Today we know that Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter had a secret. While he was working hard to become an actor appreciated for more than his looks, he was a gay man living in the closet, and that fact would have destroyed his career if it became common knowledge. It would have shattered his all-American boy image that peddled teenybopper magazines, records, and the periodic picture. The documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, an adaptation of the same-titled memoir, tastefully and lovingly tells his life story with a heavy focus on his performing career. The movie opened the 2015 California Independent Film Festival, the first time in the festival’s eighteen years a documentary was awarded that spot, at a sold out New Rheem Theatre.
The Lamorinda-area crowd skewed older, and a great number of Tab Hunter’s peers and original fans were in attendance. During the screening, they gasped when later studio-era stars’ images from their heyday were flashed onscreen. I detected in the outbursts a mixture of reactions–admiration of beauty, recognition, and youth briefly recaptured. When idols were shown aged while discussing the past, much of the audience momentarily murmured as they discussed with their seatmates performers’ appearances. One of the loudest reactions came from the revelation that actress Dolores Hart had become a nun. Viewing the movie with such a vocal group added to my fun!
I wasn’t well-versed in Hunter’s story before the movie, and I was more familiar with his revival period films, like Polyester and Grease 2, than his “glory era” flicks, but I emerged from the screening impressed with his attitude and what he accomplished in his life.
His German immigrant mother fled an abusive relationship and raised her two sons as a single mother. This would result in Hunter’s first name change. He was born Arthur Kelm, but his mother had the whole family revert to her maiden name Gelien. Finances were tight for the family, and Arthur Gelien started working at a young age. He was shovelling manure at a stable when he got word a film was being made nearby. He wandered over to watch the proceedings, and a chat with one of the actors, Dick Clayton, led to an introduction to agent Henry Willson, who specialized in representing pretty beefcake types. Willson invented Gelien’s third name. When Hunter rejected Troy Donahue as a potential moniker, Willson and Hunter agreed on Tab Hunter, a name inspired by the actor’s love of horses. A hunter is a type of competition show horse.
He soon landed his first lead role, Island of Desire (1952), co-starring Linda Darnell. The stranded-on-a-deserted island plot meant that Hunter didn’t wear much in the part, and he photographed well, but he acted poorly. His embarrassment didn’t discourage him. He was determined to become a better actor and score better parts, but his studio Warner Brothers was content to market him as “The Sigh Guy.”
There was repetition in the roles the studio assigned him. He was often cast as the younger love interest of an older or slightly older women (Island of Desire), as a soldier (The Sea Chase, Lafayette Escadrille, and The Girl He Left Behind), as a cowboy ( The Burning Hills, Gunman’s Walk, Gun Belt, and Track of the Cat), or some mixture of the other roles (Battle Cry and That Kind of Woman). He usually played the male lead and love interest and almost always the good guy. Gunman’s Walk gave him the chance to stretch his acting and play a villain, and he’d get a further chance to try edgier roles on TV like in Playhouse 90‘s live episode Portrait of a Murderer (1958).
Hunter had been a singer in his church choir, and to expand his career options, he cut a single for Dot Records called Young Love (1957). Unexpectedly it became a hit on the U.S. charts and knocked Elvis Presley‘s Too Much out of the number one spot. Young Love held the spot for six weeks. It fared even better in the U.K. where it was top of the charts for twelve weeks. Jack Warner was furious! He had Hunter under an exclusive contract, but Warner Brothers had no recording division, not since it sold off Brunswick Records. Warner’s releases were being licensed to other companies’ record labels, something that Jack Warner had been pressured to change by his executives. Hunter’s hit was the catalyst that caused Jack Warner to finally form Warner Bros. Records, and while Hunter never had such a big hit again, he steadily recorded for the label, and his singing inspired Warner to buy Damn Yankees‘ (1958) screen rights for the star.
Hunter’s career had survived an attempted outing by Confidential in 1955. He had left agent Willson to be represented by Dick Clayton. The former actor had become an agent, and Hunter was more comfortable working with Clayton, whom Hunter trusted more. Willson’s client Rock Hudson was going to be exposed by Confidential unless Willson could make a deal. In exchange for Confidential dropping their Hudson story, Willson gave them stories on Hunter and Rory Calhoun. In 1950, Hunter had been arrested for disorderly conduct after leaving a pajama party attended by homosexuals. Calhoun had kept secret the time he had served in prison. Neither man’s career suffered. The public didn’t seem to care what Confidential implied about Hunter, maybe they didn’t believe its claim, and Calhoun’s bad boy reputation and roles were further enhanced.
Jack Warner assured Hunter the incident would soon fade, and Hunter understood the role he was to play on and offscreen. The studio arranged dates for him, usually his latest co-star, and they would go out to functions together. Hunter enjoyed the dates. Even if he wasn’t interested romantically or sexually in the women he escorted, he had fun going with beautiful women to night clubs, parties, and premieres. He especially loved spending time with Natalie Wood, whom he adored like a “little sister.” Natalie never asked him why he never initiated anything romantic with her. They both knew they were out to promote their films and careers. Hunter remarked once they were done being photographed, they’d exit from the rear of a venue, and she’d run off to meet Dennis Hopper, and he’d go off to meet his real date. Debbie Reynolds was another beard, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t know Hunter was gay back then, but she had fun going out with him to events. “He wasn’t on the make, and women like that.”
Living in a time more conservative and traditional about sexual preference and identities and working in a field where he was required to present a very specific image of manhood, Hunter compartmentalized his life. He didn’t let his career prevent him from becoming involved with men, but he didn’t talk about being gay (a word he wouldn’t have known back then), or having lovers or boyfriends, and his studio didn’t ask him about his private life. They would protect him as long as he played his part and was a valuable commodity. Being raised by a strict, traditional German mother, he viewed his private life as something to be kept private whatever his sexual orientation was. In a story shared at the screening, he talked about how he never came out to her, but he’s sure she knew. After a romance with Anthony Perkins ended, she asked her son why she never saw Perkins anymore, and when Hunter explained they had drifted apart as friends, his mother thought for a moment and replied, “I’ve never been in love.”
Three things other than Hunter’s sexuality ended his early film career. The studio put him in lesser quality films as the sixties went on. Nothing can hurt a career worse than inferior product. The type of films and roles became an issue. The public’s tastes changed. Leading men were becoming more complicated and less wholesome as American counterculture influenced the movies. Hunter seemed like a throwback to an earlier era as stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson became popular. The biggest blow to Hunter’s career was a strategic move that backfired. Unhappy with the films Warner Brothers was putting him in, he bought his contract and became a freelancer. Film work, good or bad, became even harder to get. He went to Europe and shot spaghetti westerns.
When John Waters contacted him for Polyester, Hunter was performing in American dinner theatre, and he was game to take a risk and spoof his former screen image. He treated Waters and Divine with respect, and Waters said Hunter made his part work by never winking at the camera and romancing Divine onscreen as he had his more famous leading ladies like Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren. Hunter’s gamble paid off, and he not only got offers and hired for roles (Grease 2), but also he went into producing, and that led to him meeting his life partner, Allan Glaser. After some health issues like a heart attack and stroke, Hunter retired from performing, even though he could have continued working. He decided that he was done with acting, and he settled back into private life.
What motivated someone like Hunter to tell his life story? He heard somebody else was writing his biography, and he knew since it was unauthorized they’d be able to write whatever they liked, true or not, and not in the way he would. In the film and in interviews, he says, “Why not get it from the horse’s mouth, instead of some horse’s ass after I’m gone?” He co-wrote his memoir with Eddie Muller first, and later Hunter’s partner convinced him to turn it into a movie. While Hunter doesn’t seem comfortable being a gay rights spokesperson, he does seem happy having his career recognized and being accepted by his fans. During the question and answer session post-screening, he told one laudatory gay man, “I don’t understand you young people,” and he went on to say but if you get something from my story then I’m glad.