Return of a Screen Idol: Tab Hunter opens up in ‘Confidential’ documentary

Movies Features

Fifties matinee idol Tab Hunter died Sunday night in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 86. In tribute, we revisit our 2015 interview with Hunter for the release of the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential.

Tab Hunter, the dazzlingly handsome teen idol of the Eisenhower era, has just starred in another movie, and it is some comeback. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Hunter’s longtime life partner Allan Glaser, Tab Hunter Confidential is the documentary story of the actor’s colorful, mostly closeted life, which Hunter himself narrates. Hunter’s likeable, effervescent personality is reflected in this markedly upbeat film, which limns his discovery and swift rise to boy-next-door stardom. All the while, however, he had to conceal his homosexuality, which could have instantly killed his career.

In New York from Santa Barbara to promote his celluloid baby, Hunter met with me at a midtown hotel, accompanied by Glaser, who surprisingly (or maybe not) sat in with us for the interview, even jumping in to answer my first question.

Film Journal International: What was the impetus for this film?

Allan Glaser: After Tab did his autobiography in 2005, I wanted him to do the film and he didn’t want to, so it took a couple of years to talk him into it and he agreed. When he agrees to do something, he gives it 100 percent. I don’t think he was ready before we did it to let all the secrets out, but he did give it 100 percent and I think it was cathartic for him once it was done.

Tab Hunter: Allan worked on this for almost seven years.

FJI: Like you, Tab, I am a sensitive Cancer with a very complex mother.

Hunter: They laid down the law, didn’t they? I was very fortunate because my mother was really..... they would have burned her as a witch in the old days because she was so powerful. She would meet young people and just pick their thinking up. She was so important about laying down the foundations. But when you’re a kid, you go, “Foundations...what?”

FJI: I’ve met you before, and have always considered you one of the most down-to-earth, nicest people I’ve ever met. Do you think that was from your mom?

Hunter: My mother set parameters. I don’t think there are a lot of parameters today. She would say, "There’s yes and no, and no in-between."

FJI: You are always so polite, almost unbelievably so.

Hunter: Well, I was brought up by an old-school mother. There’s a word that seems to have kind of fallen by the wayside today, and that’s “style.” l love that word “style,” or “manners.” I think people should be taught those. When I think style, I think of Fred Astaire. Who had more style than those old ’50s and ’40s and ’30s movie stars? Oh my God! It’s a whole different ballgame now. They were all part of that studio system which has all long crumbled away. It’s a different business now.

FJI: Yes, those moguls running the studios were such characters, and so powerful.

Hunter: Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck. Jack Warner was my boss, and when they said, “Jump!” your only response was “How high?”

FJI: It’s a rare thing that you spoke so honestly about your sexuality in your book and now this film. You are a very private person and never made a big deal about coming out.

Hunter: Because it’s not my comfort zone. But when the questions were asked in the documentary, I just said, “Look, this is what happened, this is what it was.”

Glaser: I think it was very brave of Tab, because it isn’t his comfort zone. We asked him to do something he really doesn’t like to talk about. Yet he was 100 percent and gave me what I needed it to be. It took seven years to get a lot of this stuff. Sometimes we had to ask the same question a year later, or two, or three, or four, before I got exactly what I needed to get. But he gave it to us, and you saw the results.

FJI: How did you meet each other?

Glaser: I was at 20th Century Fox and he came in to pitch Lust in the Dust, to see if we could get it set up in the studio, and I left the studio to raise the finances.

Hunter: Allan singlehandedly raised all the money for it. We started our own company and it’s been 33 years. He is an amazing person, but also an amazing producer. A producer’s job has to cover everything from the raising of the money all the way through. And he’s a right-on-through, hands-on producer. He knows the business.

FJI: What was Divine like to work with?

Hunter: Oh, one of my favorite leading ladies! I put him on a par with Sophia Loren, Geraldine Page. She was great, wonderful to work with and a very serious actor.

Glaser: He was nothing like his outrageous characters on the screen. He was soft-spoken, quiet, with a fun little sense of humor, a natural wit about him. But when he put on that wig, sparks came out of his ass. He became this character. I remember when we were promoting Lust, I wanted him to wear one of his wigs on a talk show and he said, “No. I’m paid to do that, but it’s not who I am.” I found that interesting.

Hunter: He was like a big beached whale, very soft-spoken, easy, but you get him in his drag and bingo, he was right on it. Wonderful performer.

FJI: I have a lot of his clothes. I was at this Sotheby’s auction when they came up for sale, all in a paper shopping bag. Great Zandra Rhodes things, and beautiful, like those be-feathered, painted tops and that first punk dress she did. I guess the family must have put them up for sale and I got it all for like $150.

Hunter:[laughing] They must hang on you. Well, you had to do it!

Glaser: Zandra and Tommy Nutter, he was always talking about them. I have all of the costumes from the movie. I pulled one of Divine’s out a couple of months ago. It was a dress that went from here to here, like a house. Oh my God!

FJI: How was John Waters?

Hunter: Oh, John’s the best! One of the best, most wonderful people to work with, because he plants terrific seeds in your head. I really like him very much. He’s like your friendly undertaker with that Adolphe Menjou moustache, just a delightful man.

Glaser: And he’s very smart. To think that, in 1982, he approached Tab to star with Divine in a movie. That’s outrageous. And it was a hit! It worked.

FJI: Were you familiar with Waters before?

Hunter: I had been a major fan. He always referred to his film with us as his mainstream film. [chuckles]

FJI: In your day in Hollywood, although closeted, gay men still had social circles, like George Cukor’s legendary parties, where he served the homosexuals at Sunday brunch the leftovers from his gala Saturday night soirees. Were you a part of that?

Hunter: I never knew anything about that. I heard about Cukor, but never knew him. You would hear a rumor about a person here or there, but not much was really said. I was part of the younger Hollywood, in its waning days, so when I wasn’t working or involved with PR to build you up as one of their actors, I spent all my time in the stable where I was happiest with my horses. Because they were a very important part of my life, shoveling the real stuff.

FJI: And then there were those notorious columnists, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

Hunter: I did know Hedda fairly well. I knew Louella a little better. Actually, I liked them both. Hedda was a little scary and I was just a little nervous when I had to meet her. Louella was kind of a dotty-ish type, tottering around with a little drink in her hand. She was very good to me, very nice to me.

Glaser: The great thing about those women was they knew all the secrets of Hollywood but they kept them to themselves. They never exploited it. They only exploited the fantasy part of Hollywood that people loved to read about. They didn’t try to take down the stars like TMZ does today. Everybody knew that Rock Hudson was gay but they would never dream of saying that. Plus, if you did, you wouldn’t have access to any other stars. Now, anything goes.

FJI: I want to hear about Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, your Broadway debut with Tallulah Bankhead.

Hunter: Oh, yeah! I wish we could have put it in the documentary. We only had a limited amount of time. I felt sorry for Tallulah because she had a God-given gift she allowed to be dissipated, and that was unfortunate. And here we were, doing some material by only one of the greats, Tennessee, who was just phenomenal. He was around quite a bit during rehearsals. But the glue that held us all together was an incredible woman named Marian Seldes. She was pretty extraordinary, very caring in her life and she gave forth a lot of love. I think we need more of that in life.

But it was a difficult time for Tallulah. I’m sure it was very unfortunate. We only had a big run-in one time. It was that first day of rehearsal without your script and you’re trying to go through your dialogue, and maybe it’s a two or three-page scene. I was struggling, and Tallulah kept interrupting and interrupting and interrupting. And finally I said, “Why the fuck don’t you shut up?” And she looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re the rudest man I’ve met since Marlon Brando!” And I said, “Oh, thank you for putting me in such good company!” [laughs] But it was sad in many ways.

The play is a great piece of material and I don’t think people really understand it. It’s a religious piece of work, carrying a very selfish woman, who’s lived with all the material things in life, across the River Styx. St. Christopher [Hunter’s metaphoric role] carrying her to meet her maker, that’s how I looked at it. To me, that’s a very important thing, that transition from death to another life.

FJI: What was your director, Tony Richardson, like?

Hunter: Tony was a little...he was good but he was losing interest because of the difficulty of Tallulah. I did like working for him, I did like Tony and think he was a good director but, again, he didn’t see the spiritual side of the material. For example, at the end when she dies and I take all the jewelry off her, I wanted to walk right over to the orchestra pit with all these jewels and just dump them, meaning all the material things in life. And Tony said, “Now you look at them and put them in your pocket.” I said, “That is a copout and totally destroys what I think Tennessee has written." I think it was a very interesting play, but there were a lot of ill-fated versions.

FJI: You worked with three leading ladies, love goddesses of the golden age of Hollywood, who I loved—Lana Turner, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth.

Hunter: I loved them, too. Who could forget that first shot of Lana in The Postman Always Rings Twice where they start with the feet and go right on up? Well, she came out to the set on The Sea Chase. I had nothing to do with it, and one of the crew members said, “Oh, Lana, this is Tab Hunter. He’s been dying to meet you, you can tell by his behavior all day.” And I didn’t know what to do and she lay across my lap and I said, ”You know, I’ve been a fan of yours since I was a kid.” And then I realized what an idiot I was [laughs]: insert foot in mouth.

Linda was my very first film and I was a nervous wreck, having to do a film test with her. She pinched me and said, “Relax, I’m good luck for newcomers.” And she certainly was! When we did a love scene, I had to kiss her and the director said, “Cut!” She pinched me and said, “That was nice!” She was gorgeous and a gorgeous person, too, a lovely woman, one of the sexiest beauties.

With Rita, the main thing I remember was during They Came to Cordura, she was having little problems and you just wanted to go up and put your arms around her. It was probably a little bit of dementia starting, probably a little drink, I don’t know. But she was such a wonderful contributor. Who could forget Gilda?

FJI: You managed to avoid those pitfalls of stardom, like drinking and drugs.

Hunter: I’ve never been a drug person at all. Drinking? I have my glass of wine at nighttime or a vodka on the rocks, but I’m not a big drinker. You know, we’ve got to go out there. We can’t go in here [gestures toward himself]. I always used to say, because my mother used to say it, “We’ve got to learn how to divorce ourselves from ourselves, because we tend to be first person singular.” Not good.

FJI: What’s a typical day for you like now in Santa Barbara, where you live?

Hunter: Allan sticks his head in my room and says, “All right, let’s take the dogs to the beach. And I say, “Oh, ten minutes more!” And then we meet our friend Annie on the beach and take the dogs for a walk. We come home, I do my breakfast and get ready to go to the barn and see my horses. I have a mare and foal. I just weaned her and they’re quite wonderful. The mare was a little stressed when I weaned her, but she’s okay now, back with her girlfriends. And that’s basically the day. Maybe seeing a few friends for dinner or being at the computer or reading. It’s very mellow, a very thankful day

FJI: Do you still want to act?

Hunter: I’ve done that, thank you! [laughs] You know, if John Waters said, “Do you want to be in a film?” I’d say, “Yeah, John,” because he’s fun to work with, and I love him. But I’m an old man, my gosh!

FJI: You look terrific. What’s your secret?

Glaser:You’re looking at the secret right here [points to self].

Hunter:[laughs] The secret for everyone of us every day is to say, “Thank you.” But I work at the Y twice a week, with a little aerobics. I gave up riding because my balance wasn’t what it used to be. I’m 84 now. I still l do a lot of work in the barn. Diet? I try to be on a pretty good diet, but I do love my desserts! Oh my God.

FJI: What’s your favorite movie?

Hunter: Of all time?

FJI: No, yours.

Hunter: I like different ones for different reasons. I can throw up two or three. I love Gunman’s Walk because it was the first heavy I played in a movie and it’s a very good script, written by Frank Nugent, who wrote The Quiet Man.

FJI: He was also the New York Times film critic.

Hunter: Oh, that I didn’t know. He was a wonderful writer. I love Damn Yankees because it was a musical with the whole New York cast. I wasn’t a major supporter of [the director] George Abbott, but I think it turned out well, because he also had Stanley Donen there, who had very good credits. That was a fun film to do with Gwen Verdon, Bobby Fosse, Jean Stapleton, Shannon Bolin.

FJI: These were Broadway veterans. Were they welcoming to you, the Hollywood boy?

Hunter: Oh, they were the best! Are you kidding? I was the outsider and a little nervous about it and it was difficult also because there was a musicians’ strike at the time. So when we recorded the musical numbers, they would just play the album and record it. I had to sing to [Broadway originator] Steven Douglas’ records and then go into the soundstage and sing without any musical accompaniment because of the strike in Hollywood. So that was certainly an adverse condition to do my first musical.

Gwen was the best! I loved her. It was unusual because Hollywood never uses the Broadway people. I did The Pleasure of His Company with Fred Astaire, which was on Broadway with Cyril Ritchard and [now] Mother Dolores Hart [who famously quit Hollywood to join a convent]. Debbie [Reynolds] did the film.

FJI: What was Astaire like?

Hunter: I loved him. We talked a lot because he used to have racehorses and he married a woman who was a jockey. He was one of the sweetest people. I’ll never forget this one day they were doing a close-up and I was standing beside the camera for the scene. They said, “Cut!” and he looked at me and said, “Was that alright?” I looked at him and said, “Fred, you are asking me?” Forget it! He was a really nice person and he was stylish. That’s a lovely word that doesn’t exist anymore.

FJI: Because it barely exists anymore, with the Kardashians, etc. Are you politically involved with gay rights, as so many stars now are?

Hunter: I’ve been to one thing, through George Takei. I support different things, and went and introduced George. I’m not a big advocate—more apolitical. I think some people feel they must be. I just have never done that. I’m a supporter of what I feel is right. There’s a wonderful four-letter word beginning with F, and that’s “fair.” We gotta be fair with each other.

FJI: Spencer Tracy used to say, “Just remember who shot Lincoln.”

Hunter:[laughs] That’s very good!

FJI: Are you working on any future projects?

Glaser: The film and its promotion have been very involving, but there are some projects we may want to go back and revisit. Projects I might have sold two or three times, but then the studio went bankrupt or the executive left. It’s still a good project, but it’s got to find its home. This movie is in distribution until February and we’re constantly going on publicity tours for it. Once this settles down, we’ll take a break.

The response to our film has been phenomenal. I can’t believe how people have embraced this and warmed up to it and enjoyed it. But you know there really is nothing else like this and I think that’s why we’ve been booked into all the cities. Because there’s nothing else like it and it’s great counterprogramming for everything else that’s out there. There’s a lot of people who want to see this, so we’ve been very fortunate in our timing.

Hunter: You know, the Hollywood studio system will never be again, but those moguls were quite amazing, building the studios up from scratch. And they ran a tight ship and produced what they wanted. If you were out, they’d get another person in there to do the job and do it well.