When I talked to actor Tab Hunter on the phone, he was so effusive in his love for the Santa Barbara area that I suggested that he should get a job as the spokesman for the city’s tourism office, to which he joked that he could be a greeter for the cruise ships that visit town.
But at 84 years young, Hunter is busy with other things, so the cruise ship greeter gig will have to wait. He is currently promoting his latest movie, a documentary called “Tab Hunter Confidential”, which like his autobiography with the same name tells his incredible story inside and outside of Hollywood. The documentary will screen on Thursday, November 19 at the Granada Theatre, with Tab Hunter himself in attendance. Tickets are available here.
If you’re too young (or too old) to remember, Hunter was a big-time movie star in the 1950’s and beyond, with credits including Battle Cry and Damn Yankees, and, later, Polyester and Lust in the Dust. His co-stars included John Wayne, Lana Turner, Natalie Wood, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, Vincent Price, Divine, and many others. He was also a music star – in fact, his recording of “Young Love” knocked Elvis off the top of the charts in 1957.
But, perhaps foremost, Hunter was a Hollywood heartthrob, one of the biggest of the 1950’s. The plot twist is that his legions of female fans were unaware that he was actually gay, living a secret life that threatened to shatter his popularity.
This interview was done by phone on 11/9/15.
Tab Hunter: Actually my partner Allan [Glaser] did the documentary. He got me to to do the book because he heard that somebody was going to be doing a book on me, and he said, “I think you should do one.” I thought, “Who would want to read a book on me?” Finally, I thought about it and he talked about it, and I thought, “OK, OK, I’ll do it.” You know, get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass when I’m dead and gone.
And then what happened, Allan said, “I want to do a documentary based on your book.” So that’s what we did. It took him two or three years to talk me into doing that, because you have to be on camera and you have to talk, and do all that. He hired our director and got all the stuff together, and decided to do the documentary. I figured, what the heck.
It’s wonderful, because it gives you an insight into a Hollywood that never will be again. I was a part of the end of that studio system that so many people were a part of, but it’s a different ballgame today. It’s a whole new business. I don’t understand it.
TH: I knew my journey pretty well. The surprise has been the way it’s been accepted. I mean, the documentary, my gosh! Rotten Tomatoes has got us up in the 90% range, which is unbelievable, compared with these big blockbuster films that are out there. I was very, very impressed with that. And the reception’s been really interesting, because no matter where we are, it’s always nice to hear, “Gee, I was a big fan of yours.” I say, “Thank you very much. If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have been working.” [laughs]
JM: Is there anything that you left out that you now wish you could’ve put in?
TH: You know, Jeff, you can’t put everything from the book into the documentary. It’s like Darryl Zanuck said years ago at Fox, he would buy a best seller and he would make it into a movie, but you just can’t put everything into that amount of time. It’s a 93 minute documentary. I’m sorry we had to leave out something like the play I did on Broadway, the Tennessee Williams play [The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore] with Tallulah Bankhead. I mean, my gosh, that was pretty colorful. I would love to have had that in there, and a couple of other things, but we just didn’t have the time to do that.
JM: It’s incredible the read about the number of actors or actresses that you worked with or you knew over the years. I want to ask you about two of them, if that’s OK. First, James Dean. What was James Dean like?
TH: Well, Jimmy I knew rather well because we had the same agent. My agent Dick Clayton was the one who brought Jimmy out from New York, and was the only person at the studio you could talk to to get to Jimmy. Because Jimmy was very away from the Hollywood stuff.
I first met him, I think, when he was doing Rebel [Without a Cause]. Dick Clayton went out to the set, he had some papers for him to sign, so I went out with him. I used to see him on the set when I was doing Battle Cry. He used to come out and sit on my dressing room steps, and we’d sit and talk. And then, of course, he was going with Ursula Andress at the time, who’s no slouch – not by a longshot.
TH: Well, Divine is one of my favorite leading ladies [laughs]. I put him right up there with Sophia Loren, Geraldine Page, Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds. I’ve got to tell you, Divine was just a great character. You put him in his drag and he had sparks flying, but you take him out of it and he was just the gentlest person. He was like a big beached whale. He was a lovely person.