Tab Hunter is a few minutes late coming home, and his partner, Allan Glaser, who produced an autobiographical documentary about Hunter and has been his mate for three decades, wonders out loud where he’s been and why he doesn’t come into the front bedroom where the television is to see this amazing thing. A longtime equestrian, Hunter, it turns out, was with his new filly Skylark in Santa Ynez, and he’s already guessed what’s on TV. “Is it that commercial for our movie on TCM?” he asked.
Glaser seems disappointed; his surprise is ruined. “I taped it,” he said. “It’s the first time it ran.” Hunter joins me on a comfortable bench at the end of a bed and sits back. He looks tired and calm, but he has his characteristic questioning gaze turned on, which seems both skeptical and naïve. Long ago, Hunter perfected a disarmingly brash method of self-introduction. “Tab Hunter,” he always says to strangers, thrusting his hand out to shake, the gesture immediately leveling, reassuring. The day I visit, he plops unceremoniously down without the handshake. The commercial comes up on the screen, and Glaser explains to me how the Turner Classic Movie folks negotiated the deal when technically there are no commercials on the station. “They wanted Tab to go on the movie cruise,” said Glaser, referring to a summer sea cruise that TCM hosts with stars and directors of older Hollywood in attendance. “And we said, yes, if you’ll run the commercial for our movie. Voilà.”
Meanwhile a fast montage of images plucked from the trailer for the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential fills the screen, iconic gay celebs like John Waters and George Takei testifying to the past glories of Tabmania, followed by Tony (Psycho) Perkins, whose appearance becomes a confessional moment in the film — though Hunter’s autobiography of the same title first revealed their oft-rumored relationship. Then come a number of funny moments: 1950s girls swooning and Hunter ducking a marriage question by Tennessee Ernie Ford. My favorite is a twinned set of clips. “Hi, I’m Tab Hunter, and I’ve got a secret,” says Hunter in high-irony mode, appearing on the famous Garry Moore-hosted quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, followed by a strange unattributed quote from contemporary Tab Hunter, addressing an unknown interviewer, “I think you have to be true to yourself,” he said. “I’ve never been as open with anyone as I am with you.”
Hunter and Glaser live in an ornately furnished, small Spanish-style home, not far from a busy Montecito street. Hunter begins talking about the film itself. “You know this movie took seven years. And it’s all Allan. This project was in such good hands,” he said, describing its success in U.S. festivals and busy slate of openings around the country. “And you know what happened because of all this?” he asked rhetorically. “The book has reentered the New York Times’ best-seller list. Great, huh?”
Glaser’s film is a lively and engaging companion piece to Hunter’s book, which was first published eight years ago, though Hunter said he began writing it in 2000. By and large, people assumed it was meant to stave off numerous rumors about Hunter in a time when celebrity outing was considered not just fair game but obligatory. Maybe it was confessional in intention, but both book and film feel more like a reconciliation — the attempt to reunify a divided life.
Hunter’s career began a half century earlier when sodomy was criminal; the film begins with his arrest at an apparently suspicious party. How that incident haunted him later is part of the film. Meanwhile, Hunter’s fate was placed in the hands of his agent Henry Willson, who handled a number of beefcake sex symbols, such as Rock Hudson, who were not much interested in returning the lavish female attention their films engendered. Willson changed Hunter’s name from Arthur Gelien (he was born in 1931 as Arthur Kelm but changed it himself after his mother left her abusive husband). The name came from Arthur’s love of horses; a stable was where Hunter was first discovered by actor/agent Dick Clayton, a lifelong friend. To this day, Hunter makes jokes about how he prefers the company of horses to Hollywood. “I’d rather be out shoveling the real stuff than all that,” he said.
Hunter began in B movies, did some stage acting — he played the Lobero in the late 1950s — and then signed to Warner Bros. The next 10 years were prime Tabmania: He also began a career as a pop star with many Top 10 hits. Screaming hordes of girls followed. “It was horrible; I was very uncomfortable with that,” he said. The movie makes clear, however, that pursuit by women began before his celebrity. Though Hunter was for a long time “linked” with Natalie Wood, Confidential frankly enumerates his necessarily secret lovers, who include figure skater Ronnie Robertson and a poignant time with Anthony Perkins. Most interesting, though, is Etchika Choureau, a Parisian beauty he costarred with in Lafayette Escadrille. Hunter considered marrying her. In Confidential, Choureau movingly notes, though, that Hunter had “two faces, dieux visages.” She didn’t mean unfaithful or hypocritical, just torn.
In every aspect, Tab Hunter’s life is paralleled: His name, proclaimed with outstretched hand, isn’t real; nor was Arthur Gelien. His career was split, too. First came the studio phase with films like The Girl He left Behind and his serious Playhouse 90 television parts, and then a fusillade of spaghetti Westerns made after leaving the studio, culminating in the underground years starring in film’s like John Waters’s Polyester. And his biggest role of all, heartthrob magazine cover boy, was almost cruelly false. Glaser, who met Hunter when he was pitching his own camp-classic film Lust in the Dust, collects Tab memorabilia. “I’m always finding things everywhere,” he said. “Flea markets, Amazon and eBay — everywhere. But Tab doesn’t want any of it, he kept zilch.”
“I really don’t,” said Hunter, who winces when Glaser mentions his storage locker full of Hunter-abilia. Rather, he is all about Glaser’s talents. “Don’t you think Allan did a great job? This movie is wonderful,” said Hunter. “I am way beyond proud of this film. It’s getting such good reception in festivals … and now we have this schedule, and we’re going everywhere.” Glaser details their schedule of openings: New York, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Virginia, and a screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures, which Glaser says Hunter is looking forward to, despite the rigors of Q&A sessions. “I’ve done this all my life,” said Hunter. “One thing I never expected,” he said walking me out to my car, “I’ve met the parents of gay children, and they’ve thanked me for this. It’s such a different ball game today. We all need someone to talk to.”
His comment recalls the film’s preview, where Hunter admits he’s “never been as open with anyone.” I ask him who the “anyone” was. “Oh, Jeffrey,” he said, talking about the documentary’s director, Jeffrey Schwarz, who did a lot of the interviewing. “Like I said, it’s a new ball game today. I’m really talking to the audience. I never would have spoken about these things like I’m some long-suffering homosexual.”
So why now? Why to all these people? “Oh, wouldn’t you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth, rather than some horse’s ass?” he asks and shakes my hand good-bye.
Tab Hunter Confidential screens Thursday, November 19, at 7 p.m. at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.