Fifties heartthrob Tab Hunter talks about being gay, his affair with Anthony Perkins, and much, much more.
The following interview took place in 2005, while Hunter was promoting his book Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which has now been made into a film.
See Tab Hunter and his partner, Allan Glaser, in person at the screening of the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on July 26, 2015.
By Blase DiStefano
My interview with Tab Hunter was scheduled during the time of Hurricane Rita. For the rescheduled interview, I called Tab Hunter at 9:30 a.m., Houston time. I had the time zones mixed up and didn’t realize I was actually calling him at 7:30 a.m., his time. He said, “I thought the interview was later. Here it is…let me get my glasses. It’s a bitch when you can’t see those things.”
While he was looking for the schedule, I realized my mistake and was mortified. I said, “So, if it’s 9:30 here, it’s 7:30 there?!”
“Well, I’m always up by 6 anyway. I take my dogs out to pee at 7.”
I mention this because it tells you a lot about the kind of person Tab Hunter is. Not only did it not faze him that I called him that early, but he wanted to know if it would help me to do the interview before he went to his exercise class.
Tab Hunter’s name on his birth certificate is Male Kelm (his father, Charles Kelm, left before his newborn baby even had a name), which his mother changed to Art Gelien (pronounced Guh-LEEN). But Gelien wasn’t exactly a show business name. “C’mon, we’ve got to tab him something,” said Tab’s agent, Henry Willson, in a conference about promoting his young client. “Hey, that’s not bad. Tab.” He asked Hunter what he liked to do, if he had any hobbies. Tab’s friend Dick Clayton answered for him, “He loves horses. Rides hunters and jumpers.”
“There we go,” Willson said. “Tab Hunter.”
Hunter hated it, but consoled himself that it might have been Tab Jumper.
Hunter’s first starring role at 19 years old was opposite Linda Darnell in Island of Desire in 1952. He became the “Sigh Guy” (a moniker Hunter hated, along with “Swoon Bait”) and went on to star in more than 50 films, including Battle Cry, Damn Yankees, They Came to Cordura, Ride the Wild Surf, The Loved One, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
He had a # 1 song (“Young Love”) in 1956, was nominated for an Emmy in 1958 for his performance opposite Geraldine Page in a Playhouse 90 episode, starred in his own television series in 1960, and appeared on Broadway in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
In 1981, he starred opposite Divine in John Waters’ Polyester and later teamed up with now-boyfriend Allan Glaser to produce Lust in the Dust (in which he starred with Divine in 1985).
Even though he is very private, the 74-year-old actor has written his autobiography (with co-author Eddie Muller), Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. So why write about yourself if you don’t like the spotlight? A few years ago Hunter’s partner, Allan Glaser, told him that someone was planning an unauthorized bio and that it would probably wind up being “nothing but National Enquirer stories.” “Who wants to read a book about Tab Hunter?” Hunter asked. Glaser answered, “A lot of people.” So Hunter decided it would be “better to get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass.”
Hunter and Glaser live in Montecito, California, with a number of dogs and horses.
Blase DiStefano: Is the timing a little better?
Tab Hunter: Yes. Perfect. I finished with my walk, I finished with my breakfast, I finished with a couple of other scheduled interviews, so no problem.
What was the exercise class you were going to?
Actually, this morning I went to my aerobics class.
So you do aerobics?
Well, I only stay for a half hour.
At least you get some exercise.
That and taking the dogs to the beach and going to the barn occasionally and working in the yard, I get enough exercise.
That’s really good. When you have a job like mine, sitting at a computer all day…
Then you have to force yourself.
I keep trying.
Same here. At least you get an A for trying.
Thank you. Sorry I had to reschedule, but because of Rita, we were running way behind. Luckily it passed us by.
I was watching it very closely.
I brought it up, because I know you were in a hurricane in Jamaica when you were making Island of Desire. And I wondered if you remembered much about the hurricane itself.
One of the things I remember is that it hit the other side of the island. We were in Ocho Rios at a place called the Shaw Park Hotel, which is at the top of a hill. I do remember the press went to Linda Darnell after the hurricane and asked how she weathered the hurricane. She said, “I weathered it with a prayer and a bottle of scotch.” [Both laugh]
The only other hurricane I was near was when I had done a play in New Orleans, and after we left, Camille hit. I happened to go back after that, and I went down to Gulfport, Pass Christian, and walked the beach. It just broke my heart when I saw what had happened.
I know Island of Desire was your first starring role. How did you get the part?
Through a wonderful man named Paul Guilfoyle, who was a terrific character actor. He lived in the Valley and he used to do casting for films. But he was one of those Broadway actors who came out to Hollywood and always played a mousy killer. Paul knew that I was in the Coast Guard, under age, and this was a role of an under-age kid in the service. So he told me there was a role I might really be good for and he told my agent, and that’s how it all came about.
Didn’t the infamous “gay pajama party” happen before Island of Desire?
Oh, yeah. But it wasn’t even a pajama party…
The tabloids have a way with words.
I walked in and could see it was mainly a gay party. I went Oh God—I find them kinda boring. So I walked to the refrigerator and in walked the cops, and that was it. The worst thing that happened is the way Henry Willson [Tab’s agent] sold Rory Calhoun and me to Confidential magazine to save Rock [Hudson], which I thought was kind of sad. But you know why he did that? I left him. He was my agent, and when my great friend Dick Clayton finally became an agent, of course I went with him. Dick was like my brother, like my father, my mentor.
How do you think the tabloids of today compare with those in the ’50s?
They’re just as despicable, if not worse. But people love all that stuff. That’s what’s so sad. You build a career, and just as quickly as they’ll build it and get on your bandwagon, they’ll hop off it and tear it apart.
That’s why basically I’ve always been a really private person. Just get on with your life. Remember what Geraldine Page said, “If people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.”
How long have you been in Houston?
I think about 30 years.
Wow. I haven’t been down there in many, many years.
You used to visit Houston?
Allan and I went there to talk to [actress] Gene Tierney when she was alive about getting the rights to her life, because it was such an interesting story. And I used to have some wonderful friends who lived in…what is that fancy area?
River Oaks. Yeah. They were wonderful, wonderful people. I used to go there occasionally.
I interviewed Debbie Reynolds a few years ago, and…
Oh my God. I ran into her a few years back, and I haven’t seen her in a long while. We were very friendly as kids.
She did mention you. Didn’t the two of you meet when the studio arranged for the two of you to date?
I don’t know if that was it. I really don’t remember how we met. But I used to see her a lot. She lived in Burbank with her family, and when she started making money, she put a swimming pool in her backyard, which took up the whole backyard. We used to play baseball with her mother’s biscuits ’cause they were so hard. [Both laugh] We used to go to the burlesque show in downtown Los Angeles. She was great fun, she really was. And we finally did a film together…The Pleasure of His Company.
You mentioned Henry Willson earlier. He had a reputation for his attraction to young, pretty boys. How did you deal with his come-ons?
I was just uncomfortable, and he understood that.
I think so, sure. Come on, Henry had his stable of people. And he discovered women, too. He discovered Rhonda Fleming, he discovered Lana Turner; Natalie [Wood] was one of his clients for a short while. One thing he would do I wasn’t crazy about—he would say to people, “If he won’t do for the role, I’ve got so and so, so and so, so and so,” so he wasn’t really that great for me. I mean Paul Guilfoyle got me Island of Desire, Merv Griffith was the one who actually told me about Battle Cry, and Dick Clayton sent me there for the interview.
How long were you with Henry?
I was with Henry for the first few years of my career. I think he did get me The Lawless, which was a film that Joe Losey directed in 1949. I had one line, “Hi, Fred,” and it wound up on the cutting-room floor.
[Laughs] Yeah, “Thank you, Henry.” Did you consider yourself gay at the time? Did you know?
The word was never around in the ’50s. I knew my sexual orientation. I was very fearful, because I’m a very private person.
My mother certainly instilled that in my brother and me when we were very young. One of her favorites was “nothing for show,” so I wound up in show business.
When I interviewed Tony Curtis, we were talking about homosexuality and his early days in Hollywood. I said, “As beautiful as you were, I’m assuming that you…,” and he interrupted me and said, “I had more action than Mount Vesuvius!”
[Laughs] Tony’s a great guy. He’s just right out there. He’s a really neat guy. He made no bones about the way he feels about everything. He’s really good about that.
Then I asked him, “So I guess both men and women put the make on you,” and he said, “Men, women, children, animals!” So was that what it was like to be physically beautiful in Hollywood back then, minus the children and animals?
[Laughs] Minus the children and animals, so get that dog off your leg. [Both laugh] My mother—I have to go back to her all the time—she was such an amazing and strong woman. And she never liked anything that was out there. She would say, “Those are all external things that people concern themselves with. Concern yourself with internal. What people are like as human beings.” She was pretty powerful.
You were really lucky to hear that.
I know. Those words were drummed into our heads. People would ask my mother, “Aren’t you proud of Tab?” And my mother would say, “Yes, it’s all very nice, but Walter’s the intelligent one.” [Both laugh] And it’s true. I was scared of my own shadow when I first started in the industry. And as a kid, I looked up to and respected my brother. He told me, “C’mon, you’ve got to come forward as a human being. You can’t just stand in the shadows.”
I guess it did take you a lot of time to get used to the adulation.
I never was comfortable with it. Some people are so wonderful the way they can accept compliments, and I respect them for being able to do that. I’ve always just felt awkward in those situations. I appreciate it, but I don’t place importance on it.
However, if I said, “You were excellent in that role.”
I would be thrilled to hear that. Or if I were showing one of my horses in competition, and they said, “God, that was so good, winning that class,” I would be excited because that is something horse and rider did together. Also, when compliments are coming your way, you have to consider how much of that is frosting on the cake and how much is reality. Take it with a grain of salt and evaluate who it’s coming from.
I’m assuming if someone were telling you that you were beautiful, it would be a lot different coming from Henry Willson than it would be from Ronnie Robertson [a figure skater who won silver medals at the Winter Olympics and the World Figure Skating Championships].
Wasn’t Ronnie Robertson your first relationship?
I don’t think it was my first relationship, but I knew Ronnie ’cause we skated together, and I tried to help him a little bit with his career. He was a fabulous skater, no question about it. He should have won the World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna.
Do you think the fact that he was gay may have had something to do with his not winning?
I don’t think so. We saw it recently with the judging in figure skating, but in those days school figures were a large percentage of your final score. But they don’t do them anymore.
Had you already known how to ice skate?
Yes. A friend had introduced me to skating. It was a lot of fun, and I met some fabulous people, just really wonderful people. In fact, I just got a call the other day from Kelly Albright. I don’t know if you remember her, but she was one of our great figure skaters, and she’s now a doctor back in Boston. It was such a pleasure to hear from Kelly again, ’cause she was one of my favorite people.
It’s nice to hear from people out of the past. Now back to Ronnie. How do you think his Catholic family would have reacted to the news that he was gay?
I have no idea. Those things were never discussed. I certainly didn’t want that discussed around me. I don’t know what happened with Ronnie and his family.
This might be a good time to ask you about your confession of gay sex to a priest.
I was only a kid at the time. It’s hard to remember back that far. But I know I just felt like I was the lowest thing on the Earth.
I can only say it’s all part of the journey of growing up. My life was more than my sexuality. I have been so fortunate to have the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the wonderful people I’ve worked with, the people I’ve met, the traveling—all the things combined have made the canvas a lot broader. And that’s what I tried to get across in this book. It’s not about my sexuality, but in a way it is, ’cause that’s such a major part of it. But let’s get on with our lives.
Part of it for me is to be able to let younger people know we can say that we’re gay without feeling like we have to hide it, that we feel bad about it, because so many kids today, even today, they’re committing suicide over it.
I know, and that’s tragic. I think it’s all in how things are done. I don’t like anything that is in your face, the flamboyance—all those kind of things bother me. I remember talking to Geraldine Page when we were doing “Portrait of a Murderer” [in an episode of Playhouse 90], and I remember saying, “Gerry, you’re so lucky—people adore you, you can make no mistakes. The press just crucifies me.” She grabbed hold of my arm and said, “Tab, just remember this, if people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.” I said, “Gerry, I will never forget that.” And I want to pass this on to everyone I can think of. We’re not here to win a popularity contest. We’re here to grow as human beings and be the best human beings we possibly can, and if people don’t get your message, that’s their problem.
But what’s important is to let kids know that.
But I just don’t think people have to be in your face with, “This is me and this is how I have to be.” I don’t like anything that’s showy. It just rubs me the wrong way.
I truly do understand. But I also see the other side, because when I was growing up, I felt absolutely horrible, thoughts about suicide all the time, because I was gay, and I simply didn’t know what to do about that.
My mother—can I go back to her?—she was a pretty brilliant woman, she really was. But when I would talk about this, she would go, “You have to be distinct. You have to be individual. Remember, the masses are asses.” She was an amazing woman.
Speaking of amazing women, what was it like working with Natalie Wood?
Well, Nat, I knew her at that wonderful transitional period of her life. I first met her when she was 13 years old at a March of Dimes parade. She was like a little filly—she was like a little girl and she was a young woman. One moment she’d be like a young girl and the next moment she was a young woman. She had her 18th birthday when we were doing The Burning Hills. I have a picture of her across my knee spanking her for her birthday. And then later I did the same thing with her daughter.
She was a wonderful actress, and she was very serious about her career. She wanted to be a movie star and she was.
And she did it well. Wasn’t it about this time that you met Anthony Perkins?
Let’s see, when did I meet Tony? All I remember was I was coming back from the barn and it was hot, so I went by the Chateau Marmont [for a swim], and that’s when I was introduced to him.
Was your relationship with him at all public? Did some journalists know but not say anything?
I don’t know what people thought. I didn’t want to hear the negative. If negative was said, I pushed it from my mind. That’s what I was always taught. I was full of denial.
What was Anthony Perkins like?
Tony was complex. Tony was very bright. He had an amazing sense of humor, just wonderful and dry. He was sheepish in many ways, and he had a mischievous air about him, and he was talented. But we both had careers we were working on at that time. Of course, he was off in Australia doing a film and France doing a film, and he was off in New York doing a play, and I was off on location here, location there. When people want to talk about it, yes, it was a wonderful time of my life, but you must remember this: those were a few threads in the tapestry of my life.
Didn’t your relationship last two years?
About two or three.
Back then—Debbie Reynolds talked to me about this—about how the studios would arrange dates.
If they had a film coming out and so and so was under contract. They were trying to build Natalie and myself at Warner Bros. She had just finished Rebel Without a Cause, I had just been voted most “God knows what,” so they said, Great, we need to find a picture for them. So they blew the dust off The Burning Hills, threw us into that, and started the publicity wheels grinding forward. We did the Louis Lamour novel where Natalie played a half-Mexican with the worst accent you ever heard. The best thing in the film was my horse. [Both laugh]
But Debbie’s right—the studios arranged dates, but the studios were out to build people. The studios were totally different than they are now. It was the end of the studio era—how lucky to be a part of all that. But then they had to get rid of their theaters, television was coming in strong, movie audiences were changing, they were making movies for younger people—all these things added to the demise of the studio system.
Today, it is so different. Now it’s all…
Corporation. Back then, one person conducted his own symphony. You’re not going to tell Harry Cohn how to make a film, not by a long shot.
In 1957, you had a hit record [“Young Love”]. Had you ever taken singing lessons?
Well, I used to sing in the choir at church. I always loved to sing. My mother encouraged me to sing. So when that came about, Natalie and I were on tour in Chicago when Howard Miller told me about Randy Wood at Dot Records and said, “I think you should meet with Randy Wood. If you can carry a tune, you might be able to work together on recording something.” That’s how that came about.
Then Warners refused to let me record because that was Dot, and Warners had me under contract for everything but the blood in my veins. The record had gone through the roof and Warners took their sweet time, but they finally formed Warner Brothers Records, and I’m one of the first people on that label.
You almost invented Warner Brothers Records!
In a way it seems kind of funny. Warner said, “Wait a minute, where’s all that money? Look at all that money that’s going to Dot.” So they put a stop to that right away, and they came to some kind of agreement with Randy and then started putting together Warner Brothers Records.
So then came A Summer Place [starring Troy Donahue].
I didn’t do that.
I know. I’m teasing.
That’s quite all right. I have to tell you a funny story. I’m standing in an elevator in Florida during my dinner theater period, and this woman looks at me and she goes, “ I know you,” and she starts snapping her fingers, and she looks at me and I look at her, and I go “Troy Donahue,” and she goes, “That’s it.” [Both laugh]
I told the story to Troy later. But he used to love to add, “Yeah, but I’m the straight one.” [Both laugh] But it’s interesting that he had Henry Willson for an agent for a while. No comment, no comment. [Both laugh]
Didn’t Troy Donahue later come to you and ask about working together on a book about Willson?
Yes, he did. That was odd.
And Troy Donahue married Suzanne Pleshette.
Suzy was very good. I worked with her on my television series. She’s a good actress and full of hell.
I heard that she has the dirtiest mouth in the business.
[Laughs] She’s pretty out there, let’s put it that way.
I know she was in your show, but did you ever date her, too?
I dated her once or twice. I don’t really remember. I went on a lot of dates and I loved going out. My gosh, a kid thrown in the business, meeting all these people. If someone is going to say, “Do you want to go to the Academy Awards” or “Do you want to go to such and such a premiere…
What, are you going to say “No”?
You might after you’ve had your fill of it. But when you’re a wide-eyed kid going, “Oh my God,” you go for those things.
Didn’t you date Tuesday Weld?
Odd that you should bring up Tuesday’s name, because I just saw Tuesday a few months ago. Whenever she’d come to town, she’d rent a friend’s house, or she’d stay there if he was there. My friend told me that Tuesday was in New Mexico and that she would love to hear from me. I was going to New Mexico, so I called her and we had dinner. We sat and had margaritas and sat and talked. It was wonderful seeing her, it really was.
She hasn’t made a movie in too damn long.
I know. She’s a really remarkable woman. She doesn’t like the public eye—I can relate to that. She’s a very private person. She’s thinking of buying a little place in New Mexico, way out in the middle of nowhere. I said, “Tuesday, we’re getting older; you need to be close to a doctor or a hospital, a market, or something.” She is a lot of fun. We had a damn good time. It was great touching base with her again after all these years.
Were you ever tempted to do a Diane Varsi and just walk away? [Diane Varsi was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Lana Turner’s daughter in the 1957 film Peyton Place and was being compared to Marlon Brando and James Dean. She walked away from Hollywood in 1959.]
Yes, I was. I was going to give it all up and go train horses in Virginia.
I know you dated Diane Varsi.
I did. I liked Diane. She was very quiet, a very private person. Very nice gal. The Garbo type—I vant to be alone. She had problems with people wanting to know more about her life.
You worked with Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway. Was she your most difficult co-star to work with?
Probably was. The sad thing is when you have a God-given gift—and she did—and you dissipate it, I think that’s almost unforgivable. That’s tragic. Here was this amazing, amazing woman, amazing actress, and then she started playing to her audience, and she became a caricature of herself. There’s some funny, funny stories of Tallulah, but it’s not about funny stories about people, it’s about the human being. We’re supposed to grow till the day we die.
And some people stop before they die.
Very true. Three important things—and I talk about this in the book—are mental, physical, and spiritual growth. I think number one is spiritual growth, and we can’t lose sight of those things.
If you don’t get it, I don’t know how many people can actually tell you about it.
That’s between you and some higher power that’s beyond. That’s a personal thing. There are so many people who are quick to condemn and criticize, and I say let the person without sin cast the first stone. I don’t have to account for my life to you. There’s only one person that my life’s accountable to.
Tell me about writing the book.
The trip of writing this book—the journey—has been really interesting A lot of it was very difficult, and a lot of it was just fun. Just a wonderful rehash.
Having rehashed it, can you now name your favorite three leading ladies?
Well, I would have to say Geraldine Page, I would have to say Sophia Loren, and I would have to say Natalie.
Apparently, your fourth favorite leading lady would be Divine.
[Laughs] I can’t forget Divine, of course. You’re right. When John Waters called me up to do Polyester, he introduced himself and talked about his work, and I said, “I know your work. I love Mondo Trasho.” He said, “How would you feel about kissing a 300-pound transvestite?” I said, “I’ve kissed a lot worse.” [Both laugh] John’s great, he’s just right off the wall.
Do you think if Divine had lived, you might have been the next Tracy and Hepburn?
[Laughs] I don’t think anyone can be Tracy and Hepburn.
Were there any movies with Divine in the works?
We did have a movie we wanted to do together that we talked about called James Blonde, where Divine would have played seven different femme fatales. It was only in the planning stage.
But he died at that time, didn’t he?
Oh, God, it was so sad. I was skiing up in Vail and I heard the news on the radio, and I was “Oh, no.”
I thought the two of you were great together in both films.
Polyester was great fun because of John and Divine and John’s whole group, his troop. Lust was a baby of mine.
I know it was your idea, and didn’t you write it?
I wrote a lot of it, and then Philip Taylor did a wonderful job with the screenplay. It started out as The Reverend and Rosie and finally ended up as Lust in the Dust. I wanted Chita Rivera and Divine together, ’cause they would have looked like Mutt and Jeff. Chita was tied up on Broadway doing The Rink. Allan thought of Lainie Kazan, and I thought that was brilliant.
It turned out good even though I know you had problems with the director [Paul Bartel].
Yes, ’cause I wanted Divine in a Sam Peckinpah western.
Just the visual of that is wonderful. Didn’t you meet Allan at this time?
I met Allan at Fox Studios. I went there and talked to him about projects, and he loved the Lust in the Dust idea, and he single-handedly raised all the money for the film.
How long have the two of you been together?
I’ve known Allan 27 years [this interview took place in 2005, and they are still together in 2015].
Would you like to see your life made into a movie?
[Laughs] Now that’s an interesting question. There have been a few inquiries about it, which surprised me. Who knows? Like the alcoholic says, “One day at a time.”
When I was interviewing Shirley MacLaine, I asked her what she thought about marriage, and she just burst out laughing. Because she doesn’t think anything about marriage. And I asked specifically about gay marriage, and she said, “Why would anybody want to get married?”
[Laughs] That’s so Shirley.
You’ve never been married, have you?
No. I’ve been close a couple of times. But I couldn’t be honest with myself at that time about it, and with Joan Harvey [ex-wife of Harry Cohn and Laurence Harvey], she literally proposed to me two or three times. I love Joan—she was a fabulous woman. But she wasn’t right for me, and it wouldn’t have been right for her either.
I think it wouldn’t have been fair to either person.
Now you’re hitting on the four-letter word beginning with f that’s so important.
Let’s just say today that it’s legal, that everybody in the world can get married to anybody they want to. Would you marry Allan?
Are you saying you’re not a marriage person?
I think there’s a certain law and a certain order to everything in life. And I don’t believe that is in the order at this time.
If it was legal for two men to get married.
So you think it’s okay for a man and a woman to get married?
Yes, I do.
But not for a man and a man if it was legal?
The jury is still out on that.
Even if it was legal?
I just don’t know. I’m a very conservative person. I’m not a liberal, I’m conservative, and that’s the way I was brought up. [Update: In a reply to an email question sent to Hunter asking if his view had changed since our 2005 interview, he said, “If two people love each other, they should be able to marry no matter what their gender. I think it’s an important step forward.”]
Now here’s my last question, and it’s the most important question of all. Would you like to be reincarnated as a horse?
[Laughs] As long as I didn’t wind up as a hamburger in France.