By Jason Lynch
October 31, 2005 12:00 PM

In the ’50s Tab Hunter was known as the “Sigh Guy”: a pretty-boy pinup whose wholesome guy-next-door looks made audiences swoon in films like Battle Cry and Damn Yankees. By night he hit the town with glamorous starlets like Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and Jayne Mansfield on his arm. Yet those extracurricular appearances were just as much a performance for Hunter—who was secretly gay—as his work in front of the camera. “I knew what I was,” says Hunter. “I just never talked about it.”

Until now. In his newly released memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, the actor, who says he spent much of his career “pretty fearful” of having his secret exposed, is finally opening up about being gay in 1950s Hollywood. During that time, he writes, there was an unwritten rule: “Act discreetly, and people would respect your right to privacy.” So Hunter, now 74, dutifully stepped out on his studio-arranged dates while secretly romancing the likes of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, skater Ronnie Robertson and actor Scott Marlowe. “When you’re under contract to a studio,” he explains, “your job is to do as they say. If you have a job, do your job.”

All the while, fan magazines like Movie Life (which were in cahoots with the studios) breathlessly trumpeted Hunter’s fictional heterosexual pursuits. “People ate that up like a hot fudge sundae at the corner drugstore,” he says. Hunter says he came close to marrying a few women that he felt a connection with, including actresses Lori Nelson and Etchika Choureau. Ultimately, though, “my own fears stopped me,” he says. “It was not being true to myself.”

Indeed, he considered marrying in part to defuse a 1955 story in the tabloid Confidential, which questioned Hunter’s sexuality by luridly playing up a disorderly conduct charge stemming from his 1950 arrest at a gay party. However, the rumors did little to dissuade his fans—or his bosses. Soon after, Hunter says, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner “threw his arm around me and said, ‘Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s toilet paper.’ ”

The normally reserved Hunter’s revelations in Confidential (yes, he named it after that tabloid) were surprising even to his longtime boyfriend Allan Glaser, 45. “He never talked about Tony Perkins. I knew about it because I read it in other books, but he’s not gossipy,” says Glaser, a producer who met Hunter at a 1983 pitch meeting. “This was like one long three-year psychoanalysis session he had to go through.”

He certainly had plenty to get off his chest. Growing up fatherless in several California cities, Hunter writes that his first homosexual experience, at 14, led to “overwhelming” guilt, prompting him to lie about his age and join the Coast Guard at 15. Soon after being discharged a year later, he was introduced to agent Henry Willson, who changed Hunter’s name from Art Gelien (selecting Hunter because of the hunter horses Tab liked to ride). Hunter quickly ascended in Hollywood and even topped the pop charts with 1957’s “Young Love.” “It was really exciting,” he says, “but I was very insecure. I was struggling to think, ‘Am I worthy of being in this?’ ”

Like many a teen idol, Hunter saw his star slowly fade, and by the mid-’70s—”when I couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood”—made ends meet doing dinner theater before mounting a comeback in 1981’s kitsch classic Polyester. He was also sidelined by a 1980 heart attack, a 1990 stroke and quadruple bypass surgery in 2000, but thanks to a steady regimen of aerobics and horseback riding, “he can outshine any 50-year-old I know,” says Glaser. Unlike many former stars who refuse to admit that fame has passed them by (“One of the chapters in the book is called ‘Happy to be Forgotten,’ and I am,” he says), Hunter has happily embraced his quiet life at their Montecito, Calif., home. “You can be as private as you want,” he says. “It’s pretty wonderful.”

Jason Lynch. Tom Cunneff in Montecito