Remembering 1950s Hollywood Heartthrob Tab Hunter

Jul 13, 2018
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Hollywood actor Tab Hunter died Sunday at age 86. In the 1950s, Tab Hunter was a heartthrob - a blond, clean-cut matinee idol who made the covers of all the movie magazines. He was described as the boy next door, the all-American boy, Hollywood's most eligible bachelor. And he was gay but in the closet. He starred opposite Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren and made more than 50 movies, including "The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean," "Ride The Wild Surf" and the musical "Damn Yankees." Hunter spoofed his own image in the John Waters film "Polyester," in which he seduces a suburban housewife played by Divine, a 300-pound man in drag.

Terry interviewed Tab Hunter in 2005 about his memoir "Tab Hunter Confidential."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Tab Hunter, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you wrote this book. You know, you're one of the few actors who can talk about what it was like to be a heartthrob in the '50s while you were in the closet. Or, at least I should say, you're the only one who's willing to talk (laughter) about it if there's more out there. So I'm really glad you wrote it. How long have you been out?

TAB HUNTER: Well, thank you. You know, I had to write the book. Number one, the reason I wrote the book - and I think that's important - is because I heard someone else was going to be writing a book about me. And I figured, look; get it from the horse's mouth, not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone because we all know how people put their own spin on things. And I figured I'm going to be out there. I'm going to be very truthful. And, you know, I hope it's a good read, but also you get the facts from me. And actually, I'm not an out-there kind of a person. I never have been. I've always been a very private person. I had a very strong mother who said things like, you know, nothing in your life is for show. Do this, you know, hold back your this and this? And consequently, what do I do? I wind up in show business. I mean, it's pretty ironic.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But, you know, I'm wondering if you felt you had to be an actor off the screen as well as on the screen because offscreen you had to act the role of Tab Hunter. You're gay. Tab Hunter was supposed be straight. And also, I mean, the name wasn't yours. And, you know, let's face it. A lot of actors had personas off screen that the Hollywood studio created for them. But when you're in the closet, that sense of a persona is even more extreme.

HUNTER: I think a lot of people place importance on all of that, you know, being in the closet and this and that. You know, number one, you're a human being. You have to be yourself. And that's the most important thing. Of course you have conflicts and all of that within yourself. At the time, I had a lot of those. I was a young, wide-eyed kid thrown into the studio system and starring in motion pictures, and I loved it. I mean, God, what young man wouldn't love all that stuff? But by the same token, my touch of reality in a really unrealistic world were my horses, my love, and my animals. I mean, the horses were my touch of reality in an unrealistic world.

GROSS: Did the studio - like, who in Hollywood knew about your sexual orientation? Because this would have been a big issue had it been revealed. So did the studio heads know? Did other actors know?

HUNTER: I never said anything. I was very quiet. I was - you know, nothing - I never was out there, so to speak, not at all. The people who knew - I'm sure probably my agent Dick Clayton. My - the studio had to know because I saw a memo when I was researching - you know, I was doing my work at the archives for the book. You know, George - what's his name? - George Abbott, who produced "Damn Yankees," didn't want me for the film. He thought I was a little - to quote his memo to Jack Warner, a little light in the loafers or whatever. But that's his problem, not mine. I - you know, Jack Warner said, look; I bought "Damn Yankees" for Tab Hunter. I bought "Pajama Game" for Doris Day. Tab is going to do the film. I mean, I have no idea what went on in the offices of the studios other than when I had questions, I asked them myself.

GROSS: You had a relationship with Tony Perkins for a couple of years. Were there places you could be together without anyone knowing that you were more than buddies? I mean, were you able to be out in public together?

HUNTER: I would go out with Tony. We'd go to premieres. We'd go to movies. We'd go to the opening of the Ice Capades and things like that. We might double date to go out. Tony was a little uncomfortable sometimes going out, like, if we just go out to a movie or something like that. And in those days, he would wear a baseball cap and sunglasses or something. Maybe - who knows? - maybe he didn't want to be seen with me. I have no idea. But I never worried about it that much really. He'd take his car someplace. I'd take my car someplace. Occasionally, we'd take - we'd go in the same car.

But I knew Tony for about - oh, I guess about three years. And, you know, he was a very, very fine actor, a very busy young man doing plays on Broadway and films in Europe and films with Paramount. He was under contract to Paramount, and I was at Warner Brothers. So we had our own careers, our own lives aside from the time we had spent together.

GROSS: And you read that he had shock therapy to try to turn himself straight. Was that when you knew him?

HUNTER: No, that was quite a number of years after.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard that?

HUNTER: I was - I was literally shocked. Yeah, I was quite surprised.

GROSS: Were you ever...

HUNTER: But I did see Tony a few years before he passed away. And I saw Berry and the children up at the house. And it was just wonderful to see that. It really was. I was very, very happy for him.

GROSS: An article that could have really damaged you but didn't was published in 1955 in the tabloid Confidential. And it was headlined "The Lowdown On That Disorderly Conduct Charge Against Tab Hunter." You reprint a paragraph from this in your book, and I'd like to just read some of it just to give a sense of what those times were like.

HUNTER: And that's just one article in Confidential. I think I made three covers and four articles.

GROSS: OK, let me just read some of this. (Reading) It all started with a vice cop who was drifting in and out of Hollywood's queer bars on the afternoon of October 14 looking and listening for tips on the newest notions of the limp-wristed lads. Pausing for a Scotch and water in one gay joint, the deputy struck up a conversation with a couple of lispers who happily prattled that they were set for a big binge that very evening at 2501 Hope Street in a suburb of LA. One drink led to another, and the pair finally invited the snooper to come along. There was only one dashing requirement - bring pajamas.

HUNTER: Please.

GROSS: (Reading) Since breaking up such queer romps was his business, the detective pretended to fall in with his barroom chums and arranged to accompany them. Between snorts, however, he called the Los Angeles sheriff's office for reinforcements.

Wow. What was your reaction when you read this article?

HUNTER: You see why I wrote my own book? I'm not going to have some garbage like this still let out there (laughter). I was a kid out of the Coast Guard, and I - a friend of mine, Terry Marcella (ph), who's passed away, said, you want to go to a party this evening? I said fine. So I went. And I walked in. And I'd been to a gay party before - big deal. So I saw a couple guys dancing and a couple people dancing over here and there and a couple of women dancing over there. And I thought, oh, gosh, it's one of those parties. So I walked to the refrigerator, literally opened the refrigerator, started to reach in for something to eat, and some cops came in and took us all downtown - big deal. I was 15 1/2 years old - 16 1/2 years old.

GROSS: So you're about 21 when this is published?

HUNTER: Yes. And the interesting story is this, that Confidential magazine was going to be doing a story on Rock Hudson. So our agent at the time was Henry Willson. And Henry did not want that. So what he did was he said, look; kill the story on Rock Hudson. I'll give you two stories. And he gave them - he gave Confidential magazine the story on Rory Calhoun being in prison and on my being at that party.

GROSS: Wow. Isn't that called betrayal (laughter)?

HUNTER: No kidding. That's Hollywood, my dear (laughter).

GROSS: Wow. So was the story they were going to write about Rock Hudson about him being gay?

HUNTER: I have no idea. I have no idea what the story was going to be about. But they were going to do some scandalous thing, I'm sure, on Rock.

GROSS: So how did you find out that it was your agent who gave them the story?

HUNTER: Because it came out...

GROSS: Much later?

HUNTER: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes, it did. And I was shocked to hear that.

GROSS: So you and Rock Hudson had the same agents.

HUNTER: Yes. Henry Wilson was the agent for Rory Calhoun, Guy Madison, Rock, myself, a number of people. And he discovered Lana Turner. He was Natalie Wood's agent for a short while. Rhonda Fleming he discovered. I mean, a number of people.

GROSS: By the time you found out, was he still your agent.

HUNTER: That's why he gave it - because I was no longer his - he was no longer my agent.

GROSS: OK, so this article that I quoted is really obnoxiously written. It's published to cause a scandal, knowing that it could hurt you. So did anybody take the bait? I mean, what happened after this? And it was a distortion of a party you'd actually went to, but the party was busted. So they could say oh, no, this is factually correct. You know, he was at this party. The party was busted. So...

HUNTER: The press...

GROSS: So what happened afterwards? What were the consequences?

HUNTER: Well, the consequence - I was - I became the biggest star in Warner Bros at that time. Explain it to me, please. (Laughter) I don't understand what happened.

GROSS: So instead of this article hurting your career, are you saying it helped you? Or was it just...

HUNTER: No, I don't think it helped me. But I do think that people believe what they want to believe.

GROSS: Did anyone ever try to blackmail you?

HUNTER: Oh, a couple times, yeah. I wrote about it in the book.

GROSS: So what did you do?

HUNTER: I talked to my friend Martha, who's an attorney. And I just - you know, I just - we just got to get out of this nonsense. I mean, this is - I just hate people that are - that think like that. You know, I can't - I just can't tolerate that kind of behavior.

GROSS: So how did you end it?

HUNTER: I let Martha take care of it for me.

GROSS: And you don't know what Martha did?

HUNTER: I think we gave this person some money just to say, get the heck out of here. Get out of my life.

BIANCULLI: Tab Hunter speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 2005 with Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter. He died Sunday at age 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did you become an actor? You're one of those actors who became famous without having gone to acting school, though far fewer people went to acting school back then. But, I mean, you learned by doing it. So how did you get to do it in the first place?

HUNTER: Well, I was discovered at the stable as a stable boy shoveling the real stuff. And I then was introduced to an agent later. At first, I was a young, wide-eyed kid going, wow, look at this. Look what's happening. But then I realized, no, no, you've got to have some staying power. You've got to have some legs. So that was important to me to really learn my craft. And I was very fortunate to work with some really sensational people.

GROSS: And you had a singing career, too.

HUNTER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Your biggest hit was "Young Love." What were some of the differences between how you were treated in the recording industry when you had hit records and how you were treated in the film industry in terms of the way you were marketed, how people treated you as a person?

HUNTER: Well the interesting thing - even a more interesting story, I think, than that is the fact that Warner Brothers had me under contract. That meant for everything. So I did - I cut this record for Dot. And Warners thought, whoa, wait a minute. We can't have that. You're under contract to us. So they immediately stopped me from releasing 100,000 advance copies of an album that I had done and a number of things.

So I went on a tour that they'd set - the studio had me on. And I asked everyone - they wanted me to talk about "The Spirit Of St. Louis." We all know that Jimmy Stewart, you know, played Lindbergh. And he and a fly flew across the Atlantic and landed safely at Le Bourget. So people would say, yeah, yeah, we know that. But what about your records? What about this? What about that? And they were always asking about those things. So I said, why don't you all drop a little note to Mr. Jack Warner, care Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif.? So they did. And Warner hit the roof. So he thought, we've got to do something about this. And it took him a long time, but he actually started Warner Bros Records because of me.

GROSS: Oh, really?

HUNTER: I was the first recording artist on that label.

GROSS: So that they could, like, release records by the people who they, quote, "owned."

HUNTER: And then - yes. And then I recorded for Warner Bros also. In fact, I've just released a CD with tunes from my Dot - originals from the Dot and the Warner Bros. label.

GROSS: Well why don't we hear your 1957 hit, your first hit, "Young Love"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG LOVE")

HUNTER: (Singing) They say for every boy and girl, there's just one love in this whole world. And I know I found mine. The heavenly touch of your embrace tells me no one could take your place ever in my heart. Young love, first love. Filled with true devotion. Young love, our love. We share with deep emotion.

GROSS: That's Tab Hunter and his first hit, "Young Love." And Tab Hunter has a new memoir, and it's called "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making Of A Movie Star."

John Waters cast you in his film "Polyester." Divine plays - Divine, who is a 300-pound man who played the leading lady in a lot of John Waters movies, plays a very put-upon housewife who learns that her husband is secretly a pornographer. And you play the owner of - what? - an arthouse movie theater?

HUNTER: Arthouse drive-in.

GROSS: An arthouse drive-in. That's right.

HUNTER: (Laughter).

GROSS: An arthouse drive-in. And you kind of seduce Divine with ulterior motives that she is not aware of. But you sweep her off her feet. And I thought I'd play a scene between the two of you.

HUNTER: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLYESTER")

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Horrible, isn't it?

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh, those poor people. Did you see it happen?

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Yes, I saw it happen. I was following that van, and that other thing cut right in front - wham, hit it head-on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Excuse me.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's really horrible.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh, it is. It's just too horrible. I can't look.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) You know, why don't we take a ride to the country and get away from all this mess? I mean, it's a beautiful day, and I find you quite attractive.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) But I don't even know your name.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's Todd, honey.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Todd?

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Todd Tommorow.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) I'm Francine Fishpaw.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Francine Fish - it's a beautiful name. Fits you well. Yeah, I got something I want to show you.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Yes?

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's long.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Ooh.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) And it's sleek.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Ooh.

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) And it's powerful.

DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Ooh, what is it, Todd?

HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's my new 'Vette.

GROSS: That's Tab Hunter and Divine in a scene from John Waters' film "Polyester." Tab Hunter, what was it like for you to do this movie?

HUNTER: Well, I was just finishing a play in Minneapolis or somewhere in the Midwest. And I got a phone call from John, and he said, I'd love for you to - I'm doing a film, and I'd love for you to do it if you're available. And I said, well, I do - why don't you send me the script? He said, well, I have to tell you, it's with a 300-pound transvestite. And I said, so? I love your work. I'm a big fan of yours, John. (Laughter) Who could ever forget "Pink Flamingos," you know? Or who could ever forget "The Diane Linkletter Story?"

So John sent me the script, and I thought, what have I got to lose? I got everything to gain. It's a wonderful opportunity to work with a really creative man who's fun and has a great sense of humor. Divine I had met at a cocktail party that David Hockney had a number of years prior to that. And I thought, this would be wonderful experience. So I had about - oh, about ten days off or two weeks off prior to opening a play in another city, so I did film for John at that time. Went to Baltimore - John shoots all of his films in Baltimore - and it was a fun, fun experience, I've got to tell you. It was really great.

BIANCULLI: Tab Hunter speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. He died Sunday at age 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES I'M HAPPY")

HUNTER: (Singing) Sometimes I'm happy. Sometimes I'm blue. My disposition depends on you. I never mind the rain from the skies if I can find the sun here in your eye. Sometimes I love you. Sometimes I hate you. But when I hate you, it's because I love you. That's how I am, so what can I do? I'm happy when I'm with you.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Eighth Grade."

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GO! TEAM'S "GET IT TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.