NEW YORK — Tab Hunter, the tall, blond, blue-eyed movie star who as a teenage idol in the 1950s was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system — and who made an unlikely comeback in a very un-Hollywood film when he was almost 50 — died Sunday in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his spouse, Allan Glaser, who said the cause was cardiac arrest after a blood clot moved from Mr. Hunter’s leg to his lung.
Arthur Gelien was 17 when agent Henry Willson gave him a new name and added him to a roster of clients that included Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner, and Rory Calhoun. “Acting skill,” Mr. Hunter said in his 2005 autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential” (written with Eddie Muller), “was secondary to chiseled features and a fine physique.”
He might not have had the skill, at least not yet, but he had the look; he was the epitome of the sunny all-American boy enshrined in decades of Hollywood films. His first audition for “Island of Desire” (1952) consisted of taking off his shirt. The screen test came later. On the basis of that movie, in which he played a brash Marine corporal marooned with Linda Darnell on a South Seas island, the readers of Photoplay magazine voted him the year’s No. 1 new male star.
His breakthrough movie was “Battle Cry” (1955), in which he played another Marine, at the beginning of World War II, who has a girlfriend back home and a steamy love affair with a married USO volunteer (Dorothy Malone) in San Diego. Its success led to a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
In February 1956, Mr. Hunter received a reported 62,000 Valentines. He was the dream date of teenage girls on several continents. And he had a secret.
It was not until 50 years after “Battle Cry,” when he wrote his autobiography, that he publicly discussed his homosexuality; his love affair with actor Anthony Perkins; the rage and wrath of his parish priest when, as a 14-year-old boy, he haltingly confessed what had happened in the dark of a movie theater; and years of being “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture — where I was even less comfortable and less accepted.”
He was most comfortable on horseback, a lifelong passion. He had been discovered while shoveling manure at a riding academy in return for being allowed to ride. During his heady Warner Bros. years, he bought horses — and cars — that he could not afford. He had never had money before; now it spilled through his fingers.
His fame grew when he starred with Natalie Wood in two 1956 movies: “The Burning Hills,” a Western, and “The Girl He Left Behind,” in which he played an arrogant rich boy turned into a man by the Army. (The studio also arranged to create the illusion of a romance by having the two stars be seen together in public.) When Warner Bros. made the movie version of the hit Broadway musical “Damn Yankees,” about a middle-age fan who is turned into a young baseball superstar by the devil, in 1958, Mr. Hunter played the superstar.
His reviews were sometimes terrible. In his memoir, he quoted one review of “The Girl He Left Behind”: “Since Mr. Hunter discloses not one redeeming feature as an actor, the picture misses fire whenever he’s around.”
Determined to turn himself into a real actor, Mr. Hunter sought out live television. He played a murderer on “Playhouse 90” and Jimmy Piersall, the major league baseball player who came back from a nervous breakdown, in a well-reviewed adaptation of the book “Fear Strikes Out” on the series “Climax.” But Warner Bros. refused to buy the movie rights to “Fear Strikes Out” for its teenage idol, and the film was made by Paramount, with Mr. Hunter’s sometime companion Anthony Perkins.
Frustrated, Mr. Hunter bought himself out of his Warner Bros. contract in 1959.
Leaving Warner Bros. proved to be a mistake. “I was a product of Hollywood,” Mr. Hunter told The New York Times in 1981. “And one morning, I woke up and couldn’t get arrested.”
He never stopped working, but he would not return to the spotlight until maverick filmmaker John Waters cast him in his quirky “Polyester” (1981) and made him hip for a new generation.
Though by his own admission he was not much of a singer, Mr. Hunter’s recording of “Young Love” rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957 and stayed there for five weeks. In the 1960-61 television season he starred in an NBC sitcom, “The Tab Hunter Show.”
But not long after that, Mr. Hunter — over 30, no longer under contract and no longer in demand — was considered a has-been.
But mostly there was dinner theater and summer stock, where faded movie stars were always welcome. He toured for years, from Ogunquit, Maine, to Charlotte, N.C., and from Warwick, R.I., to Salt Lake City. The touring ended when Waters asked Mr. Hunter to play the suave, seductive Todd Tomorrow and cavort with the drag performer Divine, as a suburban housewife named Francine Fishpaw, in “Polyester.”
Waters, best known at the time for challenging the notion of good taste in underground films like “Pink Flamingos,” said he wanted Mr. Hunter for the part because “to me, he has always been the ultimate movie star.” His script, which sent up Hollywood clichés, made Mr. Hunter laugh, and he took the part despite warnings that it would kill his career.
It did not. “Polyester,” released in 1981, was an unexpected success, with critics as well as at the box office. It was both Waters’s first mainstream hit and Mr. Hunter’s ticket out of dinner theater.
Four years later, when Mr. Hunter reunited with Divine for the comedy Western “Lust in the Dust,” he was not just the costar but one of the producers. “Lust in the Dust” was also a hit, and Mr. Hunter and Divine planned to make more movies together. Those plans ended when Divine died suddenly in 1988.
That same year, Mr. Hunter’s comeback ended — by choice. After that, except for playing a small part in the 1992 movie “Dark Horse,” a family drama based on a story he wrote, he did no more acting and spent his last years living in Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara, with his dogs, his horses, and Glaser, his business and personal partner since 1983. They married shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in California, Glaser said. He leaves no other immediate survivors.