The many lives of Tab Hunter
by Tim Parks
In the 1950s, Tab Hunter was the epitome of Hollywood’s Golden Boy, a handsome leading man that made the girls swoon. He had a number-one record with Young Love in 1957, and squired the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood to Hollywood events. At every newsstand, you could find his face plastered across at least one movie magazine, if not a dozen. Yet behind his winsome smile, Hunter was leading a double life.
Now 74 years old, Hunter has penned his memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: a look back at what he refers to as “a past life” – the life he lived on celluloid. Hunter was discovered at age 13 at a stable shoveling, as he put it, “the real stuff as opposed to the Hollywood stuff.” His real moniker, Art Gelien, was replaced with Tab Hunter, a product of the Hollywood star-making machine.
During a phone conversation with the me, Hunter was affable and stripped free of labels. A thankful man that now finds solace in keeping things simple; one who now subscribes to life on the other side of the camera, producing independent films with his partner, Allan Glaser. Hunter was a true gentleman as he recalled his time underneath the shining stars of Hollywood.
Gay & Lesbian Times: What was it like to be a part of the Hollywood system in the 1950s? : It’s really interesting, because it was the end of the whole studio era, you know, and I was fortunate to be a part of that. It was a different thing at that time; you had these wonderful days of the studio contracts. Well, they eventually sort of fell apart; but it was difficult for me, because I was living two lives at that time. A private life of my own, which I never discussed, never talked about to anyone. And then my Hollywood life, which was just trying to learn my craft and succeed, and my touch of reality in that sort of unrealistic world of Hollywood were my horses. They always have been; they always were.
GLT: Did you ever feel pressured by the studios to appear “straight” to the movie-going masses? For example, being photographed with starlets. : Well, you are what you are. I play what I think the character needs to be – I mean, I use myself in the character, and that’s it. You know, “straight,” “gay,” that’s all a bunch of bullshit, those are only words. The first words in my book are “I hate labels,” and, unfortunately, people always want to label people. Well, you know that word [gay] wasn’t even around in those days, and if anyone ever confronted me with it, I’d just kinda freak out. I was in total denial. I was just not comfortable in that Hollywood scene, other than the work process.
Well, what happens when studios are building someone, what they do is, every fan magazine and paper always wants information on you and they want photographs of you. So, no matter what premiere you’re going to be going to, they’re going to be photographing the hell out of you… some you go by yourself, some I was under contract to Warner’s; Natalie [Wood] was under contract at Warner’s. Naturally, I would take Natalie, ’cause she was a great friend of mine; they were building us as a team. But I would take out different people, whoever I wanted. And occasionally they would say, “Would you mind taking out so and so, because we’re trying to get some publicity on her.” And they knew that if I went on a date with [that person], there’d be photographs, like all over the place. But that was just part of the process. GLT: During your career, you’ve worked with screen legends including Natalie Wood, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth. Who was you favorite leading lady? : Well, I worked with so many of them. Sophia Loren. I even include Divine as one of my favorite leading ladies. But, I would say the best actress I ever worked with was probably Geraldine Page, with no doubt, in the days of live television in “A Portrait of a Murderer” for “Playhouse 90.” Geraldine Page said the most interesting thing to me. I was saying to her at the time, “God, Geri, you’re so lucky, everyone loves you. The press were always such bastards. I said, “I think they hate my guts, people just sometimes just hate my guts.” She grabbed hold of my arm and she said, “Just remember this, Tab. If people don’t like you, that is their bad taste.”
But my favorite was probably Nat, only because she was like a kid sister. She was so wonderful; she was at that wonderful transitional period of her life where she was a little girl and a young woman. At times she was a kid, at times she was a grownup, and it was so damn cute to watch her.
GLT: Which movie role do you feel defines your career? : Well, I couldn’t say “defined my career.” I would say I have favorites that I like for different reasons. I love Damn Yankees, ’cause it was my first musical, and I loved the musical on Broadway when I saw it. My favorite film probably was Gunman’s Walk, a western with Van Heflin. I play a son of a bitch, but it’s really a good role and really a good film…. And then I would say That Kind of Woman with Sophia Loren I love ’cause of Sophia and because of Sidney Lumet, who directed.
GLT: How was it to work with Divine in both Lust in the Dust and Polyester? : Terrific! He was the best! I was doing a play in Indiana, and I got a call from John Waters. You know, John is like the friendly undertaker; he’s fabulous. And he called me up and said, “My name is John Waters. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of my films.” I said, “Oh! Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos – I love your work.” He sent me the script and he said, “How would you feel about kissing Divine? How would you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?” So I said, “Well, I’ve probably kissed a hell of a lot worse in my life….” And Divine was one of my favorite leading ladies.
GLT: How cathartic was it to write this memoir, and why was now the time to write it? : I’m now 74 years old. My whole life was brought up with [the idea that] you just keep things to yourself, you never attract attention. I mean, it was very old fashioned, very old-world. And the only reason I did the book is ’cause I heard some son of a bitch was going to be doing a book about me, and I thought, whoa! Wait a minute. Get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone. It’s just that simple; I don’t want someone puttin’ their spin on my life that never knew what the hell my life was all about. I’m not going to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. What you read is what you get…. My life is more than my sexuality; yeah, that’s a part of it, of course. But there’s a lot of other things, too…. You know, it’s like when somebody was talking about my relationship with Tony Perkins, I say, “Look, yeah, that lasted for about three years, but the tapestry of my life is more than those threads – it’s a whole tapestry.”
This interview was first published in December 2005.