“When I heard that someone was going to do a book on me, I decided to do my own book,” Tab Hunter confesses. “Get it from the horse’s mouth, not some horse’s ass. People always want to put a spin on your life, and I just don’t like that.”
Now in his eighties, his book, Tab Hunter Confidential, became a bestseller and has been adapted into a critically lauded documentary. In it, he reveals what it’s like to be a closeted gay movie star in 1950s Hollywood, and the career desert that enveloped him after he was discarded like a used condom.
“When you’re a kid, acceptance is important, and you also think you are bullet proof,” he explains. “I think it’s really important to be able to divorce yourself from yourself. In Hollywood, that is a very difficult thing to do, with all the hoopla that is heaped upon you. It can really make you fat, mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Tab (real name: Art Gelien) was sweet meat for the Hollywood grinder. As blonde-haired, blue-eyed eye candy for prepubescent Baby Boomers, he was quite the sensation. The deal with the Devil included movies (including a movie where his character actually made a deal with the Devil, Damn Yankees!), television (then brand new), recordings (his “Young Love” was one of the first rock hits), shirtless beefcake photos, fake dates and fake girlfriends.
The fake dates were not too shabby: Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens.
“They were friends of mine who I loved being with!” he says of them. “If they want to send a limo for you and take you to dinner, who would say no? I was a young kid. It was fabulous. But it was all the hoopla. It was not the reality.”
Even he’ll tell you, his early career was mostly about him being easy on the peepers. But how does he feel about those looks?
“We should be concerned with the interior, not the exterior,” he says. “That comes right from my mother. I didn’t like all the hoopla and accolades [over my looks]. It’s not comfortable. I didn’t enjoy any of that. Now I don’t care. I’m an old man, and I just do my own thing. I do think society places an emphasis on many of the wrong areas, all the superfluous things that are not really important.”
His manufactured name was only the beginning: that face was synonymous with the heterosexual All-American-boy myth, but not so much when the cameras were turned off. Confidential, a sleazy publication with an agenda, caught him at a gay Hollywood pajama party, and threatened to expose him. The negotiation, the stress, the threats, the danger and the after-effects are part of what makes his story so compelling.
Although his name was Tab, it could’ve been Rock, for his stoic and noble walk through this Valley of Death.
“In actuality, I was very fearful, of course,” he says.
Hard to believe today, where social media and legalized gay marriage have made the closet much less of a go-to room.
“I was brought up by a very old-fashioned mother,” he says. “She was very Germanic, very religious, and very set in her ways. I’m glad I had that kind of upbringing, but it’s totally different from what is happening today. Everything today seems to be out there and in your face, and I’m just not that kind of a person. But people have to be true to themselves. If you have to go that route, that’s your choice. God gave us a wonderful thing called free will. And the first thing with free will is choice, what we choose to do. Hopefully, we are going to make good choices. That’s what it’s all about, because people often go down a road without thinking about what they are choosing to do. I think you have to put an emphasis on making a right choice for yourself.”
Things have changed, but does the closet still exist?
“I think it does,” he says. “And to those people who like it, fine, that’s their choice. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business what you do. The important thing is who you are as a human being, and how you are going to develop as a person. That’s between you and your Maker, nobody else.”
The years after his Hollywood heyday were none too kind (“I couldn’t get arrested. I eventually did dinner theater.”), but by the 1970s, filmmaker John Waters revived his career, giving him roles in the cult classics Polyester and Lust in the Dust, co-starring Divine (pictured).
“He’s like your friendly undertaker,” Tab says of Waters. “You don’t think for one moment that he takes things seriously. Yet he really is an amazing filmmaker. I was very fortunate, and I would put him right up there with the tops.”
Astoundingly, he did not get caught up in the drug culture (“It never even entered my mind to do drugs.”) Hard feelings about his Hollyweird experience? Nah.
“When you’re a kid, you’ve got a job,” he says of his brief but glorious career. “If they hire you for a job, you do it to the best of your ability, or get the hell out and let someone else do it. And when they’re through with you, they’ll just discard you like an old shoe and get someone else. So do it. Do whatever they ask. You can’t let ego get in the way of all of that stuff. They want to photograph you doing some stupid thing, it’s dumb, but go ahead and let them do it. People ate that stuff up and it was fun to do. When you’re young, you’re bulletproof and you go ahead and do these things. If you don’t, they’ll get someone who will.”
Today, Tab busies himself with his passion for horses (“I like working with an animal that has a life of its own”), yet he still believes in stepping out of his comfort zone.
“I think we have to for certain things,” he says. “That’s very important for our growth. Sydney Lumet was a brilliant director and I remember one time he said to me, ‘Tab, you’re playing it safe. If you’re going to play it safe, stay in bed.’ The safest place to be is also the dullest.”
Tab is no longer in the closet, but continues to remain an intensely private but genuinely thankful man.
“Every day I say thank you,” he says. “I say thank you a lot. I think we’re all very fortunate to be on this journey.”
Find out more about Tab Hunter Confidential here.