SXSW: Tab Hunter Opens Up About Life As a Closeted Gay Star During Hollywood's Golden Age

Tab Hunter - H 2015

Tab Hunter - H 2015

This Sunday, Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival will host the world premiere of Tab Hunter Confidential, a terrific new documentary about the legendary actor-singer Tab Hunter. Adapted by director Jeffrey Schwarz and producer Allan Glaser from Hunter's 2005 best-selling memoir of the same name, this story is unlike any other ever told about Hollywood's Golden Age. Why? Because it is the first from the perspective of a major movie star who lived through it as a closeted gay man but is now open about his sexuality.

What made Hunter, who has always been intensely private, decide to share details about this side of his life? During an exclusive pre-premiere interview (audio posted below) at The Hollywood Reporter's Los Angeles offices this week, the 82-year-old — who looks 20 years younger than his age — told me that he had been notified by Glaser, his partner of 32 years, that someone else was planning to write a book about his life. "I thought, 'Look, get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone,'" he says with a laugh, adding, "I didn't want someone putting a spin on my life."

Hunter recalls first realizing that he was "different" in his early teens, but says he'd "have gone crazy" if someone had asked him if he was homosexual (the word "gay" wasn't really around then). He was a loner who spent much of his time at a local horse stables, and it was there that he met the actor Dick Clayton, who came by with the actress Ann Blyth to do a photoshoot. Clayton encouraged Hunter — then known as Arthur Andrew Gelien — to consider a career in acting and even set him up with the agent Henry Willson. "There would be no Tab Hunter if it were not for Dick Clayton," Hunter emphasizes.

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Willson, a big-time agent and "gay svengali" who also discovered and/or represented Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun and Rock Hudson, changed Gelien's name to Tab Hunter after trying to "tab" him something new and recalling that he was fond of hunting and jumping on horses. (The future star could have just as easily been Tab Jumper!) Willson sent out Hunter for several jobs; the first that he landed in Joseph Losey's The Lawless (1950), resulted in just one line of dialogue, a "fiasco" that might well have ended his career. His next project, two years later, was in Island of Desire, and while it was also small it did catch the attention of the moviegoing public. "There was an immediate reaction to my persona on screen," he recalls.

Not long after that, the actor-singer (at the time) Merv Griffin urged Hunter to check out the Leon Uris book Battle Cry, which would soon be made into a motion picture. Hunter loved it and went after the part hard, testing nine times; two other up-and-comers, James Dean and Paul Newman, also went out for it, but in the end it was his, and it rocketed him to stardom. Warner Bros. picked up an option on him, which it soon exercised, meaning that he was under a seven-year contract to the studio. He, Dean and Natalie Wood were the last three thesps to land such deals with Warners during those waning days of the studio system, and the last to get the massive buildups that studio publicity departments made possible. He was on the cover of every fan magazine and quickly given the nickname "The Sigh Guy." And, from 1955 to 1959, he was Jack Warner's top-grossing star.

"I never mentioned my sexuality to Warner Bros. at all and they never mentioned it to me, thank God," Hunter tells me. Instead, they treated him like any of their other on-screen talent, which included sending him out on dates — to premieres, the Oscars, etc. — with other on-screen talent of the opposite sex. Warners most frequently paired him with Wood, who was coming off of the success of Rebel Without a Cause (for which Hunter was briefly considered for the part that went to Dean) just as he was coming off of Battle Cry. While Hunter says nothing romantic ever transpired between the two and she never asked why, he also insists, "I just loved going out with Natalie. She was like my kid sister."

Hunter's career was jeopardized just as it was taking off when Confidential, the rare publication that didn't cooperate with the studios, published a story about how Hunter had been arrested at a "pajama party" — a party attended by many gay people — shortly after arriving in Hollywood. They got wind of the story, it turns out, because Willson, whom Hunter had recently left to be represented by Clayton, wanted Confidential to spike a story about the sexuality of Hudson, and to achieve that outcome traded stories about Hunter and Calhoun. In spite of the embarrassing episode, Hunter says his standing in the industry wasn't hurt because, just weeks later, he was announced as the most popular young star at the studio.

With much greater caution, Hunter still managed to engage in hush-hush relationships with other gay men in the ensuing years. His most serious relationship was with the up-and-coming Paramount star Anthony Perkins, who is best remembered today as the star of Psycho (1960). "Tony and I had a very, very good relationship," he says. "We double-dated a lot."

To a public oblivious to his sexuality, Hunter remained the all-American boy-next-door who guys envied and girls desired. He was so popular that when he was invited to record a song called "Young Love," despite being an amateur singer, it knocked Elvis Presley off the top of the charts and prompted the creation of Warner Records, as well as the purchase, by Jack Warner, of a musical property from Broadway for Hunter to star in. "He, as a gift, bought Damn Yankees! for me," the actor notes, adding how much he enjoyed working with his costars, the assistant director Stanley Donen and the choreographer Bob Fosse, if not the homophobic director George Abbott, on the 1958 picture.

Soon thereafter, though, with the studio system clearly collapsing and a sense of constriction about his own opportunities at Warner Bros., Hunter paid a fortune to buy out the remainder of his contract. "I thought my opportunities would be better if I weren't under contract and I could freelance," he says. "Not the wisest decision." He continued to work, but the quantity and quality of projects quickly devolved — indeed, he went from live television (which offered him some plum parts for great directors) to European spaghetti westerns ("short on meat sauce") to dinner theater. At his career nadir, he even took out an ad in Variety seeking work. "Bette Davis had done that years and years prior to my doing it," he mentions.

In the eighties, he experienced an unusual career revival, of sorts, when the eccentric indie filmmaker John Waters cast him in a couple of outlandish films opposite the transvestite performer Divine. Hunter recalls Waters' pitch: "He said, 'How would you feel about kissing a three-hundred pound transvestite?' And I said, 'Well, I'm sure I've kissed a helluva lot worse!'" He adds, "I loved doing it... one of the best experiences I ever had making a film."

These days, Hunter emphasizes, "I have a wonderful life." He lives in Montecito with Glaser, owns a horse and values simplicity. "I don't care about being in the public eye," he says, noting that not even an offer from someone like Martin Scorsese could lure him out of retirement: "I've been there, done that, thank you very much, next case!" And, having survived a heart attack and a stroke years ago, he has come to realize that "every day's 'a thank you day.'"

When I bring up how much Hollywood and much of America have changed, in terms of their views about gay people, he says it gratifies him — but doesn't change his own preference to keep his private life mostly to himself. As for the fact that gay marriage is now legal in the majority of U.S. states, he chuckles, "As far as marriage for me, I keep proposing, but I get turned down all the time!" Speaking more seriously about Glaser, he says, "I'm just so proud of the direction he's taken this [documentary]. This gives you a blueprint of what my life was in the younger years, the Hollywood years and the golden years."

When Hunter himself watches the film, he says it reminds him of something: "In life we have to be contributors. It's very, very important. And I look up there and I think I've contributed." He continues, "I'm very grateful for this road that I've been on — it's been a good one," adding with a laugh, "It's been a tough one, at times, too."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg