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INTERVIEW: Former Film Idol Tab Hunter

by Peter Cassels
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Nov 24, 2005

In an exclusive interview with EDGE, the former Hollywood hunk talks about why he wrote his autobiography, what he's up to now, and his opinions on the movie industry and gay rights.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star traces the actor's life from his birth in New York City (his father disappeared after throwing a candy bar meant as a gift into his mother's bed), being raised by a domineering German immigrant mother, joining the Coast Guard at an underage 15, getting the movie bug at theater matinees, being discovered (ironically while shoveling horse manure), and his rise to fame co-starring with some of his former idols. He was literally a product of the 1950s Hollywood studio star system. Even his name was manufactured (Tab was born Arthur Gelien), a creation of the same gay movie agent who turned Roy Fitzgerald into Rock Hudson and discovered a host of other young, handsome actors.

Like his friend Hudson, the first famous person to die of AIDS and bring the epidemic to world prominence, Tab Hunter had a secret: As fans swooned, both were seen in the company of female movie stars while quietly having relationships with men.

"It was a fascinating trip. It really was," Hunter said in a telephone interview with EDGE from the Montecito home in California's Santa Barbara County he shares with his longtime partner, producer Allan Glaser. "I was a totally naive kid scared out of my wits, afraid of my own shadow. I was leading a double life. It was really difficult."

The book is rapidly becoming a best-seller, 28th on the New York Times non-fiction hardcover list. "It's number three in Chicago, 10 in L.A., eight in San Francisco and selling well overseas," he notes, a trace of surprise in his voice.

Asked about reaction, Hunter says: "I've been overwhelmed by the critical response and [that of] the public in general. They've been totally supportive. I've heard from a lot of people from my past who I hadn't heard from in years. My mother's twin brother, who is 94 years old, his granddaughter contacted me. I didn't even know he had grandchildren."

What led him to write the book was he learned that someone was going to prepare an unauthorized biography. Would he have considered it otherwise?

"No. I was actually asked by a producer friend years ago to write a book. I said, 'There's no way. I don't have the guts to do it.' Allan said I should do it. I said, 'Who would want to read a book on me?' He said, 'A lot of people.' I know how people and media put a spin on things. I don't want to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. Now that it's published, then people will put the crap on it. I'm sure they will. I have nothing to lose. I'm 74 years old."

Few among the close-knit Hollywood movie colony knew he was gay, even while he was having intimate relationships with people like Tony Perkins, also on his way to stardom in the mid-50s. "My friend Dick Clayton did. But that word wasn't around in those days. Everyone was very closeted and guarded about their privacy, about their lives." Clayton eventually would become Hunter's agent, after he dropped the gay Henry Willson, the subject of another current biography.

In his book, Hunter theorizes that it was Willson who told Confidential magazine about his (Hunter's) sexual orientation in retribution. The now-defunct publication once sated the public's appetite for gossip, a role now filled by the National Enquirer, People and tabloid TV shows like Access Hollywood.

In 1955, Confidential reported his disorderly conduct arrest after a raid on an all-male pajama party (partygoers didn't wear them) five years earlier. "I had four articles and three covers. The first I shared with Marilyn Monroe. I was very fearful. I was brought up by a religious, strict German mother. My touch of reality in that unrealistic world of Hollywood were my horses, a lifelong love." But his career didn't crash and burn, probably because the studios at the time were masters of cover-up. Their crisis-management techniques are unrivaled to this day.

By the end of the 1950s, though, Hunter's career had reached its apogee and started a decline to the level of dinner theater and spaghetti westerns.

His star burned out, he says, because "I think everything has to run its course. I was really not in vogue. A lot of it is the luck of the draw. Unfortunately, it is not always talent. I think luck plays a major part in all of our lives. If you take a right at the corner instead of a left, you have an entirely different life. You have to ride out the lows as well as the highs. If the luck of the draw isn't there for you in Hollywood, you have to decide what the next step is and go for it."

Then, in 1980, he got a phone call from John Waters, the gay cult film director. "He said: 'You may not know me.' But I did and was a big fan. I'd seen 'Pink Flamingos' and his other films."

Waters said he would be thrilled if Hunter would star in his next project, "Polyester," but warned him that he would play opposite Divine, an overweight drag queen (whose real name was Harris Glen Milstead). He told Waters he'd had worse co-stars.

When "Polyester" was released in 1981, it was a boon for both men. The movie gave Hunter's career a second life and hurled Waters into the mainstream. And it made it possible for Hunter to produce and again co-star with Divine in "Lust in the Dust," one of the drag star's final films, released in 1985. "Divine was one of my leading ladies," Hunter says. "He was great." In his book, Hunter provides a piece of trivia: He got the title of the horse-opera spoof from the one Gregory Peck jokingly gave his overheated 1947 western melodrama "Duel in the Sun."

Hunter is still friendly with Waters: "I just saw him in Washington. He did a Q&A for me in one of the bookstores there. I love John. He's so cute, with his Adolphe Menjue moustache." (For readers too young to know, Menjue was an actor whose movie career stretched from the 1910s to the 1960s.)

The former film idol offered some observations on Hollywood then and now.

On the demise of the studio system: "Three major things caused the decline. Adult audiences started staying home and watching TV. They were playing to a lot of younger audiences. And, they had to get rid of their theatres because of a government antitrust suit. That was a major blow to the studios. They were all hurting at the time." On the way actors were treated in his time: "Warner Brothers and the others had all of us on contract, in which we were paid by the week, a pittance compared to what major stars get today. When a studio didn't have a project for particular actors, it let others borrow them, for a fee higher than what they were paid. It was smart of the studio to loan me out."

Hunter doesn't seem to regret that Warner's was taking advantage of him. He appeared in films and TV that helped his career. It was the Golden Age of Television, with live productions on such shows as Playhouse 90 and U.S. Steel Hour. He starred in Playhouse 90's premier production, "Forbidden Area," a cold-war thriller by Rod Serling in which he played a villain for the first time. The play turned out to be forgettable, in light of the show's second production, "Requiem for a Heavyweight," also written by Serling.

Many of those live shows wound up being remade as movies, some of them classics, like "Marty" and "Requiem," he recalls. An earlier production, on Climax!, called "Fear Strikes Out" starred Hunter as Boston Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall, who overcame a nervous breakdown at the peak of his career. He badly wanted to repeat the performance in the movie version, but so did Tony Perkins, who landed the role that made him a major star. Hunter wrote in his book that Perkins knew he wanted the part. It changed their relationship significantly because Perkins had lost Hunter's trust.

On the movie industry today: "I can't compare it. I just know it is a totally different thing. Studios are not what they were. Today, they are sometimes just distribution outfits. I think Hollywood has a tendency to dummy down America. My mother used to say, 'elevate yourself.' Hollywood has the opportunity to elevate and I think that's important."

He believes the industry doesn't take enough risks. "The director Sidney Lumet said to me years ago during a movie I made with him, 'Tab, you're playing it safe. If you want to play it safe, stay in bed all day. That's the safest place to be, but it is also the dullest.'"

Will independent producers save Hollywood? "I like to think so. I love independent filmmaking."

While despairing of current movies and TV, he's not totally negative: "When you do see quality you really appreciate it. You go, Wow! I'm so glad to see that happen."

Hunter implied he wouldn't want to be a movie star today: "The rewards are great [but] compared with what I went through, it's a very difficult position to be in. Constantly trying to evaluate what's going on. No privacy. Photographers everywhere you go."

He reflects his conservative beliefs when discussing the gay rights movement. Asked what he thinks of same-sex marriage, he says, "I think there are some people who believe they should get married. I have a lot of friends who have gotten married. It depends. Will it become widespread in the future? I'm not going to comment on that."

What about so-called "in-your-face" gay activists? "I personally don't care for that because I'm not that kind of person. I'm old-fashioned."

Hunter leads a relatively quiet life these days. "I take the dogs--two whippets--for a walk on the beach. I love working in the garden. It's a healthy lifestyle." Although he currently doesn't have any horses at home, "I have one baby--they call her Harlow--growing up in New Mexico and will bring her out when she's a 3-year-old."

He and Glaser remain active in film production. "Allan and I are working on an Evelyn Keyes project. She played Scarlett O'Hara's sister in 'Gone with the Wind' and was married to John Huston and Artie Shaw. She did a screenplay for us based on one of her novels, 'Blues in the Night,' a story of a young girl coming to Hollywood to live with an aunt and uncle. She winds up being signed by a movie studio. It takes place in the 1930s. Peter Bogdonovich wants to direct. We're trying to get independent financing. Studios have too many people putting in their 2-cents worth, with their big egos getting in the way, and it becomes a muddled soup."

They have another project, "The Road Rise Up." "It's about an Irish folk hero and the finest love story I've every read. We have the screenplay written by Paula DiSanti."

And, he does some writing with Betty Marvin, wife of the late actor Lee Marvin, "and a character like him. We write well together. We have a lot of fun and we have arguments. We've done a couple of screenplays."

Hunter is fond of New England and asked how the weather was the day of the interview. "I used to have horses out there in Connecticut. I was back East for the book fair in New York City, but I took a few days to escape to Connecticut to see friends. I love being out in the country. It revitalizes me. I was upset about not getting to Boston on the book tour. It's a great place. I have friends there but haven't visited in a long time."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is pcassels@edgepublications.com.


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