Throughout the 1950s, Tab Hunter reigned as Hollywood’s ultimate male heartthrob. In dozens of films — and in the pages of countless movie magazines — Tab’s good looks and sex appeal drove his fans to screaming, delirious frenzy, making him the prototype for many young matinee idols to come. Bristling against being just another pretty face and wanting to be taken seriously, Tab was one of the few young actors who managed to transcend his pin-up boy status and become a talented actor and huge movie star. But throughout his years of stardom, he had a big secret. Tab Hunter was gay, and spent his Hollywood years in a precarious closet that repeatedly threatened to implode and destroy him. Now, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has made a wildly entertaining documentary that explores Hunter’s dramatic, turbulent, and ultimately inspiring life story. In addition to very frank remembrances from Tab himself, Tab Hunter Confidential features fascinating interviews with Hunter’s friends, colleagues, and co-stars including Debbie Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, John Waters, Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, and Robert Osborne.
Danny Miller: What a fascinating documentary! As a classic movie lover, I was horrified to realize that I often confuse Tab Hunter with Troy Donahue — especially since Tab is ten times the actor!
Forgive me, Troy — no offense! Jeffrey, I loved your film I Am Divine. Was this one the first documentary you’ve made about someone still living?
Well, I did a film about the porn star Jack Wrangler. He’s since passed away but he was very much a part of making that film. He was at our festival premiere but then he then took seriously ill so he never got the chance to really experience it or enjoy the fans’ reactions. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of promoting the film with the subject, and getting to see the public reaction. That’s been very gratifying to both me and Tab.
Did he set any ground rules for the film when you started?
No, Tab never told me what I was or wasn’t allowed to talk to him about in the interviews or what to include in the film. He’d already written his book. He wasn’t openly gay throughout his whole career so writing that book helped him a lot in that journey. By the time we were ready to make the documentary he’d been out for about a decade. Still, there’s a huge difference between writing a book and going on camera and dredging up some very painful memories so it was challenging for him.
Especially since he seems like such a private person. Do you think he just wanted to leave a record of how things really were?
I have to give Allan [Allan Glaser, Tab’s longtime partner and a co-producer on the film] a lot of credit there. I had interviewed Tab and Allan for I Am Divine, that’s how I met them. Later on I pitched the idea of a documentary about Tab and found out that Allan was already thinking about doing one and looking for a director. Tab trusts Allan completely and knows that he is looking out for his best interests. Allan is very interested in making sure that Tab’s legacy is intact and that he is not forgotten — very different from Tab who says in the movie that he’d be quite happy to be forgotten. Whether or not that’s true, I definitely shared the feeling that Tab Hunter is an important person in the history of the movies and that his story needed to be told. And I know that Tab was very happy with the end result.
It’s almost impossible to watch this film and not fall in love with him a little bit. And my God, he sure was ridiculously good looking.
That’s one of the things we wanted to explore in the film. He photographs so beautifully, he’s so striking, but there’s so much more to him than that. He had to really struggle with that during his career because he was on the cover of all the magazines and put in movies before he really knew what it meant to be an actor. He had to work so hard to overcome the stigma of being a “pretty boy.” And that was something we wanted to talk about in the film. Tab was happy that we didn’t just dwell on being a gay actor during a very repressive period, we also wanted to focus on his development and growth as an artist and coming into his own as an actor. When you see the early films and then the work he did later on, you can see that he improved so much and really developed his artistry.
I thought he was a phenomenal actor. It’s a shame that he didn’t continue in the movies. And you never got that feeling that he “knew” he was so great looking.
Absolutely. I think that came from his upbringing and his mother who really put it into his head that it’s not what you look like that counts. It’s so ironic that he became a movie star because of his looks when his looks really weren’t something that he paid any attention to — even though he was literally chased down the halls of his high school because he was so attractive. When you meet Tab, you really are struck by the fact that he is so down to earth. He doesn’t live in the past, he’s never thought of himself as a “star” who should be treated differently, and I really think that comes from his upbringing and his religion and his philosophy of life.
The film includes a treasure trove of amazing clips. You must have jumped for joy when you found some of them, especially Tab’s ironic appearance on the show I’ve Got a Secret!
The lucky thing for me with this film is that Allan Glasser has been collecting this material for the past 30-plus years. Tab himself didn’t keep anything — when his acting career ended, he didn’t keep any photos or memorabilia, he threw it all out, he gave away his gold record, he just didn’t care, he’s someone who lives in the present. But Allan is a big Hollywood movie fan and wanted to gather all of that material as part of Tab’s legacy so by the time we were ready to get started I had access to hundreds of hours of movies, TV shows, talk show appearances, game shows, and thousands of photographs. There were still lots of things we had to go find, but I was like a kid in a candy store when we were ready to start editing.
It was fascinating to hear about how repressed the culture was back then — the idea of an openly gay person just didn’t exist. I was surprised to hear that even when Jack Warner bailed Tab out of some close calls with the press where he was almost outed, they never had a discussion about it even though Warner obviously knew.
They all knew about it, including the press, but they were all in collusion back then. Tab felt that Jack Warner was his boss and he had signed a contract to do a specific job of portraying himself as the boy next door and not deviate from that script. For the most part he played the role that they wanted him to play — it just wasn’t the time to challenge that.
Oh, definitely. Remember that Tab’s agent was Henry Willson who was notorious for that kind of thing. Willson had a sizable stable of boys under his command. He represented people like Rock Hudson, Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun — some of whom were gay and some who were not — but Henry certainly had expectations for some of his clients. That was pretty common back then, there were plenty of people, male and female, who did what they felt was necessary to advance their careers, but Tab insists that he never used his sexuality to get ahead. He knew what Henry’s intentions were towards him but he never went down that road.
No, because Tab had already written about it in his book and we felt it was very important to acknowledge that it was one of the most important relationships in his life. That was a fascinating episode because they were both such big stars at the time and the consequences of anyone finding out about them back then were huge. There was definitely great affection between the two of them, even later in life, but also a lot of betrayal. Still, even after that incident that Tab talks about in the film, they did stay in touch over the years. Tony Perkins had a complicated relationship with his sexuality. We don’t talk about it in the film but in the 1970s, Tony went to therapy to try to move away from being gay and, of course, he ended up getting married and having a family. By all accounts, he was a wonderful husband and father but he never really seemed to find peace with his identity. We wanted to address Tab and Tony’s relationship in the film but we also wanted to be respectful to Tony and never condemn him or say that he was wrong in what he did because he was on his own path.
It’s interesting that, unlike Tony Perkins, Tab never seemed particularly tormented about his sexuality, even when he was firmly in the closet.
I think there were times when it was very difficult for him when he was younger. You were taught by society that it was wrong and illegal and that it was a mental illness. But Tab was able to learn self-acceptance and he was also able to take the positive teachings of his church and push away the negative parts. Tab is a devout Catholic and I think that’s part of why he’s so centered and at peace.
Would you say he’s at all bitter about his experiences in Hollywood?
I wouldn’t say bitter. It was so long ago, I think now he just tries to focus on the positive. I mean, when he starts talking about Hollywood he can be a little cynical about it but it was so long ago and he’s not part of that world anymore.
That was so amazing that you located that woman who won a date with Tab Hunter so many years ago. It was so cool to hear from her now about it!
That was great. Allan saw a letter that she had written to some nostalgia magazine so he found her and flew her out to Hollywood — she hadn’t been back here since she won the date with Tab! And they had a really great reunion, she was just lovely. She kind of reverted back to a teenaged girl when she saw Tab, she still has a big crush on him!
Oh, I loved interviewing her, she has so much energy and was so funny. She lights up in front of the camera and she has never really been interviewed about this stuff even though she’s an icon in the gay community. Debbie was very close friends with Tab back then but she didn’t conceive that he was gay, she didn’t really know what that was!
I think she would have been better off with him than some of her husbands!
(Laughs.) We asked all of the stars that Tab dated if, knowing what they know now, they would have married him if he had asked them and they all said yes!