Tab Hunter talks with Berkshire on Stage and Screen about life, aging and kissing Divine
by Larry Murray
Tab Hunter loves the Berkshires, and was last here attending the screening of his life story Tab Hunter Confidential at the 2015 Berkshire International Film Festival. He was impressed that in this rural area there is even an organization for LGBT seniors, the Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County that is both socially and politically active. He is, after all, a golden ager himself. “I’ll be 85 next month,” he admitted. And while his movie making days are behind him, his love for his horses and for his partner of 33 years, Allan Glaser, has never wavered.
Throughout the 1950s, Tab Hunter reigned as Hollywood’s ultimate male heartthrob. In dozens of films – and in the pages of countless movie magazines – Tab’s astonishing looks and golden-boy sex appeal drove his fans nuts. For us gay boys, the infatuation with Tab was something we dared not talk about. But to his screaming, delirious poodle-skirted straight fans, he quickly became the prototype for all young matinee idols to come.
Bristling against being just another pretty face and wanting to be taken seriously, Tab was one of the few to be able to transcend pin-up boy status. He earned his stripes as an actor to become a major movie star and recording artist.
But throughout his years of stardom, Tab had a secret. Tab Hunter was gay, and spent his Hollywood years in a precarious closet that repeatedly threatened to implode and destroy him. Now, Tab’s dramatic, turbulent and ultimately inspiring life story has become an explosive documentary feature, Tab Hunter Confidential, directed by Emmy award winning filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz.
Getting Tab on the phone, I asked him straight out how he was doing as an octogenarian. “Hanging in there for an old man, hanging in there…,” he replied. “You know, I love it up there, the Provincetown Film Festival was delightful, I was there just a few weeks ago, and I am just crazy about the Berkshires. With Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow, I like the area very much.”
And of course, there are lots of horses in our area, too. “The horses have been my life for quite some time now but I am not riding anymore,” he admitted. “I had to give that up after my last horse show at Upperville (VA) when my balance wasn’t what it used to be. But I will go out to the barn to see my mare, we’re very close. The baby, you know, she’s a yearling now, out in the Santa Ynez Valley growing up in a big pasture, and I was out in the field with her yesterday. I had been away for a couple of weeks and it was really nice to see her.”
Ah, the perils of growing older. I told him I hadn’t been on stage in 25 years since I couldn’t remember lines anymore. “Well I can relate to that!” he laughed. “Of course that happens all the time, you know a name you can’t remember (…beat….beat….beat…) and then it comes to you as you sit bold upright in bed at two o’clock in the morning and say: “That’s who that was!”
We also compared notes on Warner Brothers, where I was working in the company’s publicity department in Manhattan as Tab was making films in Hollywood. “All those studio pr departments were amazing, they built careers back then,” he noted. Indeed they did. In Tab Hunter Confidential we see just how that feat is accomplished, and also how it limits an actor’s ability to chart his own course.
“I am thrilled the film is now on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes and the positive reception it has received. It’s all Allan’s fault this movie was made in the first place. Allan just asked what I wanted to put together in this story of what I call ‘The Journey.’ He did about 60 interviews but there are only about 20 of them in the documentary.” A lot of material was not able to make it from the book the film is based on, and some marvelous recollections were undoubtedly left on the cutting room floor. “Jeffrey Schwartz did a wonderful job of editing it,” says Tab, and there is not a dull moment in the whole film.
“There were things we should have put in it that we didn’t discuss, that were in the book Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Algonquin Books 2006), but we just didn’t have the time. I would have liked to have included the whole story of the ill-fated Broadway production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here, the Tennessee Williams play with Tallulah Bankhead. It would have been wonderful but when you only have a limited about of time there is only so much one can do.
About the pain of opening up to everyone: “It was toughest for the book, so when Allan came back to it years later, I said ‘Oh, let sleeping dogs lie,’ but I am glad I did it.” Their relationship survived the creative process.
“As to marriage, I keep asking him, and he keeps turning me down. In any case, I think marriage is between the two people who want to get married, and their maker. I’m a firm believer in that.”
Tab Hunter’s career was largely an accident. The actor was a true product of Hollywood, a movie star created from someone who mucked out stalls, a shy kid made even more so by the way his schoolmates―both girls and boys―reacted to his beauty, by a mother who provided for him in every way except emotionally, and by a secret that both tormented him and propelled him forward. “I was brought up by a very strict German mother and was taught that you never talk about ‘things’.
“I never discussed my sexuality with her. There was only one person in my life I was able to discuss anything with and that was a very influential man, Dick Clayton. He “discovered” me when I was indeed a simple stable boy, and was part of my family, and the only person I was comfortable with. I could discuss anything with him, and you know there are so few people in life like that. Dick was an amazing man, he was the agent for Jimmy Dean, Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, and a lot of other extraordinary people,” Tab relates. “He was both a decent human being and became the confessor and mentor that every young person needs. Mentors are very important. Dick Clayton’s favorite saying was “To thine own self be true.” Perhaps that is why I don’t like labels, people always want to label you as this or that, but to me we are all simply human beings.”
Clayton encouraged Hunter — then known as Arthur Andrew Gelien — to consider a career in acting and even set him up with the agent Henry Willson who added Tab to his stable of young, attractive clients, including Rock Hudson, Chad Everett, Robert Wagner, Nick Adams, Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, Mike Connors, Rory Calhoun, John Saxon, Yale Summers, Clint Walker, Doug McClure, Dack Rambo, Ty Hardin, and John Derek.
Willson helped his career along for a while, but “There would be no Tab Hunter if it were not for Dick Clayton.”
So what does Tab think about growing older? “It’s just part of the journey we are all on. And I am still learning, and hope to keep doing that until my last breath. As to a bucket list, I don’t want for anything, and just accept things as they are.”
Tab uses “The Journey” as his point of reference, it is part of his spiritual dimension. “The moment is nice, but even that has a beginning, a middle and an end. We all have that spiritual search, we can’t just sweep it under the carpet, and unfortunately society today seems to have done that a great deal. Turning somber, he noted that the killings at Pulse in Orlando were appalling.
“Yet it’s a wonderful time for all of us, even though there are a lot of miserable things happening. Somewhere in every pile of crap there is the pony.”
Summing up his years on stage, on screen and in front of the television cameras, Tab recalled that “At the end of my main film career I had some difficult times, and thank God for John Waters who put me in Polyester which was a shot in the arm for me. It’s all about survival and don’t think that we can’t be bitter about it but just go on, and hopefully learn from this adventure.
“You know, we missed John by two days when I was in P-Town, and he just sent me a note. What a nice man he is. I am crazy about him. I wish that we could have gotten him to direct our film, Lust in the Dust. He would have understood it so much better than Paul Bartel,” he mused. (Waters turned it down because he did not write the script.)
On kissing Divine: “While on the set you are in the moment doing your job,” but he says, “Harris Glenn Milstead (Divine’s real name) is one of my favorite leading ladies, right up there with Sophia Loren and Geraldine Page. Take him out of his wardrobe and he was like a big beached whale. As a person he was quite wonderful, and he was very, very serious about his work.”
And the same is true about Tab Hunter, he was wet behind the ears when he suddenly found himself a film star, but like so many of us, Tab is a workaholic who learned the craft and became an accomplished actor, horseman and long time partner to the love of his life.
Even for a retired actor at 85, life can be good.