One of the biggest screen idols of the 1950s and a singer whose number one chart hits occurred at the same time as his box office success, Tab Hunter superstar seemed to have it all before he was twenty five years old. Progressing from a stable boy on weekends and watching movies when he could afford the price of a ticket, at the age of nineteen Art Gelien was discovered by a Hollywood agent who transformed him into Tab Hunter and stardom awaited just around the corner.
The Warner Bros. Studio publicity machine kicked into high gear with their new “beefcake” discovery. Very soon Tab was appearing on-screen, off-screen and on every newsstand in North America accompanied by the biggest leading ladies of the day – including Debbie Reynolds, Natalie Wood, Sophia Loren and Tallulah Bankhead -while dealing with the reality of being gay in a time when the word did not even exist.
Amidst a secret relationship with Anthony (Psycho) Perkins plus friendships with James Dean and Rudolf Nureyev the life of this young number one box office attraction proved to be tumultuous. Fifty years later and now with his business and life partner, Allan Glaser, Tab keeps busy producing movies and riding his beloved horses on weekends. After recovering from quadruple heart by-pass surgery and a stroke he now lives in Santa Barbara, California.
In a career that included over fifty films, an equal number of singles and albums recorded, his own television show and numerous guest appearances on prime time series plus theater throughout North America, Tab Hunter became an icon.
Recently I caught up with Hunter at his Santa Barbara home for an exclusive interview in which he reflects upon his amazing career, the roller coaster ride which led to his contentment today.
HEALE: At an early age you discovered two great loves in your life, horses and movies. Is that still true today?
TAB HUNTER: I still enjoy horse riding on the weekends and I have a mare in Santa Fe that I will be bringing home to California soon for maybe some breeding. I’ve judged and showed around the world including Vancouver, B.C. and Calgary. I find this involvement raising and training horses has always given me a touch of reality in an unrealistic world. As for my love of the movies it’s hard to get films off the ground for an independent producer today but we’re currently working on a couple of good projects.
HEALE: Your career has spanned more then fifty years through many different phases. What was your overall favorite period?
TAB HUNTER: The most gratifying was live television. In the movies and taped T.V. shows you might repeat a scene several times till the director was happy. Sometimes over and over and over! But when it was live there was no second chance. It was frightening but the most rewarding. Plus in T.V. I worked with brilliant people like Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Montgomery and many talented actors.
HEALE: You are blessed with good looks, a great singing voice and a dynamic physique, how did you remain so grounded?
TAB HUNTER: Sometimes I was maybe not so grounded. I mean when you’re young it’s a constant struggle and you imagine everything will go on forever. Of course it doesn’t. As you mature you realize that it changes and you have to sort out the reality from the unreal.
HEALE: In your teenage years did you visualize yourself being rich and famous or did you expect to lead an ordinary life?
TAB HUNTER: I had no idea what was in store. I was always a dreamer. I loved motion pictures. My love of horses led to dreams of training them and winning top competitions. As I sat in the movie theater I dreamed of being up there on the big screen but not necessarily being a big star.
HEALE: The fact that you were a young gay man and enjoyed some freedom from responsibilities did this influence your goals or drive you to succeed?
TAB HUNTER: I always wanted a close family. It was very important for me to have a loving family. This meant I was living two lives, my movie life and my hidden life.
HEALE: Your friends during your early career included Anthony Perkins, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and your co-stars included John Wayne, Paul Newman, Sophia Loren and many more famous actors. How did you cope in your early twenties amongst such stars?
TAB HUNTER: Well it was a strange feeling to be working with such big names. I never wanted to fall short in my work or let any of them down. They were such high caliber of actors and I was just starting. Also, the press could be so hurtful in their comparisons and criticisms. That was a great incentive for me to always try my hardest and always do my best work. My favorites to work with were Gary Cooper, Van Heflen and Fred Astaire. They were the greatest to make you feel at home and good friends.
HEALE: In those early days of tabloid journalism you were victim to their sensationalism but not for being gay. How did you cope with the awful publicity about your dog ?
TAB HUNTER: Actually there were many hints about my being gay and I hated their style of constantly being vicious. My good friend and agent Dick Clayton was always supportive and gave sound advice on how to cope with them and survive.
HEALE: Your starring role in the movie Damn Yankees was a major role in your career. How did you land this important lead part over the Broadway star of the original stage musical?
TAB HUNTER: Well all of the other major cast members were from the stage show so it was very difficult for me as the outsider. The director didn’t want me and he made it clear he was unhappy. It was very difficult for me. But Warner Bros. insisted they purchased “Pillow Talk” for Rock Hudson & Doris Day and “Damn Yankees” for me and that was just the way it was going to be!
HEALE: You co-starred with a very young Jean Stapleton and her character in Damn Yankees appeared like a young Edith Bunker in training for her future role in All In The Family. Was it strange for you years later to see her in the hit television series?
TAB HUNTER: Yes. I liked Jean very much and she was fun to work with. She was perfect for the role of Edith Bunker and it was very similar to her character in Damn Yankees. She just fit both parts.
HEALE: How was the great, yet sometimes difficult, Bob Fosse to work with?
TAB HUNTER: To me he was wonderful, never difficult. Course I told him right away I had two left feet! He was very patient with me. He just kept at it till I finally learned to dance his way.
HEALE: During your dinner theater performances you traveled to Canada for performances in Regina and Edmonton in the winter and froze. Did you ever return when the weather was more temperate?
TAB HUNTER: Oh yes! I love Canada. I’ve skied in Jasper and Lake Louise. Mind you I got frost bite on my nose in Jasper! In Calgary I worked on a Disney movie which was being shot during Stampede time. Horse competitions have taken me to Calgary and Vancouver, B.C. where I loved the combination of the oceans and the mountains. I’ve even driven from Calgary to Vancouver and enjoyed those beautiful sights. I have friends who have competed at Spruce Meadows and I’d love to see that. Canada has so much to offer everyone especially gays.
HEALE: Your very first day as a new contract actor for Warner Bros. studio you visited Rock Hudson on the sound stage for his first film “Fighter Squadron”. Years later he was one of your neighbors at the time of his death. How did this impact upon you?
TAB HUNTER: I had heard that he was suffering from AIDS and was shocked. A producer friend and myself made arrangements to visit with him in hospital. He was so frail and ill that I was taken aback. But his death was shortly afterward and it did so much to raise awareness for the need for AIDS research. He was a great man whom we lost too soon.
HEALE: You became known as one of the “beefcake” stars of the 1950s. Did you work out every day?
TAB HUNTER: No. I was a great swimmer and all around fitness buff but I like a natural look. I don’t like to see the people who look as though they just zipped on a second skin that’s rippled with muscles. My mother always said,”Just be an individual”. That’s what I tried to be. Natural bodies look the best. I hated working out but now it’s important for my health.
HEALE: Do you think famous people like Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen or shows like Will & Grace or the movie Philadelphia have made it easier today for young gay and lesbian actors?
TAB HUNTER: It’s important that same-sex orientation is out there for people to see and understand. I don’t like it when it’s really in your face and too extreme. Everything has a time and place with no need to flaunt your own sexuality. Simply do the best you can in life. Do it your own way-straight or gay.
HEALE: It’s 2009 and if you were nineteen years old today what would you do differently with all the progress for same-sex equality?
TAB HUNTER: I don’t envy young people in the movie and entertainment business today. Every move they make is watched by the media. They’re always looking for the negatives and overlook the positives. You still have to be careful and work hard to maintain a private life no matter what your sexual orientation is. It was fascinating being a part of the Golden Age of Hollywood and it offered me vast opportunities to travel and enjoy the good life. I do wonder what has happened to style and subtlety today.
by Roy Heale