Turner Classic Movies
Hunter, Tab - Interview
Written by James Colt Harrison   

Blonde icon Tab Hunter was a phenomenon in the fifties. Handsome, wholesome, and talented, he emerged a star in 1952 at age 19 in Island of Desire with gorgeous Linda Darnell. Appearing half naked in the tropical island saga, he set the hearts of fans aflame and became an overnight sensation. Over the years his career had many highs and lows. Hunter recently discussed his life and his new book with me. Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star © Algonquin Books

JH. How do you manage to look several decades younger than your true age?

TH. I'm 74! I'm lazy! I did go to my aerobics class this morning but I'm not good at it. I only did 30 minutes. I take my dog to run on the beach and I occasionally ride horses.

And I love to work in the garden.

JH. In addition to being a movie star, you've been a well-known horse lover all your life. Are horses affectionate?


TH. They are all so distinct. They're like people. Some are smarter than others. They make good associations. My mare was certainly affectionate. I could call her, and no matter where she was, she'd come running. I've had so many horses. That's how I got my name. I showed hunters and jumpers. It's a good thing I wasn't called Tab Jumper. (Tab said this with a twinkle in his eye.)

JH. Do you like to bet on the horses?

TH. I'm not very good at betting on horses. We used to show horses at Del Mar at the Horse Show every year. That's when Del Mar was a little seaside town.

JH. You were born with the name Art Gelien. Are you used to your name yet?

TH. At first I didn't like it. But the minute I saw checks that said Pay to the order of Tab Hunter, I said I could get used to it. Only the people who knew me as Art call me that. I don't let people call me Art who never knew me as Art because I think they are infringing into an area that does not concern them.

A little background here will explain just how big a star Tab Hunter was in his youth. Signed to a long-term contract by Warner Bros. after his big splash in Island of Desire , Hunter was given a big build-up. The studio starred him in major films such as Track of the Cat (1954) with Robert Mitchum, Battle Cry (1955) with Dorothy Malone and Van Heflin, as well as The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind with Natalie Wood in 1956.

Other films that starred Hunter were Damn Yankees (1958), the film version of the Broadway smash with Gwen Verdon; They Came to Cordura (1959) with red-headed siren Rita Hayworth and Gary Cooper; That Kind of Woman (1959) with Italian bombshell Sophia Loren, and The Pleasure of His Company (1961) with Fred Astaire and his life-long friend Debbie Reynolds.

JH. You had many wonderful co-stars.

TH. I was pretty fortunate to work with some pretty amazing people. You know, it was sort of toward the end of when Lana (Turner) was doing a lot of films. It was the first film I did under contract to Warner Bros. I was thrilled to be in The Sea Chase with John Wayne and Lana Turner. Probably the most powerful person I worked with was Geraldine Page. She was brilliant. She told me something I will never forget. I said to her Gee, Gerry, people love everything you do. They hate my guts! And she said, If they don't like you, that's their bad taste! She was quite an amazing woman."

JH. Thanks for doing my laundry was a line you said to Lana Turner in The Sea Chase. Do you remember it?

TH. Oh, yes. I kept saying Looing my daundry! She was so fabulous about it. Oh, gosh. She was pretty amazing.

JH. Who were some of the other people you liked?

TH. Oh, there were people like Van Heflin and Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire and Natalie Wood. Those were very interesting people.

JH. Fred Astaire was a phenomenon. He was a big musical star and then he started doing dramatic roles in his later years. How did you perceive him?

TH. Yes, what happened to style? (Tad sighs with regret here) He was the epitome of style.

JH. There doesn't seem to be much style in today's movies.

TH. There is a bit of it, but not a great deal. Everything seems to be so in-your-face today. I don't consider myself to be part of that. We're in the production end of film making now, and my partner does most of the work there. I like to work on the screenplays - if we can get the financing. It's just not the same business as it used to be.

JH. I agree. I think The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy and William Powell is the sexiest, wittiest film ever made. And you see absolutely nothing, no naked skin, but the dialogue is so sexy and suggestive, but not smutty.

TH. She was quite wonderful. I was quite fortunate to work with Myrna Loy on her first live television show, Meet Me In St. Louis, for Hallmark Hall of Fame many years ago. It was the end of the studio era, and so they would loan you out to live television plays. Those live television days are long gone. There was Playhouse 90, Climax and Studio One. I was thrown into it all at the studio. I could hardly read my name off a piece of paper. But you could learn your craft there. You had to learn while doing it.

JH. Do you feel privileged to have come up during the studio era with Warner Bros. pampering you?

TH. It's interesting because I wasn't really pampered. They treated me very, very well but I wasn't pampered at all. They left you alone a great deal. When all this heady stuff was too much for me - it was out of my comfort zone because I am basically a shy and quiet person - my touch of reality in that unreal world became my horses. They were my mainstay. Whenever I was really uncomfortable, they were my comfort zone. I feel closer to God with a pitchfork of you-know-what in my hand.

JH. Do you think people today miss the great stars who were also terrific characters?

TH. I think a lot of it has to do with the studio system. It created actors. That all fell apart when the studio system fell apart. The studios had to get rid of the theaters they owned, the audiences were changing and were younger, and television changed it in a big way. The audiences weren't there. They didn't know what to do. Prior to that, they knew how to build stars. You either did it the way they wanted or they threw you out on your ear and the next person was in there.

JH. Without sounding nostalgic, I think the studio years were the best years.

TH. I kind of like that you said that because there was a mystique and an aura about the movie business. It was quite wonderful. Now everything seems to be in your face. I've never been that kind of a person because I wasn't brought up that way. My mother was a strict religious person.

JH. How did you feel when critics were not kind to you and didn't like your acting style?

TH. I had so many potshots taken at me as I was struggling to learn my craft. It was very difficult.

JH. After years of being a top movie star, suddenly everything stopped in the sixties and you couldn't find work. Hollywood is mysterious that way. To me, once a star, always a star.

TH. In Europe it may be like that, but not in California. They build you up very quickly or you're yesterday's chopped liver in a matter of minutes. The whole society seems to be based on instant gratification and what's the newest and the best. So, people are discarded like a old shoe. It's kind of tragic in a way. There are many, many talented people who cant even get arrested and it's really a toss of the dice. You kind of have to accept things as they are and not as you would like them to be. You have to realize it's all so fleeting. Don't live in that bubble.

JH. Wedged into the middle of your film resume are some Italian and Spanish movies. Why did you go to Europe?

TH. I did go to Italy. When I couldn't get any work in Hollywood I went off to Europe. I did a lot of spaghetti westerns and a lot of other type films in Italy and Spain. I also was fortunate to have met one of the great directors of all time, Luchino Visconti. I worked with him on tests but never on a film. He was a genius and an incredible human being. I was supposed to do Senso with him many years ago, but Farley Granger did it. My agents didn't know who Visconti was! Then I tested for a film with Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel, but the money people didn't want me. Luchino was in no position at that time to insist I be in the film. It was unfortunate. I was doing a very bad western film at the time, but at night he would send a car for me to do some tests with other people. I did (European star) Florinda Balkan's first screen test. I did it just for the opportunity to work for him. I'm crazy about the work he's done. But, I still worked for him and working on his set was quite an experience."

JH. Was working in Europe a lot different than working in Hollywood?

TH. Yes. In those days, the things I was doing in Europe were kind of like €˜Let's turn this barn into a theater!' It was kind of fun. The Italians had a wonderful way of making films. The better ones were the Antonioni's, the Visconti's, and the Fellini's. I did about six or seven films that weren't much. But you have to eat and pay the bills.

JH. When you returned to the United States, your career was revived by avant-garde director John Waters of Pink Flamningos fame. He cast you in Polyester. What was it like working with drag queen Divine?

TH. Oh, Divine was terrific! It was so funny. I was doing a play in Indianapolis.

(Director) John Waters called and asked if I would be interested in doing a film, and did I know who he was. Of course I knew who he was. I loved his films. He sent me the script of Polyester. Of course, in those days I couldn't get arrested in Hollywood and could not get a job. I liked the script. He called and asked how I would like kissing a 350 pound transvestite! And I said I've probably kissed a hell of a lot worse in my time! John was wonderful and Divine was one of my favorite leading ladies. He was so much fun. I'm glad we were able to use him in one of our films that Allan Glaser and I produced called Lust in the Dust.

JH. Are you working behind the camera now?

TH. We do independent producing of films. We have three projects that are really dynamite. It's hard to raise independent financing. The Evelyn Keyes project we have is absolutely brilliant. Director Peter Bogdanovich wants to do it. We have an Irish love story based on an Irish folk hero. Scripts like that just don't come along that easily. It's a toss of the dice. One never knows.

JH. Does it surprise you that more and more independent films are coming to the forefront?

TH. It's a pleasure when that happens. It's such a weird business. But, as you said, it's better than selling shoes. In fact, I'm quite sure of that. You get to portray all these different characters if you're acting. I like the other side in the production end.

JH. Why did you write your book Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star?

TH. I did the book because I had to. I didn't want some schmuck writing about me when I'm dead and gone with his own spin on my life. People will do a hatchet job on you anyway. I've got nothing to hide. My life is my life. I'm not on earth to win a popularity contest. I just do the best job I possibly can.

JH. Did you ever have the desire to have your own children or adopt?

TH. I had at one time. I came close to marriage twice, but then I thought I can't live that kind of lie because it would be unfair to my wife. I love children, but my children are my dogs and horses. God gave us free will and the first thing after free will is choice.

JH. Being gay hasn't seemed to have harmed you in any way.

TH. I don't consider it a gay life style. I just live my life. I have a very simple, quiet life and I'm very thankful every day that I'm still here.

JH. You're back and better than ever.

TH. Thank God, I'm a survivor like Bette Davis. She was a great character and never gave up.




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