as opposed to Tab Jumper.”
In his first major role, he appeared shirtless opposite Linda Darnell in “Island of Desire” (1952). His other films included “Gunman’s Walk” (1958), “That Kind of Woman” (1959), “The Pleasure of His Company” (1961) and “Grease 2” (1982), in which he played a high school substitute teaching sexual reproduction.
Mr. Hunter met Glaser, his sole immediate survivor and partner of 35 years, when Glaser was serving as a producer for “Lust in the Dust”; they married after same-sex marriage was legalized in California, and settled near Santa Monica, where Mr. Hunter focused his energies raising horses.
He said he decided to write his memoir and discuss his sexual identity only after he learned that someone else was planning to write a book about him. The memoir served as the basis of a 2015 documentary, and producers J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto are reportedly working on a feature film, “Tab & Tony,” about Mr. Hunter’s relationship with Perkins.
He told the New Yorker in 2015 that even today, he would not come out of the closet if he were a young actor. “I was brought up very quietly, very privately,” he said.
“The thing that I feel is good about the documentary,” he added, “is there are a lot of men like me who have lived very hidden lives. And it’s got to be hopefully a little step in a direction where they don’t feel as bad about it.”