As one of the leading lights of Hollywood’s golden age, Tab Hunter was adored by critics and audiences alike. And now, his intriguing double life is the subject of a new documentary ‘Tab Hunter Confidential’. Tanya Sweeney gets charmed by the pin-up who became a cult favourite.
Very few people in this world can count Natalie Wood, Lana Turner, Robert Mitchum and Divine as colleagues. Fewer people still can say they beat both Jimmy Dean and Paul Newman to land a major film role. But it’s safe to assume that Tab Hunter is nobody’s idea of a garden-variety movie star. A sort of predecessor to Rock Hudson, Hunter (82) was a closeted gay actor at the height of Hollywood’s golden age. With his sun-kissed, Abercrombie looks, Hunter (known to his mum and the taxman as Arthur Andrew Kelm) was a shoo-in for a golden movie career. Predictably, juggling life as a gay man and a flaxen-haired teen heart-throb was not without its complexities.
Having bared all about his career and personal life in the 2005 memoir Tab Hunter Confidential, the book has been transformed into a documentary that’s arguably one of the highlights of this year’s GAZE programme. The man himself is wary of the spotlight and is fiercely private, but Tab Hunter Confidential has reignited a public interest in the actor.
As to why he decided to open up about his life, Hunter reveals that an unauthorised biography was in the works, and the best way to put the kibosh on it was to write one himself. “Why not get it from the horse’s mouth, instead of some horse’s ass after I’m gone?” he reasons. “People love to put a spin on a person’s life, but I’ve got nothing to hide. The first line of my book is ‘I hate labels’. We’re human beings; what kind of human beings we are isn’t that important.”
When I call Hunter at the Californian ranch he shares with his partner of some three decades, Allan Glaser, he is charm personified. Even in his 80s, Hunter is still spry, boyish and twinkling. The way many Americans tend to do, he regales me with a tale of coming to Dublin decades ago with Allan (also his producing partner) to work, then escaping to the Curragh for the day. He admits too, that his staunchly Catholic upbringing (he went to a Catholic military school) made him a little ‘bulletproof’.
In his younger years, Hunter never discussed his sexuality. “The word ‘gay’ was never around, and it was nobody’s business,” he recalls.
When did he first have sexual feelings towards men? “I don’t know,” he says simply. “I thought it was bad, you know? I pushed them out of my mind. A Catholic priest got me very concerned about it and I didn’t go to church for years.”
At his local horse stables, he met actor Dick Clayton, who in turn set him up with the agent Henry Willson. The way Hollywood lore tells it, Willson was a sort of gay svengali whose other charges included Rock Hudson and Guy Madison. After two forgettable film roles came Battle Cry, and Hunter was officially on his way. One report claims that off the back of Battle Cry, Hunter was briefly considered for the lead role in Rebel Without A Cause (but famously, Dean landed that particular role).
“Merv Griffin told me about the book (Battle Cry) and said, ‘you’d be good for the role of Danny’,” he recalls. “Danny reminded me of my brother, a wonderful man. I screen tested nine times, and tested Paul (Newman) and Jimmy (Dean) too. They gave me one more test, and I thought I was terrible in it, but I was thrilled to get the part.”
Hunter was one of the last young stars to sign a contract under the old ‘studio system’: he signed a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers. His friend and co-star Natalie Wood signed a similar contact there, while his pal (and later, his lover) Tony Perkins, of Psycho fame, signed up to Paramount studios. While Perkins was told not to publicly mention his sexuality in the press, the topic never came up in Jack Warner’s office. What did happen, however, is that Hunter and Natalie Wood were photographed at premieres and parties; naturally, the press linked them as an item, but Hunter describes her as “like a kid sister… a little colt finding its legs”. He and Perkins, meanwhile, “double dated a lot”.
“Every executive ran the studio the way they wanted,” explains Hunter. “While Warner never said a word about my sexuality, Tony Perkins was told (by Paramount) not to see me anymore.” Perkins went on to marry Berinthis Berinson and have two sons before dying aged 53 of Aids-related pneumonia. “It was a very changeable time in the industry, though I loved every moment,” he recalls. “We used to look up to the old timers – Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart – and they really looked out for us.”
This interview originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of GCN.
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