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Tab Hunter, '50s Heartthrob, Dead at 86

Tab Hunter, '50s Heartthrob, Dead at 86
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Tab Hunter, the epitome of the blond teen heartthrob in the '50s, who had a successful career as a pop singer and later gamely parodied his sex-symbol image in the John Waters film "Polyester," has died. Hunter's passing was announced on the official Facebook page of the 2015 documentary about his life, "Tab Hunter Confidential," which noted he died days before turning 87.

Born Arthur Kelm in New York City, he grew up as Arthur Gelien, using his divorced mom's maiden name, in California. After an underage stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, he was signed as an actor by starmaker Henry Willson, who specialized in hunks like Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner, and Guy Madison. It was Willson who renamed the tall, fresh-faced newcomer ahead of his film debut in "The Lawless" (1950).

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Kicking back in a typical '50s publicity shot

Throughout the '50s, Hunter was an A-list star and teen-mag heartthrob, appearing in hits like "Island of Desire" (1952), "Track of the Cat" (1955), "Battle Cry" (1955), "The Sea Chase" (1955), the 1958 screen adaptation of "Damn Yankees," and "That Kind of Woman" (1959) opposite Sophia Loren.

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So intense was Hunter's following that his first single "Young Love" in 1957 spent six weeks atop the music charts, and a later hit led to the formation of Warner Bros. Records.

Hunter's popularity allowed him to weather a controversy — he was all but outed in a September 1955 Confidential magazine article that reported on his arrest in 1950 for disorderly conduct. Hunter told THR in 2015, "Confidential targeted me. It all came about because Henry Willson... cut a deal with them to keep Rock [Hudson] out of their pages, feeding them dirt on me instead." Confidential insinuated that Hunter had been at a gay orgy. "It was all bullsh-t. I had been invited to the party by a friend and attended it solely for the free food. When I arrived, there happened to be a couple of guys dancing with a couple of guys and a couple of gals dancing with a couple of gals, so I looked and said, 'Oh, it's one of those parties,' and then proceeded to the refrigerator. Moments later, the cops showed up and arrested all of us. That's exactly how innocent it was. When the Confidential article came out, though, I thought my career was over."

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Hunter with Divine in "Polyester"

Hunter's career cooled in the '60s and '70s, but he experienced a revival in the outrageous John Waters film "Polyester" (1981), in which his leading lady was drag legend Divine. He went on to sing "Reproduction" as part of his role in the bomb-turned-cult-film "Grease 2" (1982), and to again spoof his matinee-idol image opposite Divine in "Lust in the Dust" (1985).

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Hunter with producer Allan Carr and co-star Lorna Luft at the "Grease 2" premiere in 1982

In 2015, Hunter's longtime partner Allan Glaser produced the documentary "Tab Hunter Confidential," directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, in which Hunter opened up about his childhood, his optimistic approach to his career's ups and downs, and what it was like to be gay during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was based on Hunter's well-received 2005 memoir of the same name.

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Hunter with partner Glaser in 2015

His love affair with fellow closeted movie star Anthony Perkins, most famous as Norman Bates in "Psycho" (1960), is the subject of a recently confirmed film collaboration between J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto.

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In June, Hunter attended Broadway's "The Boys in the Band," posing with all the cast members except for Jim Parsons.

Hunter is survived by Glaser.