Tab Hunter: Golden Age sex symbol talks being gay in 1950s Hollywood

“I felt like if I was with a man, I was sinning, and if I was with a woman, I’d be lying.”

Tab Hunter: Confidential tells the story of Tab Hunter, a teen idol during the 1950s who even topped the Billboard charts with his music.

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However, Hunter had one big secret: he was gay. At 83, Hunter decided to tell his story through film with a documentary directed by I Am Divine’s, Jeffrey Schwarz. While at SXSW in March 2015, our own Daniel Levine got a chance to sit down with Hunter, Schwarz and Hunter’s partner and the film’s co-producer, Allan Glaser.

Tab passed on July 8 of 2018.

Daniel: Tab, how did you decide that a documentary was important to make, even though you had come forward in your autobiography? You decided to still make a film about your experience.

Tab Hunter: I didn’t! It was Allan. [He] was the one who decided... He said, “I think we should go forward with it and do a documentary.” It took 10 years and he had been working on the documentary for six when we met Jeffrey when we did I Am Divine and Allan immediately said he’d be the perfect director for this. [Schwarz interviewed Hunter for I Am Divine.]

Allan Glaser: Once I met Jeffrey, I knew we had our team. And once we had our team, it took off.

Daniel: Did you actively seek out the [opportunity] to do this film?

Jeffrey Schwarz: I had read the book and, of course I knew about Tab. In fact, in the early ‘90s, I was in a thrift shop and I found one of Tab’s old record albums and, I remember thinking, “This means something.” I also found an old record of Tony Perkins’ and so I had those two album covers hanging on my bathroom wall since the early ‘90s. After interviewing Tab and Allan for I Am Divine, I started thinking about a documentary. I didn’t know that they were also thinking about trying to do a doc. It all just came together naturally.

Daniel: Did you think that the documentary was an important thing to do, considering the news climate today, with same-sex marriage finally sweeping the country? Did you think that now was the time to come out with a story about how hard it was to stay in the closet during the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Tab: I don’t think that’s what the story is about. See, I have a totally different perspective of the thread in the tapestry of my life. I think the story is about a journey and a journey for someone as a kid getting into the movies, what the movie business was like and what my life is today. And I think that arc is interesting and Jeffrey was able to bring that to the screen really well. Allan had all the memorabilia stuff to put out there. Thank god that I had some wonderful people who I had worked with in the past you came forward and were so pleased to be able to contribute with.

Allan: It was gratuitous though, as when we started this, gay marriage was illegal. But during the six-year process of making this film, it had all just come into the mainstream and we just happened to have the right timing. But that wasn’t the reason for making the film.

Jeffrey: It also makes some of the clips in the movie more ironic. There’s a clip of Tab singing a song called “Apple Blossom Time” and “What a wonderful wedding it will be.” Of course, the first thing I think of when I see that clip is that 50 years later...

Tab: That’s funny, because when I hear it, I think of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters! [Laughs]

Jeffrey: I love it, but now it’s about you and a gay marriage anthem! There you go!

TCC: When you went into the movie business, you must have understood that you weren’t going to be able to be open about being gay.

Tab: I never thought about that. You live your life to the best you possibly can. But it’s not about “being gay.” That word wasn’t even around in those days. People want to say, “Oh, you’re gay and she’s like this and he’s like that.” But that’s not what life is about. Life is about what kind of human being are you. Are you a contributor?

Daniel: I hope I am!

Tab: That’s exactly [it]! You’re right!

Allan: Think about the time period Tab was growing up in. It was illegal. It was considered a mental disease! I mean, it wasn’t something you would embrace. If anything, you would run from that and not embrace it, so that would be the little secret that you would have.

Jeffrey: That’s one of the things that I think will be revelatory with younger members of the audience. The primary focus of the film isn’t about Tab’s sexuality, although that was one of the reasons why I was very interested in making the film. It’s a look into the closet and it’s a look into the pressure men and women had to deal with at the time. For someone like Tab, who was a very private person, but then also being under the spotlight of the media at the time... there must have been incredible pressure. I know he likes to downplay it, but I would imagine and he has talked about those pressures of being rewarded for being someone he really wasn’t. And now, he’s able to talk about those things, but it’s still not the most comfortable thing.

Tab: The studios were wonderful, because they were run by movie moguls and those days will never be again. They were terrific and they would build you and they would build your career. They were wonderful. Warner Bros. never said a word to me about my private life.

Daniel: So was it more like a publicity machine that tried to put you with other actresses from the time?

Tab: I love the way you said “publicity machine,” because I’ve always referred to that as that. That’s what it was. It was a wing at the Warner Bros. studio.

TCC: Well, you hear about Rock Hudson having to marry someone...

Tab: I don’t know whether he had to or if he chose to because of his career. I don’t think he had to. I think Rock and Phyllis [Gates] decided, “We want to get married because it’s very important for the image.

Jeffrey: And he wasn’t the only one. There were many actors and actresses who did that and it’s still going on to this very day. A lot of things have not changed.

Allan: But the difference is that, as you saw in the film, Tab chose not to do that. He toyed with the idea of marrying, but said “I felt like if I was with a man, I was sinning, and if I was with a woman, I’d be lying.” So he was right at that center line. I think it had to be difficult.

Tab: It’s a difficult thing to go through, but my touch of reality in that unrealistic world of Hollywood was my horses. They were very, very important to me and still are.

Daniel: So you had to keep yourself grounded?

Tab: I think we all do. I think we all need to do that. And I think it’s good to take stock of what’s going on and be aware. I really tried to do that because I had a very strong German mother!

Daniel: So many of the stars that you worked with contributed to the film. Were they really open to talking about the experiences of that time?

Tab: They talked about what the questions were asked and what they felt they wanted to say. I thought that was handled very well by Jeffrey and Allan. Allan prepared some of the questions and I think they got some really interesting people.

Allan: But that’s a very interesting question because it was very interesting to hear a Connie Stevens or a Robert Wagner [or] Debbie Reynolds talk about [that]. Nobody has asked them these questions before we asked them, because you wouldn’t dare ask them in the 1950s and nobody thought about asking them today. Nobody’s going around, asking Debbie Reynolds, “What was it like to be [with] Tab Hunter when you thought he was gay?”

Tab: But they said that about everybody. I mean, they had rumors about Debbie, they had rumors about all kinds of people. People just want to throw these things out and hope it sticks to the wall.

Daniel: As you said, it is kind of weird in a way to hear Debbie Reynolds talking about that.

Allan: Exactly, and that’s what I think makes this film so interesting. Because I’m a film buff and... I’ve never heard Debbie Reynolds or Robert Wagner or Terry Moore talk about that part of Hollywood. They’ve all talked about other things...

Tab: And I loved RJ [Wagner] talking about Natalie [Wood]. He never opens up about Natalie, ever, to the press. So to hear him talk about Nat is just so great.

Jeffrey: It’s really, for me, an unprecedented peek behind the curtain. For so many years, Hollywood was trying to maintain this façade. Now, it’s a whole different world. And so it’s fascinating, as a viewer, to look back at how these myths were created by the industry and who better to tell that story than Tab himself?

Allan: [The studios] had a whole publicity wing that, whatever they knew about any of their stars, it was their job to create this other person that they were selling to the public. And Tab’s friends, who they were selling to the public, had all known about what his choices were. They also kept quiet. Nobody talked about anything back then, or gossiped.

Tab: The studio ran a very tight ship. If you were with the press and you went in to do an interview and they didn’t like the angle you were going, they just pfft dismissed you and you’d be bought.

Daniel: They also assigned the movies that you were in when you first signed. Were there any attempts on your part to make different movies?

Tab: Oh, I had a major problem with that. In fact, I was put on suspension because I turned down a couple of films. Yes, that was a very difficult thing to do.

Daniel: Because on one hand, you’re making Battle Cry and then you’re also making Damn Yankees. Today, that kind of thing doesn’t really happen.

Tab: They put you in a slot. “Formula A” works, so don’t change “Formula A” - that seems to be the thing they do today. But my mother said, “Please, they play down to people. You must elevate your thinking!” She was very strong. And I think when you do see the good films today by the creative young people over there, it’s really exciting to see so few of those things around.

Allan: It’s a yin and a yang thing, because they could give him great pictures and Tab would be happy to accept them. But then, they’d also give you these crummy pictures that you did begrudgingly because you were under contract. Then it got to the point where he said, “Enough already.”

Tab: The industry was changing. We can’t forget that. All the major studios had to get rid of all the theaters they owned around the country. Television was coming in, in a big way. It was just taking over everything. The box office receipts were different. The audience was the young teenage kids that I appealed to and all that. They were now moving to Italian films and real people in real situations.

Daniel: But you were still put into these war movies that were so clearly filmed in Hollywood... It’s such a great honor to sit down and talk with you about the film.

Tab: Well, thank you. I was just really fortunate... I’m not comfortable with really being in the public eye. I’ve been there and I’m really pleased that Allan pushed me into this and our association with Jeffrey was there. It’s been a really good marriage and I’m pleased about that.

Daniel: And it lets you put the final stamp on your career.

Allan: Exactly...

Jeffrey: ...On his terms.

Tab: Just don’t forget to say thank you! [Laughs]

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Daniel S Levine

Daniel S Levine is a longtime movie fan and a graduate of Hoftsra University. I also know just about everything you might need to know about Star Wars.