Closeted actor’s life revealed on film
By Ken Williams | Contributing Editor
Actor Tab Hunter had it all: movie star and pop music idol. But his secret nearly put an end to his amazing career before it started. A new documentary reveals it all.
With his boy-next-door good looks, Tab Hunter was arguably the hottest teen idol of the 1950s, a hit at the movie box office and a pop singer who once knocked Elvis, the “king of rock ‘n’ roll,” off the top of the Billboard charts.
For all the fame and fortune that came his way, Hunter hated the spotlight and fiercely guarded his privacy. And he had good reason: He was gay at a time in history when homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the U.S. and when gays and lesbians were routinely harassed or arrested by police.
A gay scandal nearly derailed Hunter’s promising career before it got started, when his former agent betrayed him like Judas to protect his hot new client, Rock Hudson, from being outed as a homosexual.
All of this, and so much more, are revealed in the fascinating documentary, “Tab Hunter Confidential,” the Opening Night attraction at FilmOut San Diego’s 17th annual LGBT Film Festival.
The documentary — based on Hunter’s bestselling 2005 memoir in which he publicly came out as gay after a lifetime of rumors — was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Allan Glaser, Hunter’s longtime partner.
Hunter, Glaser and Schwarz will attend Opening Night on May 29 at Observatory North Park and the legendary actor will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the FilmOut board of directors.
At age 83, Hunter has given up on Hollywood but not forgotten the great memories.
“I was never really comfortable in the public eye,” he said, explaining how his strict German Catholic mother encouraged modesty, or “nothing for show.”
Hunter lives in Montecito in Santa Barbara County, California, where he enjoys the quiet life with Glaser and dotes on his beloved horses. He’s been a horseman since he was a teenager, and as a stable boy was befriended by actor Dick Clayton. It was Clayton who encouraged the handsome young man to get into acting and who would eventually become his longtime agent and confidante.
In a free-flowing conversation with Gay San Diego, Hunter recalls the glory years when he was close pals with sexy stars such as Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and Sophia Loren — red-hot actresses in the 1950s with whom he was romantically linked — but in effect they were all “beards” to help hide his homosexuality.
“Natalie was so sweet,” Hunter said. “She was a great kid. She was like my little sister.”
In those days, the major studios ruled Hollywood and actors were groomed to fit a clichéd image. Hunter was 6 feet tall, athletic, blue-eyed and looked like a blond surfer, so the studio knew he would make the girls swoon. Warner Bros. dubbed him “The Sigh Guy,” probably because all the teenage girls sighed whenever they saw him on the big screen or performing his hit songs.
“I was the all-American boy,” Hunter said, “and James Dean was the rebel.”
The big studios went to great lengths to protect their investments, and Warner Bros. executives must have fainted when a scandalous Tinsel Town magazine called Confidential published a report revealing that Hunter was once arrested at a “pajama party” in 1950 in LA along with other gays and lesbians.
Hunter described the PJ party as fairly innocent by today’s standards, with gay guys drinking and dancing together around a pool along with some lesbians. In his case, he was in his late teens, not of legal drinking age. He originally was charged with “idle, lewd or dissolute conduct” and that charge was reduced to “disorderly conduct” and he was fined $50, according to imdb.com.
For about two weeks after the Confidential expose, “I was a nervous wreck,” Hunter recalled. Then a major poll came out, revealing that “The Sigh Guy” had won the audience award for best newcomer.
“And that was it,” Hunter said. “The fans didn’t care. And I never thought about it again.”
The incident, which could have trashed his blossoming career, did not stop Hunter from his romantic adventures with famous men. He fell madly in love with Olympic ice skater Ronnie Robertson, then later had a “wonderful relationship” with hot new actor Anthony Perkins (“Psycho”). He also mentioned a fling with Russian ballet great Rudolf Nureyev and actor Scott Marlowe. Since 1983, he has been partnered with Glaser, a producer with whom he made the cult classic, “Lust in the Dust” (1985), and “Dark Horse” (1992) and now “Tab Hunter Confidential.”
Hunter is “really pleased at the great reception” the documentary has received at film festivals since it has its world premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
“I guess people can relate to it,” he said, noting that he had not seen the film on the big screen until he watched it recently at a festival in Seattle.
He said he enjoyed watching the old clips from his movies and the archival interviews with his former co-stars that are included in the documentary.
“I look at it as my past life,” Hunter said, enjoying a good laugh. “I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”
A conversation with Hunter inevitably comes down to an easy name-dropping of all the wonderful stars he crossed paths with: James Dean, Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickerson, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, who he calls “RJ” as a sign of affection.
Hunter was romantically linked to Wood at a time when his face was on the cover of every teen magazine in the country and his singing career was taking off. In 1957, Hunter’s single, “Young Love,” climbed to No. 1 on the music charts and he knocked Elvis down a peg.
“Natalie was going out with Elvis for a while, before she met RJ,” he recalled. “She said Elvis wasn’t happy that I used his backup singers on my record!”
If only Elvis knew Hunter’s big secret.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952.