Sixty years ago, actor/singer/heartthrob Tab Hunter was outed. The story goes that in 1955, Hunter’s first agent Henry Willson sold Hunter out to gossip rag Confidential so that the magazine wouldn’t publish a piece outing another client of Willson’s, Rock Hudson. Despite being something that at the time was virtually inconceivable—especially for all-American boys—Hunter’s career thrived.
Hunter claims that the resulting article, which detailed his arrest after cops raided a gay Hollywood party in 1950, did not affect his career. He actively ensured that it wouldn’t by never acknowledging the rumors and frequently appearing in photographs alongside women his company set him up with, like fellow actors Natalie Wood and Venetia Stevenson. Hunter went on to become a box-office draw and hit No. 1 on the charts in 1957 with “Young Love,” which sold a million copies. As George Takei says, “He was the embodiment of youthful American masculinity.” It was only after Hunter left Warner Bros, the studio that held him under contract, that he says his career took a nosedive.
Hunter tells these stories and more in the new documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, named after the 2006 memoir in which Hunter at last confirmed to the public that he is, in fact, gay. But telling and explaining are two different things. I met 84-year-old Hunter, along with his partner of 33 years and producer of his documentary, Allan Glaser, earlier this week upstairs at New York’s Kimberly Hotel. Though Hunter for all intents and purposes came out about ten years ago, he remains guarded. He seems allergic to coming off as consciously political. As Glaser put it to me, “He came out of the closet and walked right back in, and shut the door behind himself. I had to pull him out to do the documentary and then he walked right back in again. He’s not a gay advocate, he’s not ashamed. He is who he is and he doesn’t talk about it a lot.”
Hunter is nonetheless affable and willing to discuss several elements of his singular life (if he weren’t, there would be no doc). He sometimes punctuates his paragraphs with his still-megawatt smile, and it’s like a jump back in time, every time. I swooned inside for real. A condensed and edited transcript of my chat with Hunter and Glaser appears below.
[There was a video here]
Gawker: Why do a documentary?
Tab Hunter: Allan got me to do the book, and he worked on me a long time to do a documentary. I said, “You gotta be joking.” He said, “No, I think you’d be wonderful. I think it would be interesting.” It was a different way of life than how it is now. You know, a good producer is hard to find, somebody that is really able to create. A producer causes it to happen—finds the money, does this, does that—and follows it right through. I just went along.
Was there a difference in your revelatory process in the movie versus the book? You say in the beginning, “I’ve never been as open as I am with you.”
TH: Well, that’s very true. It’s different when you’re sitting at your computer and you’re writing. I like to write. Allan found Eddie Muller, who was a wonderful co-writer. It was a pleasure working with Eddie because he’d say, “Come on, give me a little more here,” and I’d say, “OK.” The book felt more involving because I was actually writing. In the film, they’d sit me in a chair and I’d have to open up.
Is that hard for you?
TH: Yes, in that respect.
I imagine part of what makes it hard is when you live secretly in public, you get used to being proprietary about your life and what you reveal.
TH: It’s true. In those days, people weren’t like today: “Blah blah blah” in your face. Things were very quiet. It’s nobody’s business.
My touch of reality in that unrealistic world of Hollywood were my horses. I really felt closest to God with a pitchfork full of crap in my hand, being out at the barn where I could really enjoy being with those animals. The rest of it is the hoopla of life.
What is it about horses that appeals to you so much?
TH: We have our mouths, we can say whatever we want: Blah blah blah blah blah. You’re working with an animal that has a life of its own and you have to try to communicate with it. It doesn’t tell you, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I want to do that.” You have to get into their feeling.
Coming out in your memoir wasn’t a huge ceremony for you. In the movie, it’s never referred to as “coming out.”
TH: I still don’t look at it as if I’ve come out. Coming out, what does that mean? What I’m concerned about is people as human beings. Are you a decent human being? What are you contributing? That’s important.
Allan Glaser: When he did the book, Tab was very honest and straightforward and he came out of the closet and walked right back in, and shut the door behind himself. I had to pull him out to do the documentary and then he walked right back in again. He’s not a gay advocate, he’s not ashamed. He is who he is and he doesn’t talk about it a lot.
TH: You’ve got to have a life. What is your life is it: [Babbling noises] or are you doing things that are important for you and your development?
I think it is important to be openly gay. That’s a great thing to show the world.
TH: I think if a person feels that they must do it, more power to ‘em.
But I would argue that you telling your story is an important thing for the world.
TH: Well, I think it’s a journey and we’re all on a journey. Let’s hope that we can make it a journey that’s going to teach us something.
AG: That’s why he agreed to do this. I said to him, “You have an important story to tell not just in your sexuality, that’s a thread in the tapestry of his life. How you dealt with your mother’s mental illness. How you came through being created as a Hollywood movie star and then it disappeared and how you dealt with it.”
Tab didn’t become a victim of Hollywood. He didn’t play the tortured homosexual like Monty Clift, he didn’t get married like Rock Hudson. His is a unique story because he didn’t fall into any of those traps. That’s why this story is important to be told, and needs to be left behind for generations to come, in 10 years when people say, “So what? You’re gay.” It wasn’t like that 50, 60, 70 years ago.
TH: If someone said the word “gay” to me…well first the word wasn’t around, but if someone said something, I would have bristled. The hair on the back of my neck would have stood up.
It blew my mind that the outing story in Confidential didn’t affect your career—leaving Warner Bros years later, you say, was “career suicide.”
TH: People believe what they want to believe.
AG: Confidential sold 2 million magazines. Photoplay sold 35 million magazines. People who read Photoplay believed in Tab’s image.
TH: Feeding an apple to your horse, going to the premiere, washing a window, trying on a hat, going to the beach. Those were those layouts they’d setup for you. Some of them you would do for the studio, whether they were promoting a young starlet, or whether they’d get a group of young actors together to do all that. It was all just building careers. We were the end of the studio era and there was a wonderful mystery about the business then.
Feeling as private about your life as you do, was it ever hard to do what Warner Bros asked to serve your public image?
TH: No, how could it be? How could it be difficult when they send you a limousine to take out this gorgeous creature that you have a hell of a lot of fun with. They’re picking up the bill. Tell me that’s bad, as a kid. You’re gonna drink it up. Just hope it doesn’t make you fat mentally, physically, or spiritually.
How did you avoid getting fat in those areas?
TH: I had a very grounded family. My mother was very structured. She used to say, “There is yes and there is no and there is no in between.” Tell that to people today. And I had a brother that I looked up to that was terrific. When negative things happen, you just have to believe that somewhere under the pile of crap is a pony. You just gotta be positive, ‘cause there’s too much negativity around.
Even if it didn’t affect your work, did people treat you differently after the Confidential article?
TH: I don’t think so. People covered up their true feelings more than they do now. Behind closed doors, people might be saying this or that. I’ve never concerned myself with what people think of me. If people don’t understand me, that’s their problem, not mine.
But your livelihood depended on what people thought of you.
TH: You’re right. When I was doing Damn Yankees!, for example, [director] George Abbott didn’t want me. He thought I was a little light in my loafers. I think he was full of shit, but I loved working with that whole New York cast, Bob Fosse, Gwen [Verdon], Jean Stapleton—the best. But you can’t worry, or you really have to try not to worry about all the nonsense. You just have to go down the road and do the best you can.
After being followed around by groups girls from before your fame, did it affect your psyche when [you reached a certain age and] that stopped?
TH: No, I couldn’t care less about that. What you are as a human being inside is what’s important. My mother told me, “Don’t get concerned with the externals.” Everyone today is concerned with how they look, how they’re presented. Strip it away.
When things stop happening, it is a shock. But you have to go with the flow of things. You have to understand, “This is happening. It can’t be forever. This is the now. It’s the way it is. Life is not the way you want it to be—it’s the way it is.” “I want this,” “I want that,” “I want this,” “I want that”—there’s too much of that.
Did you feel a sense of community in the ‘50s with other gay men?
TH: My life was all around my horses and a few of the horse people that I loved—Venetia Stevenson, Natalie Wood. I loved [Wood] because we worked together—I had known her since she was a kid. Most of my friends were women. I’ve never been comfortable in a big gay community. I knew people that were gay. It was never discussed. We never talked about it. The only person I was able to really confide in was my good friend Dick Clayton, who was my agent, who was the agent for Jimmy Dean. Dick Clayton was such a decent human being. You could tell him any problems you had. Anyone in that public eye, in that whole arena, needs someone they can talk to. He was the only one.
Not even [former boyfriend and Psycho star] Tony Perkins?
TH: Well, Tony and I would occasionally, but that was our relationship. We didn’t talk about things that were gayish and all that. I’m just not that kind of person. It’s not my comfort zone.
[There was a video here]
Allan, you’re listed as Tab’s partner in the movie. You guys aren’t married? You don’t care about marriage?
AG: I do care about marriage. We would. It just got legalized two years ago and I’ve been doing the movie. I haven’t had time.
TH: I think marriage is just between two people and their maker, period. Doesn’t concern any of us, whether it be a woman and a woman, a man and a man, or a man and a woman, I don’t care.
I’ve never really aspired to a ceremony or a piece of paper.
TH: Whatever is right for you as a human being.
AG: We’ve been together for 33 years, that’s a long time.
What do you think about the fact that there are still people in Hollywood who are closeted?
TH: Maybe this documentary can help someone in some way. It depends on the individual, but the key, I think, for a lot of people, particularly young people is to learn to divorce yourself from yourself.
AG: You still cannot be a leading romantic male in Hollywood and be gay. You can be a character actor, you can be a sidekick, you can be a comedian, you cannot be a movie star. And that’s another reason why I wanted to make this documentary: Nothing has changed in 80 years!
TH: It’s all very important, but the real important thing is, I think, not labeling a person. The first line in my book is, “I hate labels.” It’s who we are as human beings. What kind of a human being are you? Are you a contributor?
AG: We never could have done the documentary if Tab hadn’t written the book. Tab had to become desensitized to talking about sexuality.
TH: That was not easy.
AG: You can see how reticent he is in the movie sometimes to talk about it. That’s genuine. When you’re told your whole life, “Don’t talk about it, don’t do it,” it’s a tremendous wall you have to tear down to get to the point where you saw him in this film.
With all you had to sacrifice and put up with, was it worth it?
TH: When you’re as young as I was and you’re thrown into all that and everybody’s going [makes kissing sounds], it’s really going to take your head and send you on a journey. You’re not going to hate it, but you’re just going to try to have the wherewithal to find your balance, hopefully.
How could you not love being at home up in Lake Arrowhead with Kay Starr singing her hit song “Side by Side” and Judy Garland on the floor, and the two of them doing a duet? You’d be an idiot not to go for it and love it.
[Top image via Getty]