By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Tab Hunter was the Channing Tatum of his day. A handsome hunk of an actor, he made teenage girls (and some teenage boys) swoon in the 1950s and early 1960s. Tall, athletic, blond-haired and blue-eyed, he looked the part of a California surfer. A New York native, Hunter relocated to Los Angeles with his mother, a German immigrant, and older brother, Walt, after his parents divorced.
Born Arthur Andrew Kelm, he was “discovered” working as a stable boy and rechristened Tab Hunter by his first agent, Henry Willson. Nearly all of Willson’s clients were good-looking young actors including Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner and Troy Donahue, whom he supposedly liked to flirt with.
Under Willson’s wing, Hunter landed his first leading role in 1952 in the sexy B-movie “Island of Desire,” opposite Linda Darnell. He then picked up other leading roles in war movies and westerns. He distinguished himself as a leading man in films like “Battle Cry,” “The Sea Chase” and “The Girl He Left Behind.” He worked on live television with top-notch directors including Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer. He also was a recording artist and had a No. 1 hit with “Young Love.”
But Hunter, like many other male heartthrobs of the time, had a secret, and if that secret were revealed during that era, his burgeoning career would have been ruined. He was gay.
Though outed by an L.A. gossip rag in the ‘50s, it wasn’t that article that sunk his career. After years of being under contract to Warner Bros, Hunter paid the then-ungodly sum of $100,000 to buy it out. Little did he realize, the contract system was already coming to an end, and tastes in movies and actors were changing. Though he kept working throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the quality of roles and films declined. Hunter finally had a career resurgence when he starred in John Waters’ “Polyester” in 1981 opposite transvestite Divine, and subsequently had a memorable role in the musical “Grease 2.”
Hunter, now 84, revealed his sexual preference in a memoir nearly 10 years ago, long after he had retired from the silver screen. A jovial and yet very private man, it took some coaxing from his longtime partner producer Allan Glaser, but he figured it was time to tell his story. Once the book was published, Hunter figured that was it. He could go “back in the closet,” as he says, but there was a bit more to tell, so he agreed to be the subject a new documentary “Tab Hunter Confidential,” which delivers a warts-and-all portrait of a resilient young actor who had to hide who he was in order to earn a living in his chosen career. It also reveals the very dark personal lows in his life such as when he had to commit his beloved mother to a mental asylum, where she underwent electroshock treatment, and the loss of his only brother to the Vietnam war.
On a positive note, the film reveals that through his strong Catholic faith (which he rediscovered after years of feeling abandoned by it), his love for his longtime partner and his passion for horses, Hunter persevered.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who has helmed documentaries on other Hollywood luminaries including William Castle and Divine, “Tab Hunter Confidential” is an emotional and fascinating story about a one-time matinee idol. It includes interviews with some of Hunter’s contemporaries including Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Lainie Kazan and Dolores Hart (who later became a nun) as well as perspectives from Hollywood journalist Rona Barrett, Noah Wyle, who was a child actor when he worked with Hunter and Portia de Rossi, who is an openly gay actress. “Tab Hunter Confidential” has been gaining kudos on the film festival circuit, winning top awards in San Diego, Louisville, Ky., Miami and elsewhere.
Hunter, who became a respected judge and rider at horse shows after his Hollywood career faded, recently spoke by phone from Savannah, Ga., one of his last stops on a tour to promote the picture. While flattered with all the positive feedback from audiences and critics, the humble octogenarian says he is eager to get back home to his Santa Barbara ranch and his beloved horses.
Q: What do you attribute the success of the documentary?
Hunter: I’m overwhelmed by the response from people to the film because Allan worked for seven years putting this together. To me there aren’t a lot of good producers around. He’s produced a few films before the producer is the person who causes the film to be made. He raised the money and hired a wonderful director and they worked well together. They got the interviews together. I’m just very impressed with what they’ve done. I’m so pleased that everyone seems to enjoy it so much.
Q: Movie audiences today want so much more information about stars, and the behind-the-scenes of how the movies are made and more information about the stars. Would you rather be coming into the business today versus the 1950s?
Hunter: There was a sense of style about motion pictures then. I think it was wonderful. There was an aura about the industry that was quite wonderful. There was a sense of mystery about the industry that was quite wonderful. Even at the end of the studio system, when I was at Warner Bros. with Jimmy Dean and Natalie Wood, we were there when the studios were your bosses. They’d tell you that you’d start on Thursday, and Thursday is when you’d start to work. If you didn’t, then you were out and somebody else was in. Today everything seems to be in your face and thrown at you.
My mother made it really clear years ago when she said, “Elevate your thinking.” There’s a lot to be said for that. We need a little more of that today. They play down to audiences and spend a gazillion dollars (on movies). There was something nice back then about just getting together and turning the bar into a theater. (He laughs.)
Q: Today, you would probably be cast as a superhero wearing a costume and working with a lot of special effects. Back then, you were doing westerns, and a surf movie.
Hunter: Don’t forget there would be more explosions today.
Q: Would you want to do that?
Hunter: Not at 84, but back then I sure as **** could have. The thing is there are a lot of creative young people around today. God bless ‘em. I’m so excited when I see their work. I really love it. There are a couple of the old buggers around and I love what they do too, like Clint Eastwood’s film, “American Sniper,” I thought was just fabulous and Bradley Cooper. To me, that was a really good show. “The Theory of Everything”—I loved that. But a lot of films today, I go, “OK, what’s next?” They spend an awful lot of money and you wonder what’s going on.
Q: The documentary appears to indicate there are three things kept you going all these years: Allan, your faith and your horses. I don’t know which order you’d put those in.
Hunter: I would put my faith first. Sometimes, I put my horses above Allan. (He laughs.) No, he single-handedly raised the money for our film, “Lust in the Dust.” He had the courage to leave his safe position at Fox to go out and produce that film.
Q: You published your memoirs about 10 years ago. And now to have this documentary that puts your life in the spotlight again, did you need some convincing to do it?
Hunter: I figured the book is there, so all right. Allan always says, “It took me two years to get Tab to do it. What he did was come out of the closet and did the documentary and then went back in, and closed the door.” I love that.
Everybody throws the word “gay” around. It wasn’t around in the ‘50s. They always want to label you. I remember the first line I wrote in my book: I hate labels. But everybody always wants to label you: “She’s like this; he’s like that.” I’m more concerned about what kind of human being you are.
Q: Do you think being an actor today, are there still stigmas?
Hunter: You can be a character actor or sidekick, but I still think it’s the same today as when I was making movies. I can’t think of a leading man or leading woman who has said publicly that they’re gay. There are some TV actors that are out, but movie actors are different. Those who put up the money for films, I don’t see them putting up money with actors that are outwardly gay. But I’m not outwardly gay. I went back into the closet after the documentary. Some of us just live our loves. (Being gay) is a thread in the tapestry of my life.
Q: When you watch the film, can you separate yourself from what you’re seeing on screen. Are there difficult scenes to watch?
Hunter: There are two spots that really hit me. Every time I see the part about my brother’s death and the part where I committed my mother (to a mental asylum), I find those things very powerful. I love when my friend Mother Dolores (a former co-star) comes onscreen and talks about my religion. So often people don’t want to talk about (their faith). They sweep it under the carpet. It’s not in vogue to talk about. Why not? It’s a very important part of my life. I want to share that. There’s a lot there if we put our minds to it.
Q: Maureen O’Hara passed away this week. She was the main plaintiff against Confidential magazine. Were you involved in the lawsuit?
Hunter: No, I was wasn’t. I made the first cover. I shared it with Marilyn Monroe. I remember the story on Maureen O’Hara and I was thrilled that she sued them. Today everything is so in your face. It’s unfortunate. My mother would look at it and say, “Please, elevate your thinking.” She was a very strong, German, religious woman who was very important in my life.
Q: You worked with a lot of great actors and directors. Is there someone you never got a chance to work with?
Hunter: I’m sure there were many. I thought Paul Newman was a wonderful man. I used to see him at the horse shows and at the studio. I would have loved to work with Paul. Wait, I did! I worked with him in “Judge Roy Bean.” I forgot about that. That was a small part but it was great fun. I would have liked to work with Luchino Visconti. I worked on a couple of (screen) tests for him (in Italy) with Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel for (“Vache stelle dell’Orsa”). Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. To be frank, the people who put the money up didn’t want me. But Luchino was a genius. I’d put him right up there with (filmmaker) John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet and people like that.
Q: Is “The Tab Hunter Show” you did in the early ‘60s on DVD?
Hunter: Oh, you don’t want to see that! It was on opposite the last half hour of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We had Stanley Shapiro, who wrote “Pillow Talk,” connected with the show. He was wonderful. But somehow egos got involved. We lost him, and it was downhill from there. But we did do 36 episodes, which, in those days, was one season. Now, it would be a hit show.
What I’d like people to see is the show I did with Geraldine Page on “Playhouse 90.” They did great shows. Live television was so gratifying and rewarding for a young actor. They had great directors, writers and actors.
Q: In the documentary, you’re shown on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret?”
Hunter: (He laughs.) I don’t remember. It was so long ago. That’s a good trivia question. It’s still a secret!
Q: Did you see 2004’s comedy “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton?” because it was partly inspired by the Win a Date with Tab Hunter contest?
Hunter: No. I didn’t, but they had a play on Broadway several years ago called “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” which was a spoof of my name and Rock Hudson’s name.
Q: Do you have a favorite performance or film?
Hunter: I loved doing the “Playhouse 90” play with Geraldine Page that was directed by John Frankenheimer. You can’t get any better than that. In films, there were three that I liked the most for different reasons. “Damn Yankees,” because it was my first musical. “That Kind of Woman” because of Sophia Loren—come on!—and (directed by) Sidney Lumet, whom I worked with before. And a very good western called “Gunman’s Walk,” where I starred with Van Heflin. It was written by Frank Nugent, who also wrote “The Quiet Man,” which Maureen O’Hara was in.
Q: What would it take for you to lure you back to a TV show or a film?
Hunter: I wouldn’t do a TV show. I might do a line in a Clint Eastwood movie because I’m such a huge fan of his. He’s such a good director and I’ve known him for 100 years. I love the creative people in the business. But I’m so busy shoveling the real stuff out in the barn.
Q: Are you riding your horses again?
Hunter: No, I stopped. There’s a shot in the film at the Upperville (Va.) Horse Show from a couple of years ago. I’m not as secure. I used to do jumping until I was 82. Finally, I said no, I might break a few bones if I fall. So I’m just doing the chores out in the barn that I love. I used to give a lot of clinics and I was a judge for years. That was a major part of my life.
Q: What motivates you in the morning?
Hunter: Allan does. He’s like, “We’re meeting Annie at the beach in 15 minutes. Come on!” I get up and we take the dogs to the beach. We have breakfast and we go to barn. Every day is a thank you day and we should not forget. It’s all about the journey so we should try to make it a good one and be thankful.