by Sara Michelle Fetters and MK Scott
We were saddened this past week with death of Tab Hunter on July 8, 2018 at age 86. Since we both interviewed the Hollywood legend, SGN honors his memory by running each interview side by side as a tribute to Tab.
In May 2015, Sara Michelle spoke with Tab, a week before the screening of the Jeffrey Schwartz documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, at the Seattle International Film Festival. In the interview, Sara Michelle focused on his studio days and having to hide his sexuality, and working with Divine.
In August 2016, with the film’s DVD release, MK focused on coming out, past relationships with Henry Wilson, Tony Perkins, and his leading ladies.
MK recalls that Tab mentioned that he once had a horse ranch near Seaside, OR.
So, we are pleased to share our interviews with Tab Hunter – it was an honor to get to know him.
Sara Michelle Fetters: When you were approached to take part in this documentary, when it was suggested you should help transform your memoir into a film, what went through your head? Was this something you thought was a good idea? What sort of convincing did it take to get you onboard with the idea?
Tab Hunter: It was Allan’s thought, my longtime partner Allan Glaser, and it was him that talked me into doing the book in the first place and, for that, I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot because at least this way they’ll have the truth from the horse’s mouth and no one can make me look like a horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone.
So, that was the book, and I always thought it was going to stop there, but then it became a bestseller and Allan, after a little bit of time, came back to me and suggested we should make a documentary out of it. I rolled my eyes at him and initially said no, but he came back saying how it would be this story of a person’s journey from youthful age, dreaming of being in pictures, going into the Golden Age of Hollywood and then finally a story of overcoming prejudice and stigma. He thought it could be very helpful to young people who might be confused and unsure of who they are and what they want to be in their lives. He really felt my story could do people some good. How could I say no to logic such as that?
Sara Michelle Fetters: I’m always a little flabbergasted, looking at your story and that of fellow closeted stars like Rock Hudson and Richard Chamberlain, by what it took to survive during this portion of Hollywood history, what it took for you to be a star.
Tab Hunter: But that’s what life is, isn’t it? It’s about survival. About the choices you make. Look, a lot of people are really out there and are very active in their feelings and I am so impressed and inspired by that ability. During my time in Hollywood, I was just the opposite. I was very quiet. I was very reserved. I had to be what they [the studios] wanted me to be or they’d just go find somebody else. It was that simple. Those wonderful movie moguls of the time, they knew what it took to build and make careers, and if you wanted to be a star then you did what they said no questions asked.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Because they also knew how to destroy careers.
Tab Hunter: Exactly. They had the power. But, then, they were your boss and you did your job, that’s all there really was to it. Now, I did turn down a few films and that didn’t exactly make me the most popular guy on the lot at times, but they also knew which films to put me in that would show me off the best. But I did finally wear out my contract, and that was actually when everything changed for me as far as my career was concerned, it wasn’t the moguls going out of their way to destroy me or anything.
The studio era? In my opinion it was a wonderful time, even with its flaws. It’s a whole different ballgame now. It’s all large corporations, all of which that seem to think spending more money makes better motion pictures which is unconditionally untrue. Like it was during my day, it’s still all about the material. Material, material, material; great material is how you make a great motion picture.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And, you should know, because you were actually there when everything changed, when the Studio System came to an end during the late 1950s, early 1960s, and the new wave of filmmakers and studio heads began taking control. You saw it firsthand.
Tab Hunter: I did. That’s a very good point. You also have to realize television was really starting to take command of the audience’s attention during that time, and that really did hurt the motion picture industry, more than I think today’s young people and moviegoers comprehend or understand. Those moguls knew what they wanted. Today, these large corporations, they rarely have any sort of idea as to what it is they want. There are too many people adding their input. The writer and the director and the producer, they no longer have any control. They’re forced to go along or they [the studios] will just find someone else to take their place. I mean, ego is a killer, and with all these corporate boardrooms trying to make decisions overriding the filmmaker’s wants and intentions I think there’s a lot of ego getting in the way today.
Sara Michelle Fetters: If you can’t sell the plot of a film in five words, or if it isn’t about a superhero or a name franchise, or if it won’t play in China, then there’s no reason to make the movie at all.
Tab Hunter: Right. Concentration spans seem to be only two minutes long anymore or, at least, that’s how these corporations think. It’s not good for the industry, and I think that’s why the majority of the good films you see have to be made independently outside of studio reach. Not all, as with anything there are exceptions, but the majority. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Back to your story, do you ever allow yourself to think what could have been? What might have happened with your career had the Studio System not come to an end, had you not been outed? I mean, when Damn Yankees came out, in all honesty you were one of the biggest stars in the world at that point. Would remaining there have been worth the cost it would have required to do so?
Tab Hunter: My mother was a wonderful, strict, old-fashioned German woman, and she always said something doesn’t sit well with a lot of people even though it’s absolute true: Accept things as they are, not the way you want them to be. Whoa. I mean, think about that for a second. What a statement! So true.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You also got the opportunity to work with some incredible directors, George Abbott, Stanley Donen, Raul Walsh, William A. Wellman, Sidney Lumet, John Huston, just to name a scant few.
Tab Hunter: Wonderful directors. For me, the greatest ones that I had the pleasure to work with were the ones who came out of live television. Sidney Lumet. John Frankenheimer. Arthur Penn. They just knew how to get the best out of you. We’re talking really fine directors. But then, I go over to Italy and I’m working with Luchino Visconti. I mean, my gosh, this man was brilliant! I was very lucky to work with the directors I did, no question.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Could you have gone to Italy, worked with Visconti, had your story not had the arc that it had?
Tab Hunter: He wanted me for Senso back in 1954, but my agent at the time didn’t even know how to pronounce his name let alone give me the script, so that never happened. When I met with Luchino years later he told me this story and I rolled my eyes. If only I had known! I mean, that film! It’s stunning. But I would get the chance to work with him later on. He was a master. One of the best.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Then there is John Waters. In many ways, your story wouldn’t be complete without him. What was that like? Getting that call from him? Working with Divine and all the rest on Polyester?
Tab Hunter: John is your friendly undertaker. He truly is a sweet, if mischievous, man. He was wonderful to work for. He was terrific. He had his group and they were devoted to him, willing to do anything. It was guerilla filmmaking at its finest. In many ways I owe so much to him. To this day, I can’t help but smile every time I see John. I enjoy him so very much.
But, making Polyester, you just had to embrace the moment. It was a very exciting time. It really was. It was the first film I’d done in ages, I was doing dinner theater at the time and I had two weeks off so I thought, what the hell, I’ll do this little picture for this guy with the crazy mustache and see what happens. I had read the script and it frankly sounded like a lot of fun. I was also a major fan of Divine’s. I mean, who can forget Mondo Trasho? Such a talent.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What does your story say to the young Gay kid in middle America who’s afraid to tell anyone what’s going on with themselves, or the young Transgender girl in the Northeast terrified they’re not going to let her use the right bathroom and she’s going to have to face unimaginable ridicule? How does this story apply to them? How can they relate?
Tab Hunter: I’m not one to give advice. I never have been. But I can tell you that people have to be truthful to themselves. You have to go down the road as openly as you can. You have to have an open mind. Geraldine Page once said to me, if people don’t like you that’s their baggage. I thought that was fabulous. Not only did I apply that to my life, I also pass it on to every person that I meet. If others don’t get the message, that’s not your problem, that’s theirs. As long as we accept this journey positively, we have to be positive, anything is possible. There are three words I think are very important to a person’s health: mental, physical and, number one, spiritual. I think we always have to be aware of those words no matter what path we’re on. As long we take care of those things, are aware of them, nurture them, then we stay on the path and can live a healthy life. If others take issue then, like Geraldine said, that’s their baggage, not yours.
MK Scott: You came out publicly in your book. The question is, for many of us, what took you so long?
TH: Well, I just didn’t want to talk about my life. I mean, I feel, you know, what the hell? This is a journey, we are all on a journey, and that’s the important thing. What kind of a journey are you on? And you better have a direction, and you better have a purpose, and you better be thankful, and just not be negative, but be positive. And I figured, look, this is my trip and when I’m dead and gone, I don’t want some schmuck writing anything about me, you know, and putting a spin on my life that never knew me. You know, get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone.
MK: When did you personally know that ‘Oh, oh, okay, I’m Gay’?
TH: Well, I never confronted it. The word was never used when I was a kid, and so, therefore, every time something would, would surface, I would just run the other direction. I’m, I’m basically a pretty quiet person. I was taught by a very old fashion German mother, you know, nothing for show and just go down the road doing the best you possibly can. So I don’t, I’m not one of those in-your-face type of individuals, and I never really have been. What I did, I just write, and talk about the journey, my journey.
MK: Now in the film you talk more about your relationship with Tony Perkins. Tell us more about Tony.
TH: Well, Tony was an actor who I met when he was doing Friendly Persuasion  and I saw Tony for a few years. And then I didn’t see Tony again for many years until we wanted him for our film, Lust In The Dust, and I went back to see Tony and presented him with a script, but he, he unfortunately didn’t want to do the film and I saw Berry [Tony Perkin’s wife, Berry Berenson] and met his children and that was all very, very nice, and I was really shocked when I heard later he had passed away.
MK: I heard you also had an aspiration to be a figure skater.
TH: Well, I used to skate as a hobby, I mean, skating was one of my favorite things, you know, I competed. But when you’re competing in skating, you know, me, I did singles, but also pair skating. I had two very, very good, you know, partners in pair skating, Joyce Lockwood and I forget the other girl’s name right now, Hope, oh Hope Anderson. But I didn’t like it because the, because I didn’t like the judging system, because it’s just your own accomplishment. And I prefer, I went back to my horses, because when you work with a horse you work with an animal that has a life of its own, and the competition there lead me on to becoming a judge and giving riding clinics all over the country and buying and selling horses, and, that to me was much more important.
MK: Speaking of skating, tell us more about Ronnie.
TH: Well, Ronnie [Robertson] was one of the finest skaters I’ve known. I mean, you know, he was in top, top Olympic competition and one of the best male skaters around. You know, comparable to Evan Lyzacheck and Dick Button and, you know, people like that, I mean, really first class.
MK: Now you posed for lots of beefcake shots, back in the ’50s and ’60s, so what was that experience like?
TH: Well, I think what you do, those are all those fan magazines presenting you to the public. And when you’re under contract to a studio, you do as the studio asks you to do, or you lose your job, and they get someone else who can do what they ask. So your job as a young actor, well, I mean, wow, how can you say ‘no’ when they’re paying you a weekly salary, and they’re giving you all this exposure in the magazines and so forth? So that is your job, and either do it to the best of your ability or get the hell out and let someone else do it that does a better job than you.
MK: Okay, then let’s go back to Henry Wilson. Okay, I think you just said that, you know, a lot of the stuff that was in the book, about Henry Wilson, in regards to The Man Who Made Rock Hudson book, so a lot of that was garbage?
TH: Well, well people love to exploit all the worst. They never want to bring out the best. Henry was a very, very good agent. He was, he had an awfully good reputation, but people did speak about him behind his back because those things weren’t talked about in those days. but Henry had some fine actors and actresses. He discovered Lana Turner, he had Natalie Wood, he had a number, as well as Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, Rock Hudson, you know, Troy Donahue, myself, you know, a lot of different people. But when my friend Dick Clayton became an agent, who was the one who discovered me when I was in a stable shoveling the rear stuff as a kid, when he became an agent, I left Henry and signed with Dick Clayton, who was part of my family. But Dick Clayton was an agent who represented Jimmy Dean, Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, you know, the biggest, the biggest. But Henry, Henry was a very good agent, but he was very exploitative, you know. I mean, he was very good at getting publicity and all that for his clients.
MK: Now, in regards to that, one time, where in order to be able to get some positive publicity for Rock, you and Rory (Calhoun) were like the scapegoats in regards to your 1950 arrest and Rory’s prison term.
TH: Well, that happened because when I left Henry Wilson to sign with Dick Clayton, that really bothered Henry, but also they were going to be putting a story out on Rock for Confidential magazine and, he threw me out there, under the bus, to save Rock, and it was his way, I guess, to get back at me for, you know, leaving him as my agent.
MK: Oh really? So it was to get back at you for leaving?
TH: Well, it certainly happened at that time, so I just assumed that was probably it. But, you know, aside from that, Henry was good, but Dick Clayton was family, and I was much, much better to have Dick Clayton be representing me.
MK: Now, now, did you ever resent Henry for doing that?
TH: No, no I didn’t resent … you accept things the way they are in life, not the way you want them to be and that’s the problem. So you have to accept, you have to take the good with the bad, and if people, you know, if people don’t get your message, that’s their problem, not yours. You have to cope with the good and the bad, you know, people can’t cope with a lot of this, well, get a life.
MK: Now, did you and, did you and Rock ever encounter each other? You know, did you guys ever hang out?
TH: Well, we didn’t really hang out, but he’s a neighbor, he only lived a couple doors up the hill from me.
MK: Oh, really?! Now, what was that time like in Homophobic Hollywood?
TH: Well, I never discussed it. I wouldn’t, even, even if anyone confronted me with any of that, I would just shut it all off and just turn my back on it, because I don’t, I just, never talked about things like that, because it was nobody’s damn business. Today, the problem is everybody wants to, you know, ‘I know this and this, and this, and this’ and everything’s so in your face, and I find it rather appalling. It’s just not me as a person. I’m just very old-fashioned and go down the road doing the best I possibly can and like Geraldine Page once said to me years ago, ‘Remember this Tab, when people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.’ And I thought, wow, that’s great! I’m going to apply that to my life and furthermore, I pass that on to every person I meet: if people don’t like you, that’s their problem, not yours. As long as you’re going down the road doing the best you can.
MK: Tell us about Divine. Working with her.
TH: Oh, Divine was one of my favorite leading ladies, are you kidding? No, Divine was just great! You know, I put him right up there with Geraldine Page, Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood, Rita Hayworth. Divine was great. He was a hell of a lot of fun to work with! I loved him; he was great. Divine was very serious and I like, I really appreciated that. He was wonderful. I having worked with Divine in John’s film, Polyester, that made us decide that we wanted him, for the film Lust In The Dust.
MK: And on Lust In The Dust you met Allan Glaser ….
TH: No, you know, actually before that. Allan was at 20th Century Fox and he left, and single-handedly raised all the money for Lust, and we produced it.
MK: Absolutely. And you guys’ve been together for 30 years now. What’s the secret to your long relationship?
TH: Well, I’ve known Allen for well over 30 years and he’s just a very decent human being and very, very intelligent and creative. I mean, for his idea for me to do the book, which I didn’t want to do, and he said, ‘Well look, someone else is going to be doing a book; I think you should do this.’ And I thought, oh what the hell, I did that. He was the one who thought of the idea of doing the documentary, I think the acclaim that it has gotten has been phenomenal and no, he’s just an incredible human being. Of course, we are as different as night and day. You know, I spend my day out at the barn shoveling the real stuff; he likes to deal with all the Hollywood stuff.
MK: Now would you, if the opportunity presented itself, would you ever go back into the movies again?
TH: I don’t think so. I don’t see any reason why. Who would want an old man like me for gosh sakes, I’ve been there, done that. There’s no point in it. You know, I probably wouldn’t be able to memorize the dialogue. You know, it’s all about, it’s all about what, what you know, your comfort zone. I think I’ve been very fortunate and I thank God everyday, but I’m, I’m very happy seeing my horses everyday.
MK: And how many horses do you have on your ranch?
TH: Well, I have a mare that’s about a mile from here and then I have, well, I just came back from my baby, my yearling, and she’s over in the San Fernandez Valley, so I went over to see her this morning and just got back.
MK: My burning question, which is the one that I personally would love to know about, okay? You did Grease 2& you had one song and you were singing a song called ‘Reproduction.’ What did you think when you said okay, I’m going to go sing a song called ‘Reproduction?’
TH: It was a wonderful song and it was a fun song to do. Unfortunately, the film didn’t turn out as good as we had hoped it would, but it seems to have rung with a lot of people and it gets a lot of play and it was just a fun movie to be a part of! You know, Michelle Pfeiffer’s first film! She was, I mean, not too shabby, I mean, not too hard on the eyes at all. She was fantastic! It was a really good group of people; I loved that. You know, Dody Goodman is there, Connie Stevens, who I’ve known for a long time, Eve Arden, I mean how can you not enjoy doing something like that? Unfortunately, it just didn’t turn out as good a film as we all felt that it should have been.
MK: It was also probably nice to work with Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna [Luft].
TH: Oh, I love Lorna. In fact, I just recently saw her in her nightclub act in Palms Springs. She was fabulous. Always a pleasure to see Lorna!
MK: Wonderful. All right, well, it was a joy talking with you, and we’re looking forward to seeing how the film does on DVD. We can’t wait to see you whenever you show up on anything else.
TH: Well, thank you very much! I was very excited when it debuted and came out as number one. I went like, whoa! I was very, very excited! But I wanted to thank you all so much, and you know, we also have it on our website, too – we do it there, too. I’m just thrilled with the response and want to thank you all!
MK: Thank you! We appreciate you and we, the Gay fans, and everybody, everybody just absolutely adores you so.
TH: Well, thank you so much!