“This is no fairy tale,” Tab Hunter Confidential:
The Making of a Movie Star begins. “It does, however, start out like one.”
In the 1950s, Tab Hunter’s career saw more rose petals-and thorns-than most actors see in a lifetime: movie star, recording artist, his own TV series, a “gay pajama party” sex scandal, a couple of nasty trials, then a risky comeback in a John Waters movie.
Tab Hunter was the Justin Timberlake, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise of his time-and he’s gay.
“It was a wonderful trip to go through,” Hunter says, sounding tan, blonde and fit even on the phone from California. “But having my sexuality exposed by the press trying to get at me, I was really very uncomfortable with that.”
Blessed with stunning Sigh Guy looks that screamed squeal-appeal for teenage girls, a movie agent who happened to see Art Gelien shovelling manure advised him to go into acting. An agent with an eye for young guys signed him on and turned him into Tab Hunter.
His name is a hybrid of an agent fumbling for a first name (“We have to tab him with something”) and one of his hobbies. “He loves horses,” an associate told the agent. “Rides hunters and jumpers.”
The name is so quintessentially American that people remember him from beach movies he never made.
“I only made one: Ride the Wild Surf,” he says. “And it’s not all that hot.”
He didn’t make Midnight Cowboy, either. The director thought he was perfect for Joe Buck-but 10 years too old. (Hunter recalls Jon Voight telling the press, “They’ll never make a Tab Hunter out of me.”)
He was Billy Budd in the film version of Herman Melville’s book-until director Peter Ustinov invited him over for a meeting. “His wife answered the door,” recalls Hunter. “‘All wrong,’ she announced, and slammed the door in my face.”
Instead he made movies with Gwen Verdon (“very with-it as an actress”); Bob Fosse (“very introverted… He always walked around with hunched shoulders and a cigarette dangling between his lips”); and Natalie Wood (“she was like a colt finding its legs”).
He also co-starred with Tallulah Bankhead in a Tennessee Williams play (“I was thrilled to meet her but she was weird”).
He made big-selling, soon-to-be-re-issued records (“I think a lot of it holds up rather well,” he says) and had his own top-rated TV show (“it wasn’t a good show,” he laughs).
But with the “demise of the Hollywood studio system, actors became freelancers,” he says. “And it was very difficult.”
He made bad European movies and guested on even worse TV series. His career took a further slide-but uphill-when John Waters asked him to star in Polyester.
“I was doing a lot of [dinner] theatre around the country,” Hunter says about deciding to co-star with a 300-pound drag queen in a movie filmed in Odorama. “I had nothing to lose.”
He remembers Waters as “great… your friendly undertaker,” and Divine as “one of my favourite leading ladies.”
Divine and he re-teamed for Lust in the Dust, which he envisioned as gritty and realistic as “a Sam Peckinpagh film like The Wild Bunch.” Unfortunately, he says director Paul Bartel “didn’t have the balls to pull it off.”
Hunter would also become famous for attending a small house party on Oct 14, 1950.
This was a party of “nothing but men. Some were drinking, some dancing; a few were standing with their arms around each other,” he writes.
Suddenly the cops came in barking orders (“‘Faggot’ figured heavily with [them],” Hunter recalls).
They arrested everyone under Section 647.5 of the state’s penal code for being “idle, lewd or dissolute persons or associates of known thieves.”
A well-connected attorney who specialized in “sticky situations” had the charge knocked down to “disturbing the peace.”
When Hunter became a big star the incident became fodder for the scandal sheets, especially, the notorious Confidential Magazine.
Although he long ago accepted his sexual orientation, Hunter still isn’t comfortable discussing it. He admits that “on the one hand, I had it easy. I was employed in one of the few industries where gay men were common.
“On the other hand, my career was based on my being the symbolic heterosexual ideal.”
In an attempt to beat an unauthorized biography to the bookstores this fall, Hunter had to write extensively about his affairs with atomic age hotties like Anthony Perkins (“a very complex human being,” he says) and Rudolf Nureyev (“very childlike, guileless”).
So was sex between the virile blonde heartthrob and the greatest ballet dancer in history nuclear? “Everybody wants to hear all the dirt,” Hunter laughs. “And I’m just not that kind of person.”
Separating public and private lives wasn’t hard in the 1950s, he explains, because “people didn’t jump into bed right off. So it was possible to date for weeks, even months, without the question coming up.
“Back then, the average woman wouldn’t have considered men like Tony [Perkins] or me gay- only proper and well-mannered.”
Hunter insists he “never acted straight to get by. I wasn’t getting away with something. I behaved the same way all the time.
“With me, what you saw is what you got-and what you didn’t see was none of your business.”
But he also “lived in a lot of fear. The press was always taking potshots at me. They were really very cruel and a lot was said about me and a lot was true and a lot wasn’t true.”
On the way to acquittals on charges of smuggling art from Red China (“Oh God, please,” he laughs) and beating his Weimaraner (one disgruntled fan/witness, Hunter writes, “made my backyard sound like Buchenwald”), he “understood by now that no one would be satisfied until the celebrity was brought to heel for the amusement of the press and the public.”
When his own publicity got bad, Hunter recalls simply being “replaced in all those staged Photoplay and Movie Life layouts by Troy Donahue.
“Actresses I’d been linked with… were now shown at premieres with Troy, at the beach with Troy, nightclubbing with Troy…
“Troy Donahue had become the new Tab Hunter.”
Troy helpfully cleared up any confusion between the two actors, however, by reminding everyone that “I’m the straight one.”
“In Hollywood we sort of morphed into one another after a while,” Hunter recalls. “I think we were totally different, but it was very sad about Troy.” Donahue eventually wound up homeless and living in Central Park before his death.
“Hollywood is wonderful for using people and then throwing them away like an old shoe,” Hunter says.
These days, Hunter’s favourite actor is Johnny Depp, who resisted becoming a teen idol in TV’s 21 Jump Street but had no problem packaging JM Barrie as a straight man in Finding Neverland.
“There’s a great deal of freelancing with the actors today,” explains Hunter. “They’re not under contract with studios so they package what they want to package in some cases.”
About his own packaging Hunter understands he “was very fortunate to be a part of the Hollywood studio system, where studios were there for you and they supported you and they helped you.”
But he also criticizes them for inventing personas for their actors to feed the movie magazines.
“It was hard to tell them, ‘No, this is what I’m really like,’ he says.