Before Brad Pitt, Nick Jonas, and Justin Bieber, there was Tab Hunter.
In the 1950s, Tab Hunter was Hollywood’s all-American boy and the ultimate male heartthrob. He was nicknamed “The Sigh Guy” by the Hollywood machine. With his boy-next-door persona, Californian charm, and blonde-haired, blue-eyed, surfer-boy good looks, Tab trailblazed his way into the hearts of every tween and teenage girl in America.
But throughout his years of matinee idolization and Hollywood super-stardom, Tab Hunter had a secret: He was gay.
In 1955, the same year that Tab Hunter became one of Hollywood’s top young romantic leads after starring as young Marine Danny in the WWII drama and No. 1 box office hit Battle Cry, the scandal rag Confidential reported Tab’s 1950 arrest for disorderly conduct, tying it to his rumored homosexuality.
When asked about what exactly was going through his mind at the time, Hunter told The Gaily Grind, “When Confidential first came out with that story insinuating I was gay, I thought my career was over. Back then even a whisper of something like that could destroy a career. Fortunately for me not only didn’t it hurt my career [but also] I was voted “most promising new personality of the year” by the movie going audiences across the country a month after that article was published.”
From 1955 through 1959, Tab Hunter was Warner Bros.’ top money-grossing star. He even rocked the music industry, with his 1957 hit record song “Young Love,” which was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks. Even beating out Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll himself.
By the 1960s, however, the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, the studio system declined, and as a result, Tab Hunter’s career took a severe hit and was forever changed. With the rise of television and no major film offers coming his way, he starred in his own series The Tab Hunter Show (1960), which was canceled after one season, failing to compete with CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show.
But Tab Hunter was able to do something that many teen idols were and are not able to do: revive their careers.
His career was revived when he co-starred with Divine in John Water’s Polyester (1981) and again in Lust in the Dust (1985). “Loved working with John Waters in POLYESTER. He single handedly resurrected my career,” Hunter told The Gaily Grind. “He introduced me to a whole new audience. John had/has a wicked sense of humor and is a master of the kind of films he writes and directs. Of course I came from the studio system with big budgeted films and months of shooting time. John’s movies were filmed in a couple of weeks and had almost no budget. You learn to adjust.”
In his 2005 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, Hunter came out as gay and wrote what Publisher Weekly called, “a brave, surprising and sad memoir about depression (his mother’s), repression (his homosexuality) and redemption (a career revival and meeting his partner of 20-plus years).”
Now, Tab Hunter’s inspiring life story and New York Times best-selling memoir has become a very insightful piece of hidden Hollywood history and a highly entertaining documentary feature directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine), who in a Press-Telegram interview said, “I wanted to introduce Tab to a new generation. His story is very relevant. People are still struggling with their sexuality.”
Tab Hunter Confidential is now on DVD and Blu-ray, featuring John Waters, Clint Eastwood, George Takei, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Portia de Rossi, Noah Wyle, Connie Stevens, Robert Osborne, and dozens more.
Here’s the rest of The Gaily Grind’s exclusive interview with the one and only Tab Hunter:
When you were a teenager, what did you do for fun?
I spent all of my time at the barn. I was horse crazy. And that’s where I was discovered for the movies..mucking out a horse stall.
What got you into equestrianism?
My brother. He loved to ride and as young kid and I did everything he’d do. He left the horses and went on to other things but I stuck with the horse. It’s been a lifelong passion of mine.
Why did you lie about your age to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard? Did you have a nickname in the military?
I lied about my age to enlist in the Coast Guard to get away from my situation at school. I had a posse of girls following me around in school which grew weekly (I discuss it in the documentary). Being naturally shy it made life difficult. I also had wanderlust and wanted to see the world. My nickname while in the Coast Guard was “Hollywood”. Because I was always going to movie theaters to see films on liberty instead of bars etc.
Did you always want to become an actor? When did you first know that you wanted to become an actor?
I did not always want to become an actor. I wanted to be a horse trainer. However when I was 14 an agent Dick Clayton discovered me at the stable in Glendale and convinced me to give acting a try. Once I started down that road there was no turning back for me.
Do you think hiding your sexuality made you a better actor?
Hiding my sexuality didn’t make me a better actor but it did afford me opportunities to become a romantic lead that I would have not have gotten in the homophobic 1950’s otherwise. Remember being gay in the 1950’s was not only against the law it was considered a mental disease.
What has been your favorite role(s) you played so far and why?
I have three favorite roles, THAT KIND OF WOMAN with Sophia Loren directed by Sydney Lumet, GUNMAN’S WALK with Van Heflin and the t.v film PORTRAIT OF A MURDERER with Geraldine Page. The two latter I played against type…both were murderers. For someone who was always cast in “boy next door” movies it was a treat to be given those kinds of roles. For THAT KIND OF WOMAN it was the first time I shot a film on location with a New York director and an international movie star (Sophia). Quite a heady experience.
Do you think an openly gay actor can be as huge today as Tab Hunter was in the 50’s? What advice would you give to young gay actors today?
I would like to say yes but I really don’t think so. Show me an actor who is a feature film star that is a romantic lead who has come out as gay and starring in motion pictures. I don’t mean a tv star, or Broadway star etc., I’m talking a full fledged romantic male lead who carries a picture. I can’t think of any. Nothing has changed on that count since I was a star. Hollywood can be very hypocritical. A town run by gay men who at this time still wouldn’t cast an “out” gay man in a lead. I’m sure it’ll change eventually but not in my lifetime.
My advice to young gay actors?
Be true to yourself.
Do you feel differently about yourself now from how you felt when you were in the closet?
Not really. I never thought my personal life was anybody else business to begin with. Though I was closeted I never hid the truth from myself. So I really didn’t become a different person when I revealed “my secret” which I might add was the worst kept secret in Hollywood.
What can you tell us about your partner Allan Glaser?
Allan is a very talented producer and has a keen sense of humor. We’re total opposites but get along so well. Guess opposites do attract. Allan & I have been together for 33 years. I can’t imagine life without him. He’s not only has produced all of our projects all these years he’s the one who talked me into writing my autobiography and doing the documentary. I have a great relationship with Allan and am grateful he is in my life.
Do anything special for your 85th birthday?
Allan & I went to see my horse and then had dinner together. Simple, uncomplicated..the way I like it.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice for living?
Geraldine Page told me something once that I never forgot. We were appearing in a film together and on our lunch break we were talking about critics. I said “Gerry, you can do no wrong. The critics love whatever you do. They hate my guts. There is nothing I can do that they don’t criticize or like.” She took hold of my hand and said “Just remember this Tab, If people don’t like you it’s their bad taste”
I never forgot that and I pass that on to everyone. If people don’t like you that’s their problem not yours. Just go down the road the best you can and don’t care what others think.