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Remembering Tab Hunter

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Last month actor and golden boy Tab Hunter died of cardiac arrest at the age of 86. I got to interview him in 2015. Here's a podcast dedicated to him.

Show transcript

Welcome back to another episode of listener supported PBS cinema Junkie podcast I'm Beth Accomando.

Ladies and gentlemen. Every woman.

Last month actor and golden boy Tab Hunter died of cardiac arrest at the age of 86. Today's podcast is dedicated to the actor. I'll be speaking with the director of the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential as well as pulling up an archive interview I did with Tab Hunter in 2015. Tab Hunter was a hunky heartthrob in the 1950s. In fact he was dubbed the psych guy for making teenage girls swoon. He was also that clean cut boy next door that mothers would be happy to have their daughters bring home.

But would his female fans didn't know was that he was also gay. I'm Tab Hunter and I've got a secret I would never have talked about my personal life in the 1950s.

I obviously was very closeted and I'm sure it's a very difficult thing to think. What's the problem.

But there was a problem. It's been very difficult for me my whole life talking about that side of.

For me to come out of myself like this and to share all of this is extremely difficult. I've never been as open as I am with you because. It's.

Been written about and what the heck. You know I'm an old man I don't know. This is my wife. Q.

In 2015 film out San Diego hosted the California premiere of the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential. They also gave the actor at the center of that documentary a lifetime achievement award. Younger generations may not remember Tab Hunter or may only know him from his roles in John Waters polyester or the film Grease too. But Hunter was impossibly good looking dreamy blue eyes perfect blond hair and a smile that could charm anyone. He rose to fame just as the Hollywood studio system was beginning to fade. He became a star in the 1950s mostly playing all American heroic and romantic types in films such as Battle Cry and The Sea Chase. Jeffrey Schwartz directed the documentary that's based on the actor's memoir of the same name. Schwartz was familiar with Tab Hunter because of the waters cult film Polyester. But in researching the documentary he discovered films that cast the actor against type like a movie he did in the late 50s called gunmen's walk which was a western.

And he plays a real psychopath in that movie. He's a racist and a killer and just the worst kind of guy and he's so good in it.

From now on I'm going my own way. Me at Hacket and before I'm through Ad-Hoc it's going to be a bigger name in this territory than Lee Haggards ever was good as a gunman killer. Is that my name ever meant to you. You think a gun is all I ever had to be proud of. Tell me what else. What else do you work for. What else have I heard about it. I'm sick of hearing it. How many men you kill how many Indians want me to run through the whole list for you. No no no.

That's the way you've been thinking when you've got the wrong man for a father. Father. I never had a father.

You watch that movie and you wonder like why wasn't he given more opportunities to do that kind of work and show his range as an actor. But it just shows how Hollywood can just pigeonhole you into. Well you know he's supposed to be the nice boy next door and that's all anyone saw him.

But if Schwarz had to pick just one film that was representative of Hunter's career it would be one that showcased his charm and irresistible sweetness.

Damn Yankees you know because it was made at the height of his stardom when he was a star at Warner Brothers. It was a movie that Jack Warner wanted tab to star in. He'd bought the property of Damn Yankees a musical for tab to be in and in the movie tab just sparkles.

You know he's such an honest straightforward guileless kind of guy in the movie where we we have to keep training strict rules and all that you get me all their roles. You're making things very complicated. GLENN A I'm I'm trying to.

And there are these just beautiful closeups of him and he gets to sing and dance. And for me it's like an interesting story about a man who's hiding a very big secret but he's sort of having to play it two ways. And I always look at that movie and I wonder if Ted was thinking about his own situation in Hollywood and having to sort of live a double life. And if that if any of that kind of found its way into the way he played the character so damn Yankees for sure. The one I would recommend people to see but my personal favorite is polyester. Like I get such a big kick out of seeing tab and divine play love scenes and run through the fields together in love and it's it's hilarious.

Now when you decided to create this documentary did you know in advance or how did you figure out how you wanted to incorporate all the elements the stills the clips his interviews interviews other people.

Well that's my favorite part of making a documentary is sort of going on the archaeological dig and trying to find all the archival material to support the story and in this case it turns out that Allen has been collecting material on tab Hunter for the last 30 plus years since they met and when tab you sort of retired from Hollywood he turns out he didn't keep anything he didn't keep any stills or posters or memorabilia and Allen set about to recollect all that material and over the years tab would keep saying what are you buying all that crap for on eBay the auction houses and Allen said I know this is important. This is your legacy. So when we started to approach making the film and particularly in editing it turns out I had this treasure trove of materials to choose from. And that was a huge help. And we found some. There are a few things that we needed to go out and look for that. Alan didn't have but for the most part it turns out he had been preparing for this documentary unconsciously for decades.

Well some of the most interesting stuff in some ways were kind of all the fan magazines and stuff that had all these amazing headlines and covers.

Yeah you know tab was the cover boy of so many of these movie magazines. And in fact a lot of people knew tad more from the movie magazines than they did from the films themselves. And he was sort of sold as the all-American boy next door and boy every girl would want to marry your date. And you know every mother would love for their daughter to bring home Tab Hunter and you know so many teenage girls and boys had TAB's pictures on their wall that were torn out from the movie magazines. So we wanted to show as much of that material as possible and it's really fun to see the headlines and the sort of the stories are mostly fake.

I mean he would the stories were written with publicity in mind not necessarily they're not necessarily biographical but there are a lot of fun to look at.

Well it just seems to capture kind of a different era.

Yeah definitely. I mean this was this was the era of the movie magazine and this is how the stars were sold and the studios packaged their product. You know when when a star became a star they were under contract to the studio and they were essentially a product of that studio and TAB was no exception. So part of selling this product to the public was putting them on the cover of every magazine sending them out on dates with starlets and so many of the movie layouts were tab doing you know going out on dates with people like Debbie Reynolds or Venetia's Stevenson or Terry Moore some of the people that are in our film and they talk about what it was like. It was sort of just a regular date except there was a third person there a photographer following me around the whole time in putting this together he seems to be a rather private person.

Was it difficult to get him to talk openly about his life on camera.

Well he had sort of been through the trial by fire of coming out publicly for the first time when he wrote his book. So he sort of had that practice but that book came out quite some time ago. So you know he's he's now asked about these things where the press would never ask about it before. So when we finally decided to sit down with tab it was not easy for him because he's been trained his whole life that there are just some things you don't talk about. You know he's he's a very private man. He grew up in a very repressive era. He was living under the spotlight of being a celebrity when the truth about his life was discovered. You know it would be over for him. And he's a very religious man. You know he had conflict in his life about his religion Roman Catholic religion condemning him for who he was. So he's had to deal with a lot but he's come through it on the other side as a happy healthy survivor of the Hollywood rollercoaster. So you know at this point he figured he's got nothing to lose. Let's let's sort of tell the truth. And maybe it will help somebody in the long run. He's very conscious of that that maybe he can help either a younger person who's just coming to terms with who they are or even an older person who's had to deal with this repression all their lives and finally is able to maybe live openly the way taboo is.

What did you kind of decide you wanted to focus on and kind of the story arc you want to tell within the context of the documentary.

Well you know of course our first cut was extremely long we interviewed probably about 60 people. And of course TAB's interviews were marathon sessions so there was so much that we couldn't include in the film and it is actually fairly straightforward on how we chose what to include and what not to include unless it related to TAB's growth as an actor and coming into his own as an artist or coming into his own with his identity and his sexual identity. If it didn't relate to a journey his journey of self acceptance then we felt like it didn't belong. So there were lots of stories that some are in the book that we didn't include and it's always heartbreaking Taffe to lose that stuff but it's always in the best interest of the film yeah because it seems like you could go off on a lot of different tangents on all the people he worked with and a lot of the different titles.

Oh yeah. And we had some we had some great stuff that we hated to lose like when he was on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead and a Tennessee Williams play this notorious play that very few people have seen because it only played like Three Nights on Broadway and then it closed you know so you know we had we interviewed people who were in that show and or who had seen that show and we just couldn't included. And there were just so many tangents that if you read the book luckily the book is there and hopefully we'll be able to include some of that material on our DVD release in the future.

All right well thank you very much for your time. My pleasure.

When I count three. Well all of the ladies in the audience please go.

Home now for my 2015 archive interview with Tab Hunter. We spoke with the actor by phone from his Santa Barbara home where he used to get up early every morning to visit his stables.

Yeah hi guys.

So you are receiving a lifetime achievement award from foulmouthed so how does it feel to be recognized for your film career and to be recognized by LGBT Film Festival.

Well I mean I really appreciate the thought and they are doing that but I'm just never comfortable in things like that. It's just not my comfort zone and you didn't receive a lifetime achievement thing. I mean my gosh when you think of all the people in the world that have achieved a great deal it makes me feel pretty ridiculous but I'm certainly appreciative of that.

So what prompts you to write your memoir and then allow a documentary to be made about that.

You know my friend Allen at the time for the book which was in the middle in the mid 80s he didn't know somebody is going to be doing a book on you. And I think you should do the book. And I didn't want to do it at all because I'm a very private person and then I thought about it and thought about and finally you know get it from the horse's mouth and not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone because people always put a spell in your life when you know what they have. I got to know a total loser high. I mean that's my life. And this is the journey. So I work in collaboration with my friend Eddie Muller who was a wonderful historian and I had 500 pages in my computer and we did that and then that came out and became a best New York Times best seller and then all of a sudden later Ellis said you know I think it would be wonderful to do a documentary on that because he collects cement. He has all these memorabilia. You know that I never kept saying.

And we knew he put it all together he got. He hired Jeffrey Schwartz who is a filmmaker very good and they worked together and put together the documentary and the response that has been overwhelming.

Which did you find more difficult to do to put the book together or to actually go on camera and talk about your life.

I think going on camera and talking about it but that was done over six years.

The documentary was shot over six years.

Yes over a six year period. Allen put together you know all the people he wanted for the interviews and the quote you got the questions and then had Jeffrey do all of that and he knew the arc that he wanted in the documentary which is based on the book.

Did you start to grow more comfortable being on camera talking about yourself over that period of time.

Well you know I'm been on camera an awful lot in my life. But I'm talking about myself as the uncomfortable thing. But I you know I'm thinking look shallow like it is. I mean that's how I was.

And you do seem to be a very private person so how difficult was that because you're not just talking about your private life but also about some things that you were really kind of keeping secret for a while.

Well I think there's so much data is out there in your face and I'm not comfortable with that. I never have been with that kind of an expression. I was brought up by a very strict German mother who was very old fashion and you know as she I remember telling me you know nothing for show. So what happens when I go in show business. Yes. But she was really an amazing woman which we took. We talked about her in the documentary and my brother and the person who started me in the industry. Dick Clayton who there would never been a Tab Hunter and Dick Clayton. And he was agent for Jimmy Dean Jane Fonda Burt Reynolds and you could just go on and on and on.

You said there would never be a Tab Hunter. Now that name was manufactured.

Well as Jeff was No.

Have you grown comfortable with that name by now or years ago.

I was told Well you see on the order of it will make you feel much better.

I'm wondering do you still go by that name or do you like in private.

No I use that very few people call me art.

You know my real name was Art Gallien or Lipschutz when I grew up with our Gallien because it was my mother's maiden name. She went to that after she left my father was very very abusive. And my brother and I grew up with my mother's maiden name.

How did it feel to be an actor Gerring studio system where everything was really packaged and there was a you know a real emphasis on creating kind of a product when you were an actor.

I think it was wonderful. I love that. I mean studios created many many wonderful wonderful people that we looked up to and admired. I mean gosh I happened to be fortunate to be a part of the end of the studio system along with people like Bob Wagner and Natalie Wood. You know I mean you could just call it. There were very few studios didn't really know what to do when they were falling apart like that. People want a real people and real situations. The influx of European films with that live television and all sorts of television coming in very very predominantly and the studios also had to get rid of their theatres a lot of the theatres he owned all over the country so it was a very changing time in the industry and I was fortunate to be a part of the old system.

Did you have conflicted feelings about working the studio system in the sense that they did offer this kind of protection and support but also very controlling about what you were doing.

Not really. They weren't really that controlling what the wonderful thing was they gave you opportunities that you wouldn't get otherwise. However that period they didn't to do so it was very difficult getting really good roles at the studio. I always had a live television afforded me the opportunities of studios that the studio never did. But they were wonderful because they knew how to build a career and they had done it for years. And you know no one's going to tell a mogul like Jack Warner or Harry Cohn or you know Louis Mayer or how to run their studio studios today are no longer there large large corporations or just throw money away. And I think very little that is rewarding.

So do you feel that you kind of rose to stardom at a good time or would you have preferred to like become a star later in like the 70s or something and have been starting out at that point.

It was very fortunate. Unfortunately though I was a product of Hollywood and where does it serve. What does one serve one's apprenticeship when you're just thrown into it. It's very difficult doing it that way. I certainly admire all the actors coming out of New York studio and had a good foundation and basis I had learned while doing.

Do you ever feel you might have been hindered by your good looks.

No I never paid attention to any of my mother was very strong about outward appearances are not important is what you were inside that counts. And she was really really a strong wonderful incredible woman. And you know I just don't pay attention to stuff like that. You know you or what you are. I think the important thing is your contribution contributions that we our contributions to life are very very important to each other to our work to our our belief.

But do you think you got a bit typecast because of that. I mean you got dubbed what the Sy guy.

Well that was that was before I was at Warner Brothers now once which Warner Bros and I was kind of like the all-American boy. I think that al Qaeda went out the window once I started doing work that was not typically you're all American boy I mean portrait of a murderer gunman's walk. I mean those are certainly not forbidden areas those are certainly not your typical American.

But you had to push a bit to get those kind of roles.

Yes and no Dick Clayton was there for me. He was ordered to discover me when I was at the stable as a 13 year old boy shoveling the real stuff as opposed to the Hollywood stuff.

He was a war hero. He was an actor he was out there doing photographic lay out for a movie magazine with and life. He later became an agent but before he became an agent here speak to an agent and then once he became an agent I left Henry and went with Dick Clayton who was part of our family. Everyone needs a mentor someone there to kind of feed them mentally physically spiritually mentally in every possible way.

You've mentioned the live TV work a couple of times and I want you to talk a little bit about doing that because some of the clips they showed in the film were amazing because I had never seen that before. So tell me what it was like to work in live television at that time.

It was the most frightening thing in the whole wide world no question if you're doing a play. You can say oh what a lousy performance I gave tonight. Thank god there's tomorrow. If you doing a movie you can stop in the middle of the take and say I'm sorry could we retake that I just not with the program but live TV with those two little red dots went on. You had to go and do it and it was very frightening. But I was very fortunate to work with some of the top directors of the in the industry. They all started in live TV. John Frankenheimer Arthur Penn Sidney Lumet. Those were geniuses. They were really great people.

Well seeing some of the clips from those live TV shows I feel like there's so much great work that we don't seem to get access to and I don't know if all that stuff is lost and all we have are these clips or if there's actually like complete films that we can actually see.

You know it's really interesting you mention that because live TV was the most rewarding because if you're doing that every single week whether it be a Playhouse 90 or a studio one in the east or climax or any of those shows were brilliant.

I'm guilty but you can't plead guilty one Donald it's standard procedure when a defendant's life is at stake. We automatically plead not guilty. I'm guilty. I want to plead guilty to walking right into the gas chamber. I don't want some legal technicality.

It's not a legal technicality a plea of not guilty gives you a trial by jury. So he had a good sidebar to. This well is it bad that way your psychiatric testimony your work wrecked your friends they'll call as a witness.

She wants to help. You should hear about the burglaries over 500 Mr.. Night after night after I'd leave her to hear about a lot of other things by drinking a lot of other things. That she'd have to stand up in front of all those people and say he was my friend. I loved him. We were going to get married.

All right. I understand it's bound to hurt her but a plea of guilty can kill you doesn't matter. It does matter. I worked for 20 years in the law and I tell you that life does matter including your life. We just don't have that.

It's the other thing they had that I loved in those days with those wonderful variety shows whether it be Ed Sullivan Dinah Shore Pat Boone Jimmy Durante those were great shows to be a part of where the studio would throw you wanted those to promote their motion pictures.

Well Deb I know that record that you made I sold something close to two million I suppose you you're in New York to make another recording.

Well actually I'm in New York to start on a tour of the United States in connection with the picture as spokesman on behalf of the Spirit of St. Louis for Warner Brothers Jimmy Stewart. He has been quite excited about visiting the different cities as you can make a tour doing how do you make of the record. Now I've already made a few. But listen you should be commented on here eight years starting tonight isn't it right. Tonight is the.

And you were also an accomplished singer as well. Well I wouldn't be part of your chart topping song.

Oh oh man did you enjoy it.

I loved it. I loved it. My first time I ever had to see you live.

We do have in the documentary and it was on the Perry Como Show and I was a nervous wreck. And when I finished the song Perry came out and put his arm around is that there and that wasn't so tough was it. But he was the coolest person ever.

And what was it like for you working in the studio system in Hollywood at a time when you weren't able to really come out as being gay. Did you feel a lot of conflict during that time.

I never discussed my sexuality in any way shape or form in a video body ever crossed that barrier and mentioned to me I would be I would really just was very difficult to handle. I just would explode. You know it's nobody's business. My job was to do my job and do it to the best of my ability and to grow grow mentally physically and spiritually. That's what the journey is for me on earth.

Well you mentioned spiritually Catholicism has been a strong part of your life.

The major portion of my life is without a doubt. You know people want to always sweep religion under the carpet. I think it's a very important part of our lives and particularly today people are so concerned about me me me me me the very first person singular.

And I think an important thing we have to do or at least for me I have to do is learn to divorce divorce yourself from yourself in a certain way you kind of had to reinvent yourself after leaving the studio system film out recently screened polyester and it was a packed and adoring crowd.

Well John Waters and divine word were totally magical at work where they were so great. They were both.

I loved them I love dearly. Why don't you show me your bedroom. Mother may I kiss you.

Too bad you please don't be too harsh in your judgments. But Jack Squizzy. Look you read my lips.

Did you ever hesitate to take on that role in polyester.

Never for a moment. Why. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And what was it like working with Devine and John Waters.

Divine is one of my favorite leading ladies. You know I get like a turd or Rita Hayworth Natalie Wood Geraldine Page. He was just great to work with. He really was. And John is like your friendly undertaker with that little Adolf Monju mustache he was very very good. I really enjoyed working with John. I mean he in fact we wanted him to direct our film lust in the dust.

Well it seems like in an interesting way you fit in perfectly to the John Waters universe in the sense that he kind of created a Hollywood system outside of Hollywood. And you were kind of like the first real Hollywood started to kind of infiltrate that.

Well I love when John talks about that he said I was so excited when we've got a real movie. I was just thankful to be doing another film I thought Wow and with the vine divine didn't Moonshadow trash so well you seemed to display a real knack for being able to parody the image that you created within the Hollywood studio system in that film. Well the character was fun. He was a lot of fun to play that character. Yeah I've always not admired those kind of in your face kind of people who are very out there. It's certainly not me but it was a lot of fun to play that character.

Would you be surprised if a cult film like polyester turns out to be the film that's like the most enduring one of which you've made. Would that surprise you.

Or you know or whatever whatever happens happens. My favorite show Amable. There were two films that I enjoyed very well three films I enjoyed doing.

I loved doing Damn Yankees because it was my first musical. I. Got. Rather. Weak John. With no. Josh.

We've got each other.

And Jack Warner bought it for me and it was with a whole New York cast which I loved.

I loved doing that kind of woman with Sophia Loren because Sidney Lamech directed it and was working with Sylvia who could resist that. By God she was gorgeous and wonderful and then the walk at Columbia which was really really a good script.

I'm not going to you or anyone else. I'm giving you an order.

You can go. Those are my favorite. You know whatever people want to like or dislike that's their choice.

God gave us a wonderful thing called free will. And the important thing after free will is choice. So hopefully we make the right choices in life.

The film shows that you are also a skater and a horseman. What's interesting is you were kind of a diverse range of interests and skills but you seemed to be able to do very well and be very successful at all of that.

Well I was very involved with the horses. My brother introduced me to them and they became the love of my life and I was around and then I went away from him for a while when it got into skating competitive skating. But the reason I stopped that is because it's only your own accomplishment. And I went back to the horses immediately after I stopped that because there you are working with an animal as a life of its own. And it's quite wonderful that lovely communication.

Do you think the horses are what grounded you outside of Hollywood.

I think shoveling the real stuff at the Barnaby around the horses is very important for me.

Do you still ride every day.

I gave up riding after I showed up for Vilde Virginia last year because I'm 83 or 84 shortly. And I thought my balance isn't quite what it was and I don't want to wind up you know you you know getting hurt. I think you know I can just tell just give up the riding I go to the bar and every day my mare I bred my mare she had a baby on April the 7th. And I'm thrilled with that I watch the born every day and just put my arms around the baby and get used to being handled and of course the mother is one of the best I've met so many horses.

The mothers are incredible. All right one and I want to thank you very much for speaking with me. I've been speaking with actor Tab Hunter who will be receiving a lifetime achievement award this Friday at film out. So thank you.

Well I'm very I bet thank you very much I'm really excited about coming down there and going to the festival. I hear very very good reports on it and I just am thrilled that they asked me to come down and receive this. And I look forward to coming down there.

They could chat with me.

That was actor Tab Hunter in a 2015 interview I did. He passed away last month of cardiac arrest. Thanks for listening to another episode of listener supported PBS cinema Junkie podcast. Please share the podcast with others. Your word of mouth is the best way to get us more listeners. Coming up next on cinema Junkie podcast will celebrate the hundredth birthday of H.P. Lovecraft and look at some of the films based on his literary works till our next film fix I'm Betha Komando your resident cinema junkie use me my free and ready time for. Me.

On Wednesday.

Write your name down on every page.

Good luck. You got to go again.

It's not a good time. I know. You want to have fun.

Come along with me. You. Got.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place