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Role of a lifetime

Special to The Times

TANNED and fit, Tab Hunter walks down the red brick steps of his Montecito house with the same self-effacing smile that made him a movie star 50 years ago in “Battle Cry” and “Damn Yankees!” The house that lies beyond looks like some classic Hollywood throwback too, the black-and-white marble entry yielding to a view of the garden, blue agapanthus and stately oaks peering through the windows. The scene is a reminder that once upon a time houses weren’t built to the lot line, that when newcomers first flocked to Southern California, they sought sunshine and breathing room.

Hunter’s property spans more than an acre, but the classic 1928 Spanish-style house by George Washington Smith is only about 2,000 square feet -- all the more space for fruit orchards and an area that the actor calls Villa Debris because of its storage shed and dog run for two whippets.

But no matter how modest in size the house may be, there will always be room for one of Hunter’s lifelong loves: antiques.

“I’ve always collected something. At first it was horse memorabilia, and then little by little I added other things,” says Hunter, 76, who had his own Asian-imports shop in Beverly Hills in the early 1960s. Tab Hunter’s Far East did well, but it wasn’t open long before the actor decided to sell the store. “It had been a fun hobby for the couple of years it lasted, but you can only sell so many Imari plates to Katharine Hepburn,” he quipped in “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” the 2005 autobiography for which Hunter’s partner, producer Allan Glaser, is working on a big-screen adaptation.

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That store may be long gone, but today Hunter’s house stands as nothing short of a collection of a lifetime, some pieces bought while shooting on location, others acquired from people close to him. “I like having all these things around me because they’re my memories of friends and places I’ve been,” he says. “I look around and I see Santa Fe flea market, England, Virginia, Portugal.”

His tastes run to the intricately carved pieces of the 17th century English Jacobean period, and furniture from Spain and Portugal -- “the country pieces,” he says. “I love patina and a good piece of wood. It sort of speaks to you.”

Although all that wood is dark, the house is surprisingly bright, with natural light flowing through windows overlooking the garden for a classic California indoor-outdoor feeling. The rich oak paneling that Hunter restored in the living room provides a warm backdrop for antiques galore, an eclectic mix that includes a Dutch tortoise shell corner cabinet, an 18th century English wainscot chair, a rare Oushak carpet and a French Louis XXIV chair, a piece he purchased in the ‘60s in New Orleans while traveling the country on the theater circuit.

The first pieces he ever bought were Spanish sconces, now in the dining room, that he picked up while on location for his first major role, in “Island of Desire.” “I had my 20th birthday on the set,” he recalls.

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One sofa sports pillows that Hunter needlepointed himself, a craft he learned from Rosey Grier and put into use during breaks in the production of the 1972 John Huston film “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” with Paul Newman.

An English oak drop-leaf table and two armchairs were bought at a 20th Century Fox auction in the 1980s. The chairs, which can be seen in old black-and-white movies including 1949’s “Letter to Three Wives” with Kirk Douglas, have since been re-covered in raw green silk velvet and taken their new place in a sitting area overlooking the garden.

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WALK through the house that Hunter shares with Glaser, and it’s clear that the horns mounted on the walls and hoof candlesticks on the table aren’t so much a celebration of kitsch or nods to current decorating trends, but rather a reflection of the actor’s lifelong love of the outdoors.

Hunter learned to ride horses as a teen at an L.A. stable near Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard, and to this day he calls riding “my life.” His horse, Harlow, is boarded elsewhere, but Hunter’s house is filled with related collectibles, including his latest obsession, brass plaques used for harness decoration.

At times the outdoorsman’s world collides with Hunter’s life as a devout Catholic, a faith that permeates the house, though not always in austere ways.

“This I love,” he says, pointing to one of the folk art statues sitting on a 1682 dresser. “I got it when I was living in New Mexico. I call it our Lady of the Canned Hams. Someone took a ham can, added all this wonderful work around the rim, and then put an 18th century Madonna inside it.”

There is the icon he bought from an old monk in Greece, and the black Madonna that was one of his first collectibles. “I got it in 1954, around the time I got a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.”

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The headboard on his bed came from L.A. antiques dealer Paul Ferrante. “He was taking this to a flea market when I bought it right off his truck,” Hunter says. “It’s funky, but I love the meaning of its carving: Labor for love, serve God above; to God always, I will give praise.”

Glaser has posters from Hunter’s Hollywood days and other movie memorabilia in his bedroom, but you won’t find such pieces elsewhere in the house.

“He’s not one to keep photos or awards of himself out on display,” says Glaser, whose sense of humor, especially when it comes to the world of Hollywood, is on full display in his bathroom. That’s where you’ll find the “most promising new male personality” trophy that Hunter received at the 1955 Audience Awards, something akin to today’s People’s Choice Awards. The statuette is showcased across from the commode along with an Emmy and an Oscar -- neither originally Hunter’s, the latter won by a deceased friend and former neighbor who was a costume designer.

“Nothing bores me more than looking at work of mine,” Hunter says. “That’s a past life.”

Indeed, the actor declared in his autobiography: “Today, I am happy to be forgotten.”

He loves to work in his garden. When the weather is warm, he and Glaser entertain friends on a patio that looks back toward the house’s tall arched windows, a George Washington Smith trademark. Yew and oak trees rise from the back lawn, accompanied by the trickle of a wall fountain.

“I love the feeling of this house,” Hunter says. “At first I thought it was tiny, but I liked the feel to it. It seemed to embrace me. Now every day here is a thank-you day.”

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More photos online

For additional pictures of Tab Hunter’s George Washington Smith house in Montecito and his collection of antiques, look for the photo gallery posted with this article at latimes.com/home.


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