“People always want to label people,” says screen-idol-turned-author Tab Hunter. “They want to think, ‘he’s like this’ or ‘she’s like that,’ or ‘they’re like this’— and that’s nonsense! The first line in my book — in capital letters — was: ‘I HATE LABELS!’ The important thing is we’re all human beings. Now take a second, and stop and think: What kind of human being are you? That’s what’s important!”
Hunter has dealt with many labels over the years – movie star, All American Boy, and even his name, which he got from a Hollywood agent. He talks about how he handled these situations and more in Tab Hunter Confidential, a documentary recently released on DVD and Blu-ray that is based on his bestselling 2005 autobiography.
“I would never have talked about my personal life in the 1950s,” Hunter acknowledges early on in the film. “Even today, to come out of myself and to share all of this is extremely difficult.”
Unpretentious and affable, Hunter is now in his mid-80s. He looks years younger, though, and he’s just as handsome as we remember him. As he talks, one hears the grin in his voice, much like a cool, laidback uncle.
In his own relaxed way, he can find and articulate the deeper life lessons to be culled from any number of his memories or star-studded anecdotes. “This was my journey,” he says. “This is how it was.”
Regarded as the embodiment of youthful American masculinity in the 1950s and ’60s, Hunter reigned as Hollywood’s heartthrob in dozens of films, over the airwaves, and in the pages of countless fan magazines. His looks and wholesome brand of sex appeal established this golden boy as the gold standard for matinee idols.
Celebrity reporter Rona Barrett, who makes an appearance in the film, says: “He had the star quality and that certain X-factor.”
Other well-known figures in the movie include Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, Clint Eastwood — and even Dolores Hart, now known as the Rev. Mother Dolores. The documentary includes lots of great film and TV clips, as well as plenty of stories and intimate reflections about the Golden Age of Hollywood, television and rock-and-roll.
“It was a wonderful time,” Hunter says. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to be part of an era that never will be again — the tail end of the studio system.”
Yet throughout his years of stardom, this Boy Next Door was a man with a secret: Tab Hunter was gay, a revelation that could have killed his career.
The action opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, 1950, as Hunter details a somewhat notorious episode early in his career when he attended an all-male soiree in the Hollywood Hills (later called a “gay pajama party” in the press). Such gatherings by gay men were illegal at the time, he notes, and this one was raided by the vice squad, an incident that would hang over the actor’s career for years to come.
Born Arthur Gelien on July 11, 1931, Hunter recalls that he and his brother, Walter, were raised by their mother after she left their abusive father. His magnetic good looks made him a favorite among his peers, especially the girls, but he says he was very shy and unsure of himself, aware that deep down, he was somehow unlike the other boys.
“I did feel different from other boys,” he says. “The word gay was not around when I was a kid. They used derogatory terms like fairy and queer – and I might even have said that about someone, not wanting to be different.”
To escape the growing pressures at school, he joined the Coast Guard, despite being underage. Once he was found out and discharged, he returned to Los Angeles — or more precisely, to Hollywood. There, by chance, he met actor Dick Clayton (who later became an agent himself to the likes of Jane Fonda and Burt Reynolds), who suggested the charismatic young man try acting. He even pointed him toward Henry Willson, an agent known for representing other good-looking young men, such as Rock Hudson, Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun.
It was Willson who devised the name “Tab Hunter” for him, saying, “We’ve got to ‘tab’ you something,” the actor recollects. “Hunter” came from how the young man’s horse hobby, where he worked with hunters and jumpers.
Coincidentally, one of the other names being bandied about for him was “Troy Donahue,” years before that name was given to the blond actor who replaced him at Warner Bros. after Hunter bought out his own contract there.
Willson eventually threw him under the bus, giving the story of his arrest at the party to the powerful tabloid Confidential in order to deflect comparable suspicions from Hudson.
Nonetheless, once Hunter’s star rose, it rose very quickly – perhaps faster, he says, than his acting talent at the time may have warranted.
But starring in a local West Coast production of Our Town helped ignite his genuine desire to be good at his craft.
Hunter’s studio, Warner Bros., showed confidence in him, purchasing the film rights to the Broadway blockbuster Damn Yankees and even hiring the entire Broadway cast (save the leading man) in order to provide a starring vehicle for Hunter. Two of his co-stars from that movie, Rae Allen and Shannon Bolin, share their remembrances of working with Hunter in the documentary.
“I was the only outsider on it,” Hunter says. “I loved doing that film very much because it was a chance to do a musical.”
He also loved working opposite his vivacious leading lady, dancer Gwen Verdon, and her legendary choreographer husband Bob Fosse.
“Fosse and Gwen were unbelievable!” he says. “I told Bobby the minute we started working – I was supposed to do part of a dance number – that I had two left feet, and he said, ‘Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.’ He was just terrific! You know, you can let your fears run things for you or you can stand on the edge of the pool, grab your nose and just jump in.”
As for his other favorite co-stars during this time, he cites Oscar-winning actress Geraldine Page as one whom he especially liked working with. “I loved Geraldine because she was such a brilliant actress,” he says, “and I worked with her a lot on live TV on some of those great shows like Playhouse 90. I also loved working with Natalie Wood because she was like my kid sister. She was much younger than me, and we loved one another. She was great. And Sophia Loren —need I say more? I mean, c’mon! She was sensational!”
We learn that Warner Bros. Records was created expressly for this rising young star after his hit “Young Love” took the airwaves by storm and reached No. 1 on the pop charts — beating Elvis Presley. This opened up a new career for the actor — that of recording star — at the height of the teen idol craze of the 1950s.
Besides focusing on his celebrity life and closeted sexuality, though, the documentary deals with how he coped with his brother’s death in Vietnam and his mother’s mental illness, which inspired him to become one of the first stars to speak out about mental health awareness.
He also recounts his decidedly unconventional relationship with actor Anthony Perkins, best known for playing Norman Bates in the film Psycho. Hunter’s attitude toward Perkins’ ultimate life choices to marry a woman and start a family with her is refreshing.
“His choice was right for him,” Hunter says. “It’s all a part of a person’s individual growth. Tony was who he was — or maybe who he wanted to be — and that was good enough for me. I had no right to be judgmental — no one does — to second-guess his own pursuit of happiness.”
Once film roles started thinning out for Hunter, he turned his attention toward more stage work. In 1965 he performed at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre opposite Gretchen Wyler in Here’s Love, the stage musical adaptation of the classic Miracle on 34th Street.
In 1981, Hunter’s career got a boost when cult-film director John Waters asked him to portray the dashing-but-dastardly Todd Tomorrow in his film Polyester, which was being produced specifically for the burgeoning midnight movie circuit. Not only did this introduce Hunter to a new and younger fan base, it also gave him the opportunity to star opposite the queen of cult movies, Divine. (Not coincidentally, Jeffrey Schwarz, the director of Tab Hunter Confidential, is also the man behind the documentary I Am Divine, about the plus-sized cross-dressing cultural icon.)
Polyester also brought him to the attention of producer Allan Carr, who then cast him in Grease 2, the sequel to Carr’s 1978 blockbuster film that starred Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. Although not nearly as successful as the original, over time the movie has gained a solid cult following, and that suits Hunter just fine.
“I loved doing Grease 2 and worked with some wonderful people – and I love that it’s developed this kind of following,” says Hunter, “but Polyester for me was a lot more fun, and it was the opportunity to meet John Waters and work for him and to meet Divine. And Divine became one of my favorite leading ladies!”
Hunter says that working on both projects rekindled his interest in an on-screen career, and he once more teamed with Divine, this time in a film comedy titled Lust in the Dust.
While pitching his idea to 20th Century Fox, he met an executive who was decades younger than him named Allan Glaser. He ultimately became Hunter’s life partner in a relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.
It was Glaser who convinced Hunter to write his memoirs, rather than risking some stranger writing them after he was gone.
“Allan said, ‘Somebody wants to do a book on you,’” Hunter says. “‘You should do it instead.’ I thought about it and thought about it, and realized ‘you know, folks should get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone! I didn’t want someone putting a spin on my life who never knew me.”
Glaser was also the driving force behind this documentary and served as its producer.
“When Allan said to me, ‘I want to do the documentary,’ I first thought ‘let’s let sleeping dogs lie,’ But he said, ‘The documentary would be more visual. Let’s do it.’ So we hired Jeffrey as our director, and he knew the ‘arc’ and the stories they wanted, and to have other actors talk about the films and all that.
“I’m thrilled with the response to the documentary and all the people I’ve been able to communicate with. Now is an important time for me — I’m an older man. I’m enjoying life the way it is. I’m not one to give advice in any way, shape, or form — I just think we should all ‘weed out the garden’ and try to keep it easy and simple and uncomplicated.”
Tab Hunter Confidential is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as video on demand. Autographed DVD and Blu-ray copies are also available by ordering from www.tabhunter.com.