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Tuesday
Jul102018

FROM TEEN DREAM TO GAY ICON: TAB HUNTER'S MEMORABLE HOLLYWOOD MOMENTS

Guest columnist STEPHEN VAGG recalls 10 of the late Tab Hunter’s finer moments from a filmography that came to symbolize the vagaries of Hollywood fame…

Tab Hunter passed away on Sunday July 8 in Santa Barbara after complications arose from a blood clot; he was 86. He owed his fame to his looks; Ken Doll features which suited the Eisenhower era and turned him into a teen idol. Arriving in Los Angeles as ‘Arthur Kelm’, he was given a silly stage name that made him a joke the moment he achieved stardom. But for a number of years he had the protection of Warner Bros, who put him in big budget films and encouraged a singing career.

His celebrity didn’t survive leaving the protection of Warner Bros in 1960, but he managed to keep working in European features, guest roles on TV, dinner theatre. In the 1980s he made something of a comeback via the films of John Waters, and in recent years his profile lifted with a well-received memoir and subsequent documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), that focused on his homosexuality.

Battle Cry (1955): Hunter’s first big hit was an adaptation of a Leon Uris best seller about marines in WW2. New Zealanders will get a kick out of Hollywood’s depiction of their homeland with people like Dorothy Malone (pictured, right; with Hunter) cast as 'Kiwis'.

The Sea Chase (1955): Hunter, John Wayne and Lana Turner are all cast as Germans (!) in Sydney (!!) at the outbreak of World War Two being chased through the Pacific by the British. (There were a bunch of “sympathetic German hero” films in the 1950s). Directed by Aussie John Farrow. The film is engrossing, though Hunter’s role is small.

Fear Strikes Out (1955): Like many a 1950s movie heartthrob, Hunter’s best performances in this decade were actually on small screen anthology shows. This was for Climax!, about the baseball player Jimmy Piersall who has a nervous breakdown. Although Hunter was excellent, the role in the film version was taken by Tony Perkins – which ended the real life romance between Hunter and Perkins at the time. (A story to be dramatized in the new feature, Tab and Tony, produced by Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams.)

Forbidden Area (1956): Hunter is excellent in the first episode of the show Playhouse 90, playing a Russian sleeper, from a script by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer, with Charlton Heston looking bad-ass in an eye patch

Portrait of a Murderer (1958): Hunter scores again in an episode of Playhouse 90, written by Leslie Stevens and directed by Arthur Penn. He plays a murderer – he would be effective in such parts eg Gunman’s Walk (1958) The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).

Damn Yankees (1958): Warners insisted on casting Hunter in this big screen version of the stage musical, otherwise full of top line Broadway talent. He actually does okay but the film is stolen by Ray Walston and Gwen Vernon (pictured, right; with Hunter).

His Kind of Woman (1959): Hunter plays a soldier who romances kept woman Sophia Loren away from George Sanders. An odd drama, directed by Sidney Lumet, who had worked with Hunter in the early years of television.

Ride the Wild Surf (1964): Jan and Dean were meant to star alongside Fabian in this surfer flick but when their friend was involved in the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jnr they were replaced by Hunter and Peter Brown.  Art and Jo Napoleon directed but were replaced during filming by Don Taylor. Australian Olympian Murray Rose has a small role as an Aussie surfer.

Sweet Kill (1973; aka, The Arousers): Hunter as a serial killer in this interesting thriller, financed by Roger Corman, which was Curtis Hanson’s directorial debut.

Polyster (1981): The ageing heartthrob was exposed to a new audience via this John Waters comedy where he played opposite Divine. Hunter went on to a series of campy films including Grease 2 (1982) and Lust in the Dust (1985), which Hunter produced.

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