With his blonde surfer-dude locks and fresh-scrubbed complexion, Tab Hunter set female hearts aflutter in the 1950s with hit movies like "Damn Yankees" and "Battle Cry" and records including the chart-topping "Young Love." No one suspected that Hollywood's all-American boy was homosexual.
Now Hunter, 84, opens up about his days in Hollywood -- from his discovery at age 20 to working with cult filmmaker John Waters -- and his private life, including his relationship with actor Anthony Perkins -- in the new documentary "Tab Hunter Confidential," produced by his longtime partner Allan Glaser. The actor will be on hand for a screening and Q&A Wednesday, Oct. 14, at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. He spoke by phone from his home in Santa Barbara, California.
You were thrown into movies with no experience. What was the first day on the set like?
The first time was when I tested with Linda Darnell for "Island of Desire," and I was a nervous wreck. And she pinched me and said, "Relax, I'm good luck for newcomers." And she was.
You left Warner Bros. after getting roles you didn't like. Did you regret that move?
Yes, in many respects, and no. Your own freedom and individuality is major. . . . I really wanted out of the studio contract, but at the same time, the security financially was important because I had a mother I had to care for. It was a tough decision to make. I did a couple of movies after that that were all right, and then I did a lot of dreck, mainly for survival.
As a gay man in the 1950s, did you ever think being an actor, in which your life would be so scrutinized, might not be the right profession?
If something would be mentioned, I would just go in the other direction. I wouldn't confront anything. My sexuality was nobody's business. The studio never mentioned my sexuality. If they had, I would have freaked out. The only person I ever discussed things with besides Tony [Perkins] was Dick Clayton, my agent.
The movie deals heavily with your relationship with your mother. What did she say when you told her you were gay?
I never told my mother anything. We were driving back from my brother's funeral up in northern California after he was killed in Vietnam. As we were driving down the coast, out of the blue my mother said, "I never see Tony anymore or hear about him." And I said, "Well, he's doing a picture in Thailand." There was this long pause, and all of a sudden my mother said, "I've never been in love." That was the closest we ever came to saying anything about it.
How did the idea for the documentary come about?
It all started with the book [his 2005 memoir of the same name]. Allan said, "I think you should do a book because I hear someone is going to do a book on you." I thought, "Who would want to read a book on me?" He said, "You'd be surprised." I thought about it and decided I'd do it. I figured get it from the horse's mouth. . . . Then years went by and Allan said, "I think we should do a documentary."
Warner Bros. considered you for "Rebel Without a Cause." Did you want to do the kinds of roles people like James Dean were playing?
It was only when I got "Battle Cry" that I realized I wanted seriously to be an actor. . . . I started working with [acting coach] Jeff Corey and doing a lot of live TV, which was a great training ground.
Do you have any favorite co-stars or roles?
I loved working with Geraldine Page, she was one of my favorites. And Natalie Wood, who was like my kid sister. . . . "Damn Yankees" was great because it was my first musical, and I was working with the whole Broadway cast. Live TV was probably the most gratifying for my growth as an actor and a person.
How was working with Sophia Loren?
She was absolutely fabulous. We were working in the heat of the summer in New York City. She had an air-conditioned limo that we would sit in to cool off while we were waiting for a shot. The big record at that time was Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash," and that was our song. Under all that fire and sex, the great thing I loved about Sophia is that she was so childlike.
And Divine in "Polyester" and "Lust in the Dust"?
That's one of my favorite leading ladies. I was just done doing a play in Indianapolis or someplace, and John Waters called and said, "I've got a script that I'd love you to look at, and it's a film with Divine." Then he said, "Before we go any further, how would you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?" And I said, "Well I'm sure I've kissed a helluva lot worse." I read the script and I knew I had to do it because it was such fun. . . . I wanted John to direct our film "Lust in the Dust," but he said he only does his own stuff. I'd written it and originally it was called "The Reverend and Rosie," and it was going to be Chita Rivera and myself, but she was tied up on Broadway. And then I wanted Shirley MacLaine, and that didn't work out. Then Alan said to me, "What about Divine and Lainie Kazan as half sisters?" And I said, "Alan, you're brilliant."
Had you had any aspirations to be a singer?
I used to sing in the shower [laughs], and in church I sang in the choir. The only time I had a solo, nothing came out because I was so frightened. When Howard Miller, who was a big disc jockey in Chicago, heard me sing, he said, "Did you ever think about recording?" I said, "I'd love to do that," so he said, "Let me put you in touch with [record producer] Randy Wood. Randy called me, presented me with a tune called "Young Love." We went in an recorded it on a Friday, and on Monday morning I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and heard it on the car radio and almost hit a palm tree.
What did you think of your singing voice?
They drowned me in echo and I guess they thought it was all right
What did you think about having all of those female fans swooning over you?
Whenever anybody says to me, "My mother just loved you," my response is, "Thank her for me because if it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't have been working."
Did you ever think your looks were a help or a hindrance to your career?
I wasn't comfortable in that skin. My comfort zone was being out at the stable. Every free minute I'd be out with my horses. They were my touch of reality in Hollywood. I was just never an out-there kind of guy. I was very shy as a kid. I played the game, but it was difficult.
"Tab Hunter Confidential" documentary screening and Q&A with Hunter
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m., Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington (it opens Friday in Manhattan)
INFO $25; 631-423-7611, cinemaartscentre.org