Today, the classic film community awoke to the news that actor, icon and legend Tab Hunter passed away. While Hunter’s acting career primarily peaked during the 1950s and into the early 1960s, he saw a noted resurgence with the release of the 2015 documentary Tab Hunter Confidential. As an iconic figure of 1950s Hollywood, it is fascinating to hear Hunter tell his story. His reflections on life as well as his identity as a gay man show a new side to the actor, who in his youth personified highly structured star system of the 1950s. Despite everything, Tab Hunter didn’t let himself be swallowed up by everything going on around him, and he came out happier and healthier than a number of his contemporaries.
I was admittedly weak on Hunter’s work for much of my early film viewing years. I actually dove into Troy Donahue’s work first. When you’re a lovelorn teenager, there’s only room for one hunky, blonde dream-boat in your world. It was actually college which opened my eyes to Hunter’s movies. As a graduate student, I worked extensively with Natalie Wood’s films and Hunter was often paired with the young starlet during the early part of their careers. Watching a number of these films, I fell hard for the young actor’s work.
From his early roles opposite Natalie Wood to his later work in the classic musical Damn Yankees, and even the fluffly teen movie Ride The Wild Surf, Hunter shows the likeable (and relatable) screen persona which defined much of his career. While he possessed sparkling teen idol good looks, he feels very much like the boy next door. There’s an unspoken depth to his acting which endears him still to audiences today. While there is alot of competition for the moiniker, Hunter truly emerges as the preeminent Hollywood “teen idol” from this period of cinema.
During the late 1950s, Hunter also enjoyed a music career. Sources have his debut single, “Young Love” hitting the Billboard charts in 1957. The song not only shot to #1, but held onto the position for an impressive 7 weeks. A clip below shows Hunter (likely singing live). He doesn’t have the vocal powers of contemporaries like Pat Boone, but you can see in his screen persona exactly what the teen girls at the time honed onto. He’s absolutely adorable in the clip.
As 1950s transitioned into 1960s (and the studio system crumbled) Hunter’s career also bottomed out (as teen idols often do). Suddenly, quality roles became a lot harder to find… for a long time. However, as the industry changed around him, Hunter proved himself more than willing to take on fun and unique characters, often playing on his iconic star persona. Contemporary viewers and cult-film fans might recognise Hunter from his roles in cult films like Grease 2 as well as in his work with director John Waters in the 1980s.
Hunter eventually slowed down in the 1990s (his last acting credit came in 2009). However, Tab Hunter Confidential (which can be found on Netflix) shows the actor looking great while living a rich and full life. He seems completely willing to reflect on not only his work, but also the studio system as a whole. It is truly a great documentary and should be a must see for fans of Tab Hunter.
As a young man, Tab Hunter struggled against (but ultimately survived) in the face of the prejudices of not only the Hollywood studio system, but mid-twentieth century America as a whole. Despite everything he undoubetdly faced as a gay man during this period, he shows it is possible to maintain a sense of who you are and still emerge happy and healthy.
What is your favourite Tab Hunter role?