Watching Tab Hunter: Confidential, Jeffrey Schwartz’s documentary about the life of Tab Hunter, it’s easy to see what made this likable man a heartthrob in the 1950s. Whether he’s flashing his disarming smile, relating the ups and downs of a movie career that blazed briefly into stardom in the middle of the last century, or talking about his closeted gay life when the studio was promoting him as eye candy to adoring female fans, Hunter comes across as affable, down to earth, and, remarkably, with no axes to grind. Meeting him in person was no different. When we sat down with the former actor, now 84, he was accompanied by Allan Glaser, his life partner for the past three decades. Hunter affectionately describes Glaser, who’s also one of Tab Hunter: Confidential’s producers, as “the pushy one.” During our conversation, Glaser occasionally chimed in whenever Hunter was being too diffident in talking about himself.
What prompted you to start talking about things you had kept private for several decades when you wrote your autobiography?
Tab Hunter: Allan was very much a part it. He said to me, “I hear there’s going to be book done on you. I think you should write a book.” And I said, “Who would want to read a book about me?” He said, “You’d be surprised.” So I thought I better get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone, because people who never knew you will put a spin on your life and make up whatever the heck they want. And that’s not fair. You know, I have nothing to hide.
And now, here you are in the documentary 10 years later…
Alan Glaser: It took me two years to talk him into letting me do this.
Hunter: He’s very pushy!
Glaser: He said let sleeping dogs lie already, let me recede back into history and forget it. But his story was too interesting not to be told. You don’t get many people that went through that whole studio system—of being a studio-made star—and be able to tell their stories. And I’ve never seen one of those stories that ended up inspirational instead of tragic.
Hunter: I do think the film captures the feel of old Hollywood. But I didn’t want it to be just about Hollywood. We’re all on a journey, but the important thing is, “What kind of a journey?” And hopefully, it can mean something to someone.
You don’t seem to have any anger or bitterness toward your life in Hollywood, even though you experienced a lot of setbacks in your career after your initial stardom.
Hunter: I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve had bad times when I’m sure I was bitter about things. But, you know, you can’t waste your time with that nonsense. There’s too much of that. Somewhere under the pile of crap there’s a pony. There’s so much negativity around today, it really bothers me. Why do we need that?
Glaser: Tab didn’t become a victim of Hollywood, which is interesting. So many people implode or turn to drugs and alcohol. He just happened to choose that right road. He had a good moral grounding. He was practically raised by nuns, and that spiritual side of him was very strong and kept him grounded. He came out at the other end a whole person.
Hunter: Get on with your life and elevate your thinking.
What was it like getting to Hollywood in the late 1940s as a young man who was also gay? Did you discover the underground Hollywood?
Hunter: I never thought about that. I just thought, “Wow, Hollywood!” I was just such a big fan of movies. I was introduced to Henry Willson by my friend Dick Clayton, who said, “Now this is a very good agent, but he doesn’t have the best reputation.” And I said, “Well, I’m a big boy. I’m sure I can handle that.” And then Dick and Henry, they just started guiding my career. But my first picture, Island of Desire, came around through an actor named Paul Guilfoyle, who was a New York actor who had become a casting agent in Hollywood. He was still a very fine actor and he had met me when I was a teenager. I had been underage when I joined the Coast Guard and he was casting for a young man who was underage and in the service, so he thought I would be right for the part. He sent me out to meet the writer and the director, and the writer looked up and said, “That’s the boy I want.” So I did a test with Linda Darnell and I got the role. But I was very bad in that.
Was it at that point you realized this was the life you wanted?
Hunter: Well, I loved it, because I was such a lover of films. But then after I got a taste of what it was like, I figured I’ve got to learn the craft. I realized that it takes a lot of work.
Your early stardom was shaped and protected by the studio. Weren’t the studios something like a parent in those days?
Hunter: Everyone I know who’d been in the studio system—Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Tony Curtis, Bob Wagner—all tell different stories about the heads of their studios and their relationships. The studios molded you and it was your job to do as they asked. If you didn’t go along with what they asked, you’d be out and somebody else would take your place.
However, Warner Bros. did stand by you even after you were outed by Confidential magazine.
Hunter: Well, every studio handled their stars differently. My sexuality was never ever mentioned to me at Warners. Thank God! I know that when Tony Perkins and I were seeing each other, Paramount told him they didn’t want him to see me anymore. But Warners didn’t say anything. They just were supportive of you. I’ll never forget the incident at the big Audience Awards, where Warners won every award that year. We were standing together—me with Jack Warner, Peggy Lee, and Natalie Wood—and all the press of the world were there taking photographs. And this guy said, “Turn around Tab, this is for the next issue of Confidential magazine.” I went, “Oh God!” and turned away. But Jack Warner pulled me back and said, “Just remember this, today’s headlines, tomorrow’s toilet paper.” I’ll never forget that. That is the closest that they ever said anything about my sexuality.
Did leading a double life take its toll on you?
Hunter: It’s interesting. I never confronted those things because they were taboo. So therefore I wouldn’t face up to that. The word “gay” wasn’t around and audiences believe what they want to believe. I don’t know how I would have reacted if somebody would have said something. I do remember this one time when I was in Chicago promoting a film with the Warner Bros. people and one person from the press got a little bit into territory that I was very uncomfortable with. So I just looked at the representative and said, “Would you please ask this gentleman to leave the room,” and they escorted him out. That wouldn’t happen today!
Is it still difficult to talk about a subject that you were so guarded about for so long?
Hunter: I just have never been comfortable talking about my sexuality. I think it was easier with the movie because it was quite a few years later after the book. But it’s still not my comfort zone. I was just brought up that way. I’m very old-fashioned.
Glaser: Tab never would have done the documentary had he had not written the book. He had to become desensitized to the subject of his sexuality before he was comfortable talking about it. You can still see in the film that he’s reticent to talk about it, but it’s very honest the way he talks about it.
Hunter: The first line of my book is “I hate labels.” Society right away wants to label you: He’s like this, she’s like that. The important thing is what kind of a human being you are. All the other stuff is nonsense.
How come you didn’t get married like so many other closeted studio stars of the 1950s?
Hunter: I came close to it with Etchika Choureau. I did love her…
Glaser: It’s like Tab says in the movie: “You have to be true to yourself.” Those are his last words in the film, and he lives by that motto. So while he may have contemplated marriage, I don’t think he ever would have done it, because he did stay true to himself. I think that’s why you’re looking at a happy, healthy whole person, not a fractured mess.
Hunter: And that was because I was able to be with my horses. They were my touch of reality in that unrealistic world of Hollywood. They still are my touch of reality today.
Why did you eventually break your contract with the studio?
Hunter: That wonderful system which had started in the 20s and went on through the 50s was crumbling. Television was coming in a big way, there were European films that wanted real people in real situations. It was a very difficult time for me because then I was really serious about being an actor and there was nothing there for me, very little. So I asked for my freedom.
And then you lost the career that you had up until then?
Hutner: That’s very true. It all fell apart. But I did become one of the pioneers of dinner theater, and say what you want about dinner theater, it was a fabulous training ground.
Wasn’t it exhausting playing all these various cities every night?
Hunter: To the point at which I had a heart attack.
You mentioned European cinema. Would you have liked to work with the great directors of the era?
Hunter: I did get to work with Luchino Visconti. When we were having dinner he said, “Tab, I wanted you for my film Senso.” The agent I had at the time, Henry, didn’t know who Visconti was and he never responded, and Farley Granger played the role. Marina Cicogna of the Euro International Film studios had a girlfriend named Florinda Balkan and they wanted to test her because they were going to make a star out of her. Luchino asked me if I would work on the test. I said, to work with you and with Florinda, of course! That was when I was doing this terrible western in Rome, and every night his car would arrive and take me to a real sound stage with a real director and a real crew. I worked with him again on a film that we were supposed to do with Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel, but they didn’t have the money. When they did get the money the financiers wanted Sorel and Claudia, but they didn’t want me.
Are there other movies that you wish you had got? Any career choices you wish you had made?
Hunter: There are a few films that I have missed out on, but, you know, you take it in stride. I would have loved to have done Midnight Cowboy. And West Side Story, which I eventually did get to do on stage at Meadowbrook Dinner Theater [in New Jersey] with a part of the New York cast. I think have made a couple of bad choices. I was doing They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth and the director, Robert Rossen, said to me, “Tab I really like the way you’re coming off in the film. I’ve got a script that I would like to you look at, it’s about a pool player.” And I said, “I hate pool!” That’s all he had to hear from this actor. And then he made The Hustler. We’ve all done things like that.
What has been the best thing in your life so far?
Hunter: The best thing for the last 30 years has been having Allan Glasser…
Glaser: 33 years. [Both laugh.]
Hunter: ...and my beliefs. My religion is a very important part of my life. I had a very strong religious German mother.
So you’re able to resolve being Catholic and being gay?
Hunter: I think that’s between you and your maker. No one has a right to tell you anything other than that. It’s a very personal thing.
Glaser: That’s another thing that I was happy to put in this film: that it’s okay to embrace your religion. People don’t talk about that, or it isn’t hip. If that’s what you believe in and it gives you some inner peace, then you should embrace it. It does with Tab.
Can you be persuaded to be in a movie again?
Hunter: I’m an old man. What am I going to do?
Glaser: I think you have seen Tab in his last starring role in Tab Hunter: Confidential. I can tell you that. Because, like I said, it took every ounce of everything I had in me to get him to do it.
How do you feel now when you watch the movie?
Hunter: I get moved by my mother and my brother, and I feel good when I see reactions from young people who say, “Thank you.” I think when young people can get something from it, then that’s good. Life should be a bunch of “thank you’s.” It’s important to be on a positive journey.