Tab Hunter tells all

From 2005: The confidential Tab Hunter

(This program originally aired Oct. 23, 2005)

A good-looking kid with the improbable name of "Tab Hunter" rocketed to Hollywood stardom in the early 1950s. He was often on a horse and frequently without a shirt and soon cornered the market on hysterical teenage girls, says "48 Hours" correspondent Susan Spencer.

Today, Hunter is a fit 74 years old and seems both proud of, and slightly mortified by, his movie star past.

When he tells you he'd have been just as happy training horses, you actually believe him, Spencer says.

"When you're a big movie star and all that hoopla is being thrown at you, I'm not really all that comfortable," Hunter says.

But he's still as gracious to fans as ever, and those one-time hysterical teenagers are flocking to book signings.

The book, "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star" describes a shy boy, abandoned by his father, raised by a domineering mother. 

Algonquin Books

His real name is Art Gelien. An agent simply made up "Tab Hunter" saying he needed to "tab" him something.

Asked when he first accepted the name change, Hunter says, "Probably when I got a check that said 'Pay to the order of Tab Hunter.' I thought, wow, $250."

Those first big bucks came for a potboiler called "Island of Desire" in 1952. Veteran actress Linda Darnell, he writes, had to teach him how to kiss on screen.

"I just remember after kissing, she said, 'Relax. I'm good luck for newcomers.' Then, after I kissed her, she pinched me and she said, 'That was nice,'" Hunter recalls.

He definitely mastered kissing scenes, and soon Hunter had a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.

"Once I was under contract to Warner Brothers, they had a whole publicity wing that was devoted to selling that product," Hunter tells Spencer.

The product, in this case, was Hunter himself.

"Tab Hunter, to me, is a fabrication. I mean, it's me, but it's the Hollywood fabrication," he says.

He says he was sold like Spam, but he cheerfully went along with the hype. "I was embarrassed," Hunter admits, "but by the same token, I was loving it. Because, I mean, my gosh, I mean, who would, at 20 years of age, starring in motion pictures?

"I mean, it's all so overwhelming. You know, you can't say 'No.' If they'd say, 'Lie down in the middle of the road, the truck rolls over you,' you'd say, 'Where would you like me to position myself?'"

Warner Brothers promoted his teen sex-symbol image relentlessly, Spencer says, encouraging dates with starlets from Debbie Reynolds to Natalie Wood. The movie magazines had a field day with Tab Hunter's alleged love life.

But even in uptight Hollywood of the 1950s, there were whispers. And in 1955, Confidential Magazine broke a story implying that the heartthrob Hunter was gay.

Well, Hunter says today, they were right.

"I was living a lie, absolutely," he says. "I was another person. I mean, my sexuality was my sexuality. And it was not what people, you know, perceived. You know, people believe what they want to believe. But this was very difficult for me."

Spencer notes that the 1950s was not the time to be gay in Hollywood.

Hunter replies says, "But you don't talk about it. I never talked about those things."

Asked if he thought others in the Hollywood community knew he is gay, Hunter says, "Some did, probably. Some didn't."

He jokes that on double dates with Tony Perkins, he was less interested in his date than in Perkins, with whom he had a two-year relationship.

Hunter explains that he was able to hide his sexuality because, "I am just a very private person."

Spencer notes a passage in Hunter's book that says, "I never acted 'straight' to get by. I wasn't getting away with something. I behaved the same way all the time. With me, what you saw is what you got."

Hunter explains that he decided to write his biography once he learned someone else was ready to publish his story. "I thought, look, get it from the horse's mouth, not some horse's ass," Hunter quips.

In any case, so powerful was Warner Brothers' public relations that his career flourished, despite the rumors, in movie after movie.

And in 1956, he stepped into a recording booth for the very first time. "Young Love" knocked Elvis off the top of the charts and won Hunter a spot on Perry Como's TV show. "It really shocked me when this jumped up to number one like that," Hunter says. "I was scared to death."

Hunter now admits that his musical endeavors made him uncomfortable. "I have no idea what I was thinking," he says.

In 1958 there was the hit musical "Damn Yankees" with Gwen Verdon.

But nothing lasts forever and he left Warner Brothers in 1959.

"You don't have that machine behind you and, you know, 'Today's headlines, tomorrow's fish wrap,'" Hunter says.

There was a failed TV show, one surfer movie shot mostly in the studio, some uproarious Spaghetti Westerns and years of dinner theatre. Steady work, good money, but low profile, until 1981.

Off-beat director John Waters sought Hunter out to star with transvestite actor Divine in his cult classic "Polyester."

"I would, like, call every person. Well, I was like running around — like I'd won the lottery," Waters recalled. "I was running up and down the street. I couldn't believe that Tab Hunter was gonna come to Baltimore to be in my movie. And Divine was over the moon."

"Tab was a great sport, a great sport, and great comedian, and that's what he was in that movie, he was a comedian," Waters says. "Never ever did I want to make fun of Tab Hunter's career. I wanted Tab to make fun of it with me, the idea of this image, which he seemed happy to do."

Hunter says, "I think the important thing was that it introduced me to an audience who didn't know what a Tab Hunter was or who a Tab Hunter was."

Whatever "a Tab Hunter" was, what he wasn't was sentimental, as his longtime partner, Allan Glaser, discovered when helping him research the book.

"He was so popular that at one time he had a Tab Hunter magazine," Glaser says. "They did about six issues.

"Tab never kept any of these things," Glaser intimates. "He didn't have a movie magazine of himself. He kept no memorabilia. Any likeness of himself was in the garbage. He just wasn't interested in reading about himself."

He certainly didn't lack for material, Spencer says. Glaser adds Hunter appeared in more than 150 magazines.

Those heady days are long gone. Today, he and Glaser own a production company and share a comfortable life together in California with dogs Katie and Olivia.

And if Tab Hunter still seems somehow like a movie star, well, he's as amazed by that now as he's was back then.

Hunter shares thus humorous anecdote with Spencer after she asks if he still gets recognized.

"I was doing a play in Florida and this woman stepped into the elevator and she looked at me and went, 'Who? Who?' And I said, 'Troy Donahue,' and she said, 'That's it!'"

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