Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter, who gained fame for his chiseled looks in the 1950s and later came out in 2005 after decades of silence, died in Santa Monica on Sunday. He was 86.
His Facebook page confirmed the news early Monday morning with a sweet message on how to honor the late star.
“SAD NEWS: Tab passed away tonight three days shy of his 87th birthday,” the post read. “Please honor his memory by saying a prayer on his behalf. He would have liked that.”
Hunter became a star in the mid-’50s thanks to roles in 1955’s Battle Cry and 1956’s The Girl He Left Behind and Burning Hills. He signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. at the time and starred in the 1958 hit Damn Yankees.
Even though he spent his glory days with a rotation of glamorous starlets like Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and Jayne Mansfield on his arm, it was all a ruse to hide his sexual orientation. Hunter came out in 2005 in his memoir titled Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, where he wrote about why he kept quiet about his private life. Hunter’s book was later adapted into an award-winning documentary in 2015.
“When you’re under contract to a studio,” he wrote, “your job is to do as they say. If you have a job, do your job.”
“I knew what I was,” Hunter told PEOPLE in 2005. “I just never talked about it.”
Growing up fatherless in several California cities, Hunter wrote 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 said, “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,” said his longtime boyfriend, producer Allan Glaser, in 2005. The pair had been in a relationship for over three decades.
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 said), Hunter happily embraced his quiet life at their Montecito, Calif., home. “You can be as private as you want,” he said. “It’s pretty wonderful.”