A 2003 New York Times article described 1950s matinee idol Tab Hunter as having “Malibu beach boy looks”,1 and that description is apt. Even today, well into his eighties, Hunter holds the appearance of the blond heartthrob, albeit with a few more wrinkles and a bit more character. But life has changed for the legendary performer, who emerged from the celluloid closet just over a decade ago.
The actor, whose real name was Art Gelien before he adopted his famous nom de plume, began his screen career with a bit part in the Joseph Losey’s film noir The Lawless (1950). Two years later, Hunter landed his first leading man gig in the romantic war film Saturday Island (Stuart Heisler, 1952), playing opposite Linda Darnell. The film proved to be a box-office success and effectively introduced Hunter as one of Hollywood’s hottest new commodities. The following year saw the young hunk pop up in two more features, Ray Nazarro’s Gun Belt and E. A. Dupont’s The Steel Lady (both 1953).
Hunter began working onstage in 1954 with a production of Our Town, which led to his being contracted by Warner Bros. He appeared in The Sea Chase (John Farrow, 1954) alongside Hollywood heavyweights John Wayne and Lana Turner. He played Robert Mitchum’s younger brother in William Wellman’s Track of the Cat (1955). Hunter then experienced breakthrough success with a turn in the Raoul Walsh picture Battle Cry (1955).
Despite his newfound stardom, Hunter found offscreen life difficult to navigate as a homosexual actor working in the repressed 1950s. Rumors circulated about Hunter’s sexuality, and studio execs combatted them by assigning the actor faux public relationships with popular actresses like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. These maneuvers maintained Hunter’s heterosexual image, and he was immensely popular with the legions of young girls who flocked to see his pictures. (One year he would receive more than 62,000 valentines.) Meanwhile, behind closed doors, Hunter had long-term relationships with actor Anthony Perkins and later figure skater Ronnie Robertson. Today Hunter maintains a relationship with his life partner, producer Allan Glaser. “Life was difficult for me because I was living two lives at that time,” Hunter would later recall. “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.”2
In 1955, despite an incendiary write-up in the gossip rag Confidential following a disorderly conduct arrest, Hunter was named “Most Promising New Personality” in a Council of Motion Picture Organizations poll. Warners rolled Hunter and presumed gal pal Natalie Wood out in back-to-back pictures, Stuart Heisler’s The Burning Hills and David Butler’s The Girl He Left Behind (both 1956). Between the years of 1955 and 1959, Hunter was the most popular male Warner Bros. star.
In 1957, Hunter made a splash as a singer. His song “Young Love” was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks straight. The song, which sold more than a million copies, was an even bigger success in the United Kingdom. Hunter followed this success with another hit, “Ninety-Nine Ways.” In 1958, Hunter appeared in the film he is perhaps best remembered for, George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s musical Damn Yankees. Hunter would continue to work steadily for the next decade, even landing his own short-lived television series, The Tab Hunter Show. Hunter’s later film work included memorable turns in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972), Polyester (John Waters, 1981), and Grease 2 (Patricia Birch, 1982). The actor would later be immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2005, Hunter reemerged with his no-holds-barred memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which he co-wrote with Eddie Muller. The success of the critically-acclaimed book and would ultimately lead to a 2015 Jeffrey Schwarz documentary of the same title.
Andy Raush: Before being given the movie star moniker Tab Hunter, your name was Art Gelien. Is Art Gelien dead today, or do you still use that name when you’re with friends and family?
Tab Hunter: Well, no, he’s not dead. I mean, that name’s on my social security card. (Laughs.) That was a long time ago. I still use it occasionally as an “A.K.A.”
AR: Are there people who still call you Art?
TH: Only the people who knew me as Art. I don’t like people to call me Art that never knew me as Art. I figure it’s none of their business.
AR: You became a professional actor with little to no training, and a professional singer with no real training. You must be very proud of these accomplishments.
TH: I was sort of a product of. I was thrown into it, and kind of wondered where does one serve one’s apprenticeship. I was one of those people who had to learn while doing. I learned on the job.
AR: You’re sort of a poster child for the old adage that a person can do whatever they set their mind to do.
TH: I think that’s very important. I think we’ve got to be aware of that in our lives. So often we say we can’t do this or we can’t do that rather than concerning ourselves with what we can do and then doing that within the best of our abilities.
AR: Early in your career you received some negative reviews.
TH: Not just some. A lot!
AR: A lot of those reviews were likely a response to your teen idol status. This criticism came at a time when you were still honing your craft. Did those comments in any way hinder your progress?
TH: I don’t know if they hinder your progress. They might have through certain people in the industry, but I don’t know. But those comments were very hurtful. Of course, people never want to hear the best – they always want to hear the worst. That’s kind of a sad thing about our society. And that seems to have even gotten worse.
AR: Could the negative criticisms actually accomplish the opposite of that and push you harder?
TH: Well, I knew what I had to do. I think they probably can push you, but more important than what people think or say about you is your own development and what you think about your own development. It’s all about growth. We have three growths: mental, physical, and spiritual. And I think we’d better be concerned with all of them –particularly the spiritual growth.
AR: What do you consider to be the single most important moment in your development as an actor?
TH: The single most important moment I don’t really know. But working with really talented directors and talented actors really inspires you.
AR: You came up through the studio system and you worked with many, many legends. Do you feel that Hollywood has any true stars left these days?
TH: I believe there are some. But I think there was a mystique about people in working in motion pictures then; there was an aura that was quite fascinating. Now everything is so in your face, and that I don’t like. I liked that kind of less is more that we had back then.
AR: What do you think has led to that change?
TH: Our society. Today people want to know everything, and I don’t think it’s any of their damned business.
AR: You were under contract at Warner Bros. What was Jack Warner like?
TH: I got along with him rather well. He was like Lucifer – sort of a combination of Adolphe Menjou and John Waters with that little pencil moustache he had. (Laughs.) But he had a good kind of dry, corny sense of humor.
AR: Was he at all intimidating?
TH: I only met him mainly when he was on his best behavior. (Laughs.) So I was very fortunate! I never saw his wrath, but I know it was directed in my direction when I took a suspension from the studio. But I wasn’t around for that. I was gone. So I didn’t really have to experience that firsthand. Afterwards we got back together and had a meeting that was on very good terms.
AR: You played so many soldiers onscreen that I think you should receive a military pension…
TH: You know, I say that all the time. I’m still waiting for the government to send me my cheque, but it’s never gonna happen.
AR: How did you wind up playing so many military men? Was this just luck, or did you seek these roles out?
TH: It was just luck. You know, it’s funny because a lot of people say to me, “I saw you in all those beach movies.” In actuality I did very few of those, but I did do a lot of films in uniform.
AR: I’m going to name some of your illustrious costars. As I do, I’d like you to tell me what they were like and a little bit about working with them.
AR: Let’s start with Natalie Wood.
TH: Well, Nat was like my kid sister. She was a delight. She was much younger than me. She was like a little colt finding its legs. She was very sweet. I liked Nat very, very much, and we worked quite well together.
AR: How about Fred Astaire?
TH: Fred was a true gentleman. And what style the man had. You know, style is a word that seems to have gone out the window in this day and age. He certainly had every bit of that. The man personified style, and he was just a true gentleman.
AR: Sophia Loren.
TH: Sophia was wonderful. Under all that fire and sex I found a childlike quality that was wonderful. Her vulnerability was just fabulous. I was really very drawn to that.
AR: Gary Cooper.
TH: Coop was terrific too in his subtle, soft way. He had a very subtle humor. Everything about him was just very subtle, and he was not in your face. I respected that tremendously.
AR: How about Debbie Reynolds?
TH: Deb I had known since we were both just kids starting out. She was just full of hell! (Laughs.)
AR: How about Van Heflin? What was he like?
TH: Van was a powerhouse. He was a fabulous actor and a terrific human being. I was crazy about him. You learn so much working with an actor like Van.
AR: Robert Mitchum.
TH: Mitch was so cool! (Laughs.) He was so cool I couldn’t stand it. He was so relaxed that it seemed like you’d have to stick a pin in him or something. He was wonderful. He was the total opposite of me. I was so intense, and he was just so cool. I loved working with him. I wished to God I could be like Robert Mitchum. And he had a terrific sense of humor. What you saw on the screen was certainly what you got with him.
AR: How about Geraldine Page?
TH: I loved her. She was unbelievable. She was the best actress I ever worked with. And the wonderful thing about Geraldine Page that I will never forget is a conversation I had with her one day. I said, “Gerry, it’s just amazing. People love everything you do. People hate my guts and they’re always taking potshots at me.” And she grabbed hold of my arm and said, “Let me tell you something: if people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.” I looked at her and said, “Gerry, I will never ever forget that.” Furthermore, I pass that along to everyone I know. If people don’t like you, that’s their problem, not yours. As long as you’re going down a road doing the best you possibly can, giving it 100 percent, then who cares what they think? Geraldine Page was an amazing woman. She was a phenomenal person.
AR: That says a lot about her that you remember and quote her advice some 50 years later.
TH: I couldn’t forget it.
AR: What was Lana Turner like?
TH: Lana was wonderful. I was just such a fan of hers. Like I say in my book, when I first met her I said, “I’m such a fan. I’ve been a fan of yours since I was a kid.” Then I realised, What an idiot I was! What a stupid statement to make! She was fabulous. That voice of hers was like a freshly opened bottle of champagne. She was a real delight. There was this quality between Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth that made you just want to put your arms around them. They seemed kind of innocent and lost. Again, it was that vulnerable quality.
AR: I think that vulnerability is part of what makes them sexy.
TH: I love vulnerability. That word is a very important word to see in people.
AR: You don’t really say much about John Wayne in your book, so how about John Wayne?
TH: John Wayne was John Wayne. I mean, the persona that you saw onscreen was the persona that you met; at least for me it was. He was fine to work with. I was just unhappy doing that film The Sea Chase (John Farrow, 1955). What can I say? He was John Wayne.
AR: Everyone knows that John Wayne was a very conservative, very right-wing guy. By the time you worked with him, some of those Confidential stories regarding your homosexuality were already out there. Did you feel that he treated you any differently because of that?
TH: No one ever commented on that to me. I was really pleased about it. I was frightened at that time. It was very hard. But no one ever confronted me on that – well, one or two might have, but it was very seldom that anything was said. I was just terrified when those things came about.
AR: Do you feel that Hollywood’s approach toward homosexuality has really changed, or do (you) feel that there’s a more subtle homophobia at work today?
TH: I never gave it any thought. I never give thought to it. When arrows were pointed in my direction, I would just kind of dismiss them from my mind and not face reality. That’s how I was brought up by a very strict German mother who said that if there was any negativity, you should push it from your mind. Whenever I would hear negativity about me, I would just try to apply that. So in regards to what happens in Hollywood, it happens in Hollywood. I try not to let it affect me.
AR: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen on a film set?
TH: I can’t remember the funniest thing, but I’m sure there were a number of things. I remember one time doing my television series with Tuesday Weld… I remember we were doing this scene where she was screaming and I had to roll my hand over her mouth. And as I did, I looked at her and she looked at me and I could just tell immediately that something had gone horribly wrong. I had undone the cap on her teeth. She had this cap, this brace thing, on her teeth. We looked at each other and they were still rolling the film, and we both just fell down on the floor laughing. It was just between us. It was such a spontaneous moment. We both knew what had happened, but no one else knew what the hell was going on. And I just loved working with her.
AR: I’d like to talk about your work in live television dramas. They don’t really do much of that today –
TH: They don’t do any of it today. Not like those great shows like Playhouse 90 and Climax! and all those great shows.
AR: How much pressure is there when doing a live television drama as opposed to a normal stage production?
TH: I think it’s much more difficult because if you’re doing a play and you feel like you haven’t nailed it that night you say, “Well, at least there’s tomorrow night.” But when it goes out there live, you’d better be with the program and know your stuff. It’s the most frightening thing. It has the worst aspects of motion pictures and theatre rolled into one.
AR: When you were working on those, how many mistakes did you see made that were swiftly covered up?
TH: I would just go down the road doing the best I possibly could. If I made a mistake, I’d just try to continue on. I remember one show I was nominated for an Emmy for that I blew something like a page-and-a-half of dialogue. No one ever even noticed. Well, the writer did, I’m sure. (Laughs.) But the producer said to me later, “Tab, it just bridged beautifully. Don’t even worry.”
AR: You worked with many fine directors from William Wellman to John Frankenheimer. Of all of those directors, who were some of your favorite filmmakers to work with?
TH: Number one was Luchino Visconti. Then I would have to say Sidney Lumet. Certainly I loved Frankenheimer and Wellman. There was another director, Phil Karlson, who never really got his due.
AR: What was it about those filmmakers that really stood out to you?
TH: Just the rapport you have with them when you’re working with them. Whatever they wanted you to do, you wanted to do as well as you possibly could because you trusted them. Trust is very important. I mean, if Sidney Lumet said, “I’d like you to lie down in the road and then this truck is going to drive over you,” you’d just ask, “How do you want me to position my body?” (Laughs.) With directors like that you just trust and respect them so much that nothing seems out of the question.
AR: Obviously you were very close with Anthony Perkins. He seems like he was a very guarded person.
TH: He was very complex.
AR: What was the real Anthony Perkins like?
TH: I don’t think many people really knew Tony well. He had friends. A lot of people liked him, but he had few friends that he really confided in. I don’t know for sure what he was really like. You always saw what Tony wanted you to see, which was kind of sad in many ways.
AR: Could it be that there was no definitive Anthony Perkins? Could it be that he was someone different for each person he was around?
TH: I wouldn’t say that. You know, an actor plays a role, and pretty soon he takes on that persona. And we’re all guilty of having done that. I think perhaps Tony’s persona was the persona that he wanted people to see. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s that fine line of knowing how to divorce yourself from yourself. He was a wonderful guy, and he had a very funny, very dry sense of humor.
AR: He seems like he was a very fascinating person.
TH: Oh, he was. In our society everyone wants to know everything about everybody 100 percent. And you never really knew everything that was going on with Tony. It was still water that ran pretty deep.
AR: You worked on a number of Italian productions. How different were those productions from your normal Hollywood productions?
TH: They were quite different. (Laughs.) I did some spectacles. Then I worked with Visconti on a couple of things. I never did a film for him, but I did tests for him, and I assisted him with other people’s screen tests. So working with a director like that who knew exactly what he wanted and yet gave you wonderful freedom was very nice. I liked the European way of doing things. It was much less structured than doing things the American way. And I think in those days, actually prior to my going to Europe, was when American filmmakers started trying to make films more like the Italian and French films. They wanted real people in real situations. But prior to that, when I was making films in Hollywood, a lot of it was just la-la land.
AR: Unrealistic entertainment.
TH: It was entertainment, but it didn’t feel like real people in real situations. And audiences were changing also, and they wanted a more realistic entertainment.
AR: You once switched roles with Jeffrey Hunter in Spanish productions. How did that come about?
TH: What happened was Hank – that was Jeffrey Hunter’s real name – was off in Spain doing a film. Then I was sent to Spain to do a film. I didn’t really care for the film I was going to be doing, and Hank was supposed to be doing another one right after he finished the film he was working on. And we ran into each other. So we were out at dinner and he said he wanted some time off. My film was going to be shooting a little later than his, so I said, “Let me read your script and you read mine.” So we both read them, and neither of them was very good. I said, “Why don’t we change roles? Jeffrey Hunter, Tab Hunter –they won’t know the difference!” And we laughed about that. Of course they did know the difference, but we still laughed about that. So he did my film and I did his.
AR: And no one said anything about this?
TH: They didn’t care. They were very lackadaisical. They said, “Eh, that’s okay.” They just wanted to keep their crazy Americanos happy.
AR: Tell me a little bit about working with Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway. That sounds like that must have been a hell of an experience.
TH: It was a wonderful experience. It was the second ill-fated version of the Tennessee Williams’ play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. The sad thing about Tallulah was that she had a God-given gift that she was dissipating, and that was her acting talent. And I don’t think anyone should dissipate any of their gifts. And it was sad. The wonderful force that held the whole play together for that short time we were together, which included rehearsals and performance, was Marian Seldes. She was a brilliant actress and a wonderful human being. And she was the thread that held us all together.
AR: If you had to choose between working on stage and working in film, which would you choose?
TH: It wouldn’t matter anyway today. (Laughs.) I consider that my past life.
I thought it was very rewarding working in theatre. I really looked forward to that. Also there is a magic in motion pictures that’s present when and if you’re able to work on quality material and work with incredibly talented actors. I think that can be very exciting, too. I think it’s all about the material and who you’re working with and the director, whether it be motion pictures or live television or theatre. It’s all growth and giving a great deal of yourself, and then the growth that comes from that. Those experiences are part of growth.
I can’t really choose which is my favorite. I loved being in theatre, and I did a lot of it, but also I loved motion pictures. They all add to the person’s growth.
AR: Were there things that you learned on stage that you could apply to working in front of the camera, or was it just a completely different type of acting?
TH: There are times when it’s like a conductor with a symphony. You have to know when you want a little more vibrato here, a horn section plays now, you cool it here… It’s all a question of listening to your inner (self). You know, in life people don’t do that enough.
AR: I would guess that your gratification comes a lot more quickly when working on stage.
TH: I think your gratification comes when you listen to your inner (self). But you’re not looking for gratification, you’re looking for honesty; you’re looking for direction; and you’re looking for growth.
AR: What were your thoughts when you first read John Waters’ script for Polyester?
TH: (Laughs.) I laughed! I thought it was wonderful. I had such a good time reading it. I was in Indianapolis. And John said, “I don’t know if you know who I am,” and I said, “Of course I know who you are.” And I said let me read the script, but told him that I only had two weeks off before I had to go back and do another play. So I read it and I found the character Todd Tomorrow very amusing. I loved it. It was everything I hated in people.
AR: It was quite different from most of the stuff you did before that.
TH: Well, John is like your friendly undertaker. He’s just a delight.
AR: Here’s a broad question for you – does Tab Hunter have any regrets?
TH: Sure, I’ve got a lot of regrets. But I don’t think you should focus on the regrets. I think you should look at it as, these were my mistakes, these were periods when I was on a plateau, and these are periods when I was going backwards… You just have to learn from every one of your mistakes. You learn, if anything, what not to do again next time.
AR: Is there anything you would change?
TH: I’m sure there are a lot of things I would change. I’m happy, but you could always do more. It’s all in the growth department I was talking about.
AR: You had to fight off obsessive fans early in your career. Obviously there was a tremendous downside to that, but now that those screaming fans are gone, do you ever miss that?
TH: No, I don’t miss those moments. I call those the hot fudge sundaes of life. It’s nice to have a hot fudge sundae every now and then, but they can make you fat mentally, physically, and spiritually.
AR: You have constantly found ways to keep yourself relevant over the past 50 years. What’s your secret? How have you accomplished this?
TH: I don’t really think there’s a secret. I just go down the road, doing what I have to do.
AR: Your career has been fascinating. You’ve seemingly done everything.
TH: Well, I don’t have a career in motion pictures and television and theatre anymore. I consider all of that my past life. The moment is what’s important. And the people you’re able to share that moment with.
AR: Which of your films are your favorites?
TH: There are a couple of them. I love Damn Yankees (Stanley Donen, George Abbott, 1958), because I loved being a part of that with all the original Broadway actors. You know, Gwen Verdon, Rae Allen, Jean Stapleton. I love, love that very much. That was a wonderful experience, doing my first musical.
Another film that I love is Gunman’s Walk (Phil Karlson, 1958), with Van Heflin. That was written by Frank Nugent, who also wrote The Quiet Man. It was a really good script. I think it’s a better film than High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957), both of which are very good films. That (Gunman’s Walk) was directed by Phil Karlson, who was wonderful. I think it’s just a very good film.
AR: I would have thought Lust in the Dust (Paul Bartel, 1985) would have been in there somewhere.
TH: Well, Lust was just a romp! I loved that! (Laughs.) It was only something like ten days’ work, but I loved doing that. Divine was one of my favorite leading ladies.
AR: Are there any films you weren’t proud of?
TH: There were a few films I wasn’t crazy about.
AR: Are there any that make you cringe more than others?
TH: No, I just think it’s all a job. If you don’t do it, someone else will do it. I wasn’t in that wonderful position that so many actors are where they can turn down a film and go on and do something else. It’s called survival.
AR: What made you decide to write your autobiography after all these years?
TH: I heard that somebody was going to be doing a book on me. I thought, look, get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone. People love to put a spin on your life. I’m not going to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. What you read is what happened. That’s why I wrote it. And thank God I found (cowriter) Eddie Muller, because Eddie and I worked really well together. He and his wife live in the Bay area, and we got along really well together.
AR: A lot of people find writing their memoirs to be a cathartic experience. Did you find that to be the case?
TH: Yes and no. A lot of it was very difficult to bring to the fore. Thank God so much of it was documented. A lot of it was tough to write, but then it just started to flow. It just depended on where I was in my life while I was writing.
AR: Were you at all surprised by the reception the book got?
TH: I was overwhelmed by the response. I just figure, this is it; if you like it, fine, if you don’t like it, well, that’s fine too.
You know, I would never sit down and write just to write. I would write whenever the spirit moved me. There were days I couldn’t do anything. Then there were times I would sit down and start writing and then the next thing I knew it was two in the morning. And that’s amazing because I go to bed at 9:30.
And the end of the book was really funny. Eddie kept calling me and saying, “Come on, Tab, give me the end. Give me an ending.” And I just kept telling him, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to end this.” And then one morning I just walked to my computer, typed out a couple of paragraphs, sent it to him, and that was it.
Writing is very cathartic. I like writing a lot. I had only done some work on screenplays, but the book was different. It was a very different experience.
AR: Is there any chance you’ll write something else?
TH: I’ve thought of a few things, but we’ll just have to see. It’s just a matter of taking it to that next step.
- Bernard Weinraub, “A Star’s Real Life Upstages His Films; Tab Hunter Looks Back on Sadness and Success and Ahead to a Book”, New York Times, 9 September 2003 www.nytimes.com/2003/09/09/movies/star-s-real-life-upstages-his-films-tab-hunter-looks-back-sadness-success-ahead.html ↩
- Clinton Elliot, Hidden: The Intimate Lives of Gat Men Past and Present (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014) p. 160. ↩