Tab Hunter earned the swoony nickname for his heartthrob good looks. But there was more than beefcake — there were westerns.
When Tab Hunter passed away last July at age 86 in Santa Barbara, California, the obituaries were filled with nostalgic accounts of his glory days as a 1950s screen idol who loomed large in an era when Hollywood routinely manufactured stars known less for acting prowess than alluring hunkiness. But we prefer to remember the native New Yorker born Arthur Andrew Kelm as a journeyman actor, an engaging conversationalist, and a bluntly candid memoirist — read his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, and you’ll see what we mean. He never sounded prouder, or more enthusiastic, than when he talked about his lifelong dedication to riding and raising horses.
Indeed, as he told C&I before a 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston screening of the documentary based on his autobiography, Hunter more or less owed his acting career to his being “discovered” while cleaning out a horse stall.
“I was a stable boy on the weekends at a place called Du Brock’s Riding Academy, on the corner of Riverside and Los Feliz in Los Angeles,” he said. “There was this guy by the name of Dick Clayton, who really became a part of my family. He later became one of the top agents in Hollywood for James Dean, Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, and so many other people.
“But when I met him, he was an actor and he was doing a photo shoot at the stable for a magazine layout with Ann Blyth. I was fascinated when I found out it was for a movie magazine because I was a big movie nut as a kid. He talked to me when I was cleaning out a stall and asked, ‘Did you ever think of acting?’ I said, ‘Gosh, no. I didn’t.’ And then years later, while I was in the Coast Guard, I was on the East Coast and Dick was doing a play on Broadway. I went in to see him, and he started introducing me to the right people.”
One thing led to another, and pretty soon Arthur Kelm found himself renamed Tab Hunter and groomed for stardom. He spent an impressive amount of his spotlight time in the saddle. Here are some of those highlights.
Gun Belt (1953) — In one of his first major movies, Hunter got to demonstrate his equestrian skills as Chip Ringo, an impressionable young man who takes a while to realize that his uncle, reformed bandit turned rancher Billy Ringo (George Montgomery), is a much better role model than his father, notorious outlaw Matt Ringo (John Dehner). “I learned an important lesson while making that movie,” Hunter told us in 2016. “We were doing a scene in which they wanted a stuntman to gallop up on a horse and stop this wagon. And I said, ‘Well, hell, I could do that.’ And I did. But then later, [veteran stuntman] Jack Conner ... came over to me and said, ‘We know you can ride, kid. But you see that guy over there? The guy dressed just like you? Well, he’s got to make a living, too. So why don’t you let him do the stunt? And then you can tell the director, “If you want to shoot that from a closer angle, I can do the close-up.” Everybody’ll be happy that way.’ That made a lot of sense to me. And that’s what I did from then on.”
Track of the Cat (1954) — Esteemed filmmaker William A. Wellman — whose diverse credits include 1927’s Wings (the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture), the original A Star Is Born (1937), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) — directed this psychologically intense drama about a squabbling Northern California ranch family dominated by surly middle brother Curt Bridges (Robert Mitchum). Youngest sibling Hal Bridges (Hunter) is unable to assert himself, even when Curt taunts his lovely fiancée (Diana Lynn), until a killer panther returns to the area to make a nuisance of himself. At the time of filming, Hunter recalled in his autobiography, “Mitchum was the biggest star I’d ever worked with, which was a little intimidating. ... It worked to my advantage, however, as it mirrored the relationship between our characters.”
The Burning Hills (1956) — By the time Hunter saddled up for this Warner Bros. western, which screenwriter Irving Wallace adapted from a novel by Louis L’Amour, he was considered a major star — and the studio brass didn’t want anything to blemish his golden-boy-next-door image. And so, even though Hunter was playing a hard-edged cowboy on the trail of the horse thieves who killed his brother, director Stuart Heisler was handed down an edict: no unsightly whiskers for the hot property. “It looked like I packed an electric razor in my holster, not a six-shooter,” Hunter would later say. “So much for authenticity.” Hunter took delight, though, in working with Natalie Wood, cast as a Mexican beauty who aids the vengeful cowboy. And he got to ride his own horse, Swizzlestick, who had been a Green Jumper Champion at the Del Mar National Horse Show. “I just threw a stock saddle on her,” Hunter told C&I. “And you know what? Swizz turned out to be a better movie horse than she was a show horse. I mean, you hit her with the lights and all of that attention went to her head. She was like a glamour girl.”
Gunman’s Walk (1958) — Hunter gave one of his finest performances in director Phil Karlson’s edgy drama set during the period when the Wild West was becoming civilized, and not everyone was happy about the change. Autocratic rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) loves his mild-mannered son Davey (James Darren), but, truth to tell, he’s a mite more partial to his other boy, Ed (Hunter), a tightly wound macho man who wants to be just like (and maybe tougher than) dear old Dad.
They Came to Cordura (1959) — The movie begins with an elaborate dramatization of a fateful 1916 clash between U.S. forces and rebels led by Pancho Villa in Mexico, a battle described as “the last glorious cavalry campaign” led by the Army before mounted riders were replaced by trucks and airplanes. But the real drama doesn’t come until after the battle, as Maj. Thomas Thorn (Gary Cooper), a battlefield observer charged with recommending soldiers for the Medal of Honor, leads a party back to their expedition’s base in the Texas town of Cordura. The long trek through a hostile desert landscape brings out the best and worst in his men (including a potentially mutinous lieutenant well-played by Hunter).
Hostile Guns (1967) — Throughout most of the 1960s, Paramount Pictures gave producer A.C. Lyles free rein to produce a series of small-budget westerns (sometimes as many as four in a single year) featuring familiar faces and fading stars who greatly appreciated gainful employment. Hollywood veteran R.G. Springsteen directed this enjoyably unpretentious opus about a hard-bitten marshal (George Montgomery) and his hot-tempered deputy (Hunter) who are temporarily turned against each other by one of the prisoners — a sly vixen played by Yvonne De Carlo — they are transporting cross-country.
Vengeance Is My Forgiveness (1968) — Near the end of the ’60s spaghetti western heyday, Hunter followed the trail blazed by other career-stalled American actors who took a few pages from Clint Eastwood’s book and flew to Italy to play down-and-dirty gunslingers. Unfortunately, despite Hunter’s reasonably efficient lead performance as an unforgiving sheriff who goes gunning for the robbers who killed his loved ones, this badly dubbed, borderline-incoherent shoot’em-up (also released in North America as Shotgun) lives down to the actor’s dismissive description as “a spaghetti western short on meat sauce.”
The Sea Chase (1955) — Yes, it’s a World War II thriller, not a western. But, shucks, how could we not include Hunter’s only appearance opposite John Wayne? The Duke plays Karl Ehrlich, the German captain of a decrepit freighter who hates Nazis but loves his fatherland, and sets out to sail home from Australia shortly after Hitler sends troops into Poland. Hunter has relatively little to do here as one of Ehrlich’s crewmen. Still, the actor recalled in his memoir that “Wayne completely charmed me, claiming [his production company] should have gotten me under long-term contract before Warner Bros. did. As a gesture of good luck, he gave me his navy jacket to wear on camera.” Alas, they never got to costar as cowboys together.
Photography: photofest/© columbia pictures.
From the November/December 2018 issue.