Before the Beatles and the Biebs, there was Tab Hunter. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed star of such hit films as Damn Yankees! and Battle Cry was a film and music sensation in the 1950s, eliciting screams from young girls all over the world, and romancing such big-name stars as Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. But Hunter was also what he calls “ a product” of the Hollywood studio moguls — a leading man whose public life was a carefully orchestrated sham, intended to cover up the fact that the swoon-inducing star was gay.
“My sexuality is only a thread of the tapestry of my life,” the 83-year-old Hunter was quick to point out in a recent interview with Yahoo Movies, in advance of the premiere of Tab Hunter Confidential (based on the 2006 autobiography of the same name, it will make its debut Sunday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Tx.) “I’ve been a very, very fortunate man. I’ve had a lot of highs, and a great deal of lows. But I really feel that it’s all about [the fact that]… somewhere under a pile of crap, there’s gotta be a pony. I’m a firm believer in that, being a horse lover.”
Hunter hasn’t appeared in a film since 1992’s Dark Horse, and now spends his days far from the spotlight, living alongside his partner of over four decades, Allan Glaser — who produced the documentary — as well as his horse Marlow. Confidential portrays the rise and fall of his career, from his early work under contract at Warner Bros., to later films like Grease 2 and Polyester. It also illuminates the challenges a closeted gay heartthrob faced in what he calls a “bygone era,” and details the secret relationships he had with the likes of champion figure skater Ronnie Robertson and Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Here’s what Hunter told us about his life, his career, and his new documentary:
You mention in the film how difficult it’s always been to talk about your personal life, especially your sexuality.
Well I’ve always been like that. My mother was an old-school German, and she used to say, “Remember, there’s nothing for show.” So what happens? I end up in show business [laughs].
But with the release of the book, and now the film, are you finding it’s become easier for you to share?
No. I still just don’t discuss those things. I wrote the book because I heard that some schmuck was going to be doing a movie, and I said, “Look, when I’m dead and gone, I don’t want someone putting out some nonsense.” [Confidential] is the story. Take it for what it is. I don’t want someone putting a spin on my life. Take it from the horse’s mouth — rather than the horse’s ass — when I’m dead and gone.
What appealed to you most about being able to tell your story through the documentary format?
It was just wonderful to touch base with a lot of friends [who appear in the film] again. I mean, gosh, I used to date Debbie Reynolds when she was just out of the Burbank High School band.
Watch exclusive clip from Tab Hunter: Confidential
One of the sequences in the film that I found especially fascinating centers on your relationship with Tony Perkins. Could you speak for a moment about what he meant to you?
Tony was a very fine young actor, and I respected him tremendously. He was just a very intelligent man … Everybody hopefully makes the right choices in life, and he made the choice to marry this wonderful woman [photographer and actress Berry Berenson] and they had two lovely children. And I respect him tremendously for having done that, because I’m sure it was a very difficult decision for him. But it’s something that he wanted to do.
And people should not sit in judgment in any way, shape or form of another human being. Unfortunately, in our society today, so often people don’t want to hear the positive, they only want to hear the negative. I just push that aside. I don’t want to hear that. [People are] too quick to condemn.
Looking back, what kind of lengths did you guys have to go to at the time to cover up your relationship?
Well, Tony was very career-oriented. He was under contract to Paramount, [and] I was under contract to Warner Bros. We’d go out double-dating a lot, because I love being around beautiful women. I always have. There’s nothing wrong with that. People think that because you might have a feeling toward another male that you don’t enjoy women. I love women. I love being around them. But when we’d go out together, we’d kind of almost go out in disguise. Not in disguise, but in a baseball cap and sunglasses. Now, everybody wears that, but in those days…
My main love [at the time] — just to breathe reality in that unrealistic world — was going out to the barn to be with my horses. And I tried to get Tony involved, but he wasn’t a great horse lover [laughs].
The film notes that you’d go to premiere parties with Natalie Wood, get photographed dancing together, and then escape out the back door, where you’d meet Tony, and she’d meet [boyfriend] Dennis Hopper. The film makes clear that studios played a heavy role in controlling your images. How much were they involved in arranging or planning that stuff?
Well I never looked at it as planning. When you’re in a contract with a studio, your job is to promote motion pictures [and] promote whatever the hell they want you to promote, because that is your job. I promoted films that I wasn’t even in for the studio. They’d [get] a young star [and say], “We’d love to take her out — would you take her to this premiere?” “Of course I would!” “Would you do this film?” “Of course.” Because if you’re not going to do your job, they’ll get rid of you and somebody else will be doing your job. And I loved motion pictures. I lived in those old movie houses as a kid. I just loved them. What total escapism for someone.
About 10 years ago there was a film released called Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, which references the fact that there used to be ‘Win a Date With Tab Hunter’ contests in magazines.
Those movie magazines built careers. My popularity was more through motion pictures before [they were released] than the product [itself]. I was a product of Hollywood, with this new name. [And] learning the craft was really, really difficult, and something I really wanted to do, because I was god-awful in my first films. Disgusting. Really bad.
Tab Hunter at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010
If you could go back and do it over again, what would you do differently?
What is that expression, “Accept things as they are and not as you want them to be”? I think that’s important.
How differently do you think your career would’ve played out if you were a young actor just starting out today?
I wouldn’t want to be a young actor starting out today [laughs]. I was at the end of a movie-star era. I look back and the actors and actresses prior to me [who] were movie stars: Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner. I mean my gosh, those are movie stars! And those producers who ran the studios, they knew how to make movies!
Now, [the studios are] corporations that spend a gazillion dollars on a film, and you go, “Eh.” And the sad thing is they play down to people as opposed to “Please elevate your thinking,” as my mother would have said, in that dramatic voice of hers [laughs].
Do you think that Hollywood still has a problem when it comes to actors having to hide their sexuality?
I’m sure it is a problem. Today, people are very out there. Nobody ever knew anything then — or, people might infer something, and that would be about it. It was all very quiet, and people never discussed those things.
Is there any chance we’ll ever see you act again?
Gosh, I don’t know [laughs]. I’m so busy with my horse right now, my mare. I went up to see her today. She’s due to have her baby at any minute. I’m just so excited I can’t stand it. I’m going to be passing out cigars [laughs]!
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