|Tab Hunter's bestselling 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential has been transformed into a documentary film directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, and will screen at L.A.’s Outfest on Hunter’s 84th birthday, July 11, 2015|
This interview with Tab Hunter originally ran in Three Dollar Bill on November 24, 2005
When I learned a couple years ago that 1950s matinee idol Tab Hunter was going to come out in his forthcoming memoirs, I told my friend, author Felice Picano, who’d had lunch with the onetime Hollywood heartthrob.
"He’s a wonderful man," Felice told me, which only made me want to interview Tab Hunter even more.
Well, I finally got to blab with Hunter last week, the day after he returned home to Santa Barbara after a cross-country U.S. book tour to promote his bestselling memoirs, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Algonquin Books). I can’t even begin to tell you how terrific Hunter’s autobiography is, an immensely frank and entertaining read that, Hunter proudly tells me, has just been ranked Amazon’s number two pick for best books of 2005.
"I thought about writing my memoirs a long time ago but didn’t have the guts," Hunter explains. "Then when I heard someone else was going to write a book, I said what the hell. I hate talking about my private life but I had to do it [come out]. I had to be fair."
Tab Hunter Confidential tells the quintessential Hollywood fairytale of a gorgeous young kid – in this case a young Art Gelien – who was named Tab Hunter by Henry Willson, the (in)famous Hollywood agent who also created Rock Hudson and Rory Calhoun, sex symbols who became known as Harry Willson’s boys. Along the way, Hunter publicly dated the likes of Debbie Reynolds and, by the age of 25, he was a number one box office draw who’d even had a number one hit single with the song Young Love.
"The studio system was an incredible thing," Hunter recalls. "I was very fortunate to be part of that era. Jack Warner conducted his symphony as he saw fit. He had a whole publicity wing to build you. It’s a totally different ballgame today. They’re corporate now. You can’t compare old and new [Hollywood]."
"Even in Hunter’s heyday, people joked about his synthetic persona the way we joke today about teenybopper acts like Jesse McCartney and Ashlee Simpson," Salon recently noted. "When Hunter’s fame began to dim, he resorted to cheesy B-movies with titles like Operation Bikini and an endless grind of dinner-theatre engagements that helped him pay the rent and support his ailing mother. For all that, Hunter seems astonishingly free of bitterness."
Today Hunter is the happiest he’s ever been, and being out of the closet has a lot to do with it. Back in the 1950s, when homosexuality was still illegal, Hunter led a double life, though he never went as far as his onetime boyfriend of two years, Hollywood immortal Anthony Perkins, who even got married and had a family.
"I was a little frightened of being blackmailed, but you have to stay your course as best you can," says Hunter. "Jack Warner never ever said a word to me, whereas Paramount said words to Tony. [Director] George Abbot didn’t want me in Damn Yankees because I was too gay. When George fired me, Jack said, ‘Wait a minute, I bought Damn Yankees for Tab Hunter.’ When I was in [the scandal rag] Hollywood Confidential, Jack told me, ‘Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s toilet paper.’ That was the closest he ever came to talking to me about my sexuality. But yes, there were two personas – I was Tab Hunter, no question about that."
Still, Hunter, now 74, did not want to go down in history like Perkins, who died of AIDS in 1992. "When Tony’s [autobiography] came out, I tell ya, a lot of it was bunk. Everybody puts their spin on stuff."
As Hunter writes in his own memoirs, "Nothing came between Tony and his career."
Hunter is stunningly honest in Tab Hunter Confidential, which is chockfull of personal anecdotes about everyone from Tallulah Bankhead ("She became a caricature of herself") and Rudolf Nureyev ("I felt terrible when he died of AIDS") to Gary Cooper and John Wayne.
Some of his kindest words are reserved for Divine, the late drag queen immortalized in the films of director John Waters. Waters, who cast Hunter opposite Divine in Polyester and Lust in the Dust, recently said of Hunter, "Making out with Divine, that’s beyond the bravery of coming out."
When I bring that up, Tab cracks, "When John asked me ‘Do you want to kiss a 350-pound transvestite?’ I said, ‘I’ve kissed worse.’"
These days, Hunter, a staunch Catholic, lives with his partner of over two decades, Allan Glaser, and has been quoted by the gay press as being against gay marriage.
But when I question Hunter about that, he replies, "I think [gay marriage] depends on the person. It’s their choice. God gave us a wonderful thing called free will. Let’s hope we make good choices."