Tab Hunter is the quintessential 1950s male, but he’ll be the first to tell you those days are dead and gone. An actor who’s worked with such titans of the era – just look at the names mentioned throughout – it was hard not shouting out names to him and hearing his responses. While out promoting his documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, Hunter stopped to talk about Hollywood, old and new.
Kristen: As a huge classic film fan it’s such an honor to talk to you!
Tab Hunter: Oh, well thank you very much. You know, that was a whole different time and a whole different type of moviemaking, but it was a wonderful time to be a part of the business.
K: I can only imagine! The caliber of actors and actresses alone; I had to refrain from just listing actors and actresses and asking you about them. You worked with so many amazing people!
TH: It’s interesting you say that because I just had lunch with my friend, Maria Cooper, who is Gary Cooper’s daughter. She’s been an old, old friend of mine I’ve known forever. It’s so nice to catch up.
K: I’ve attended the TCM Classic Film Festival the last two years and it’s nirvana hearing everyone talk about that time, and your documentary [Tab Hunter Confidential] does a great job of presenting your experiences.
TH: I was very fortunate along with the likes of Tony Curtis, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood. We were the last of the Hollywood era and so we always looked up to the big stars from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Fred Astaire because they were Hollywood royalty; those were great, great contributions and that will never be again.
K: Hollywood’s certainly tried to do the throwback pictures and honor the studio era, but there’s a different tone that’s never properly struck.
TH: What’s interesting is those were run [past studios] by the studio moguls like Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer. Now they have large corporations that run them and spend a gazillion dollars on films.
K: I watched this alongside the Orry-Kelly documentary, Women He’s Undressed, and it was interesting that we’re getting more of these documentaries seeking to lift the veil and show what was happening behind the Hollywood veneer.
TH: The reason we did this was we wanted something positive out there. There’s so much negativity going on in the world today. I don’t want to be around that. Everybody should be able to relate, in one way or another, to this documentary in some capacity.
K: And most Hollywood documentaries, especially now, it’s more horror stories and cautionary tales in the E! True Hollywood Story vein. You mention in the documentary that the magazines created these “Whatever Happened to Tab Hunter” stories. Your documentary, amazingly enough, isn’t a cautionary tale at all.
TH: We’re all on a journey, and it’s all about the journey that we have from birth to death, and let’s make it a positive journey as best we can by making correct choices. I’m a great lover of horses, I have been my whole life, and in Hollywood I’d always run out to the stable every free minute I could because the horses were my touch of reality in the unrealistic world of Hollywood.
K: I know there was your autobiography of the same name a few years back. What was the process like of first putting everything down in the book and then turning that into a documentary?
TH: That was Alan’s [Glaser] choice. The story over the book was Alan said to me, “I hear someone’s going to do a book on you. I think you should do a book.” I started to laugh and said, “What are you talking about? Who’s going to read a book on me;” it’s nobody’s business. He said, “I think you have a contribution.” I thought about it and thought, get it from the horse’s mouth and not some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone, it’s just that simple. People always want to put a spin on your life and they never knew you. That was the journey and I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m really glad I did it but it was very difficult to do. By the time Alan wanted me to do the documentary, which took him six almost seven years to do, I thought, “You know, what the heck? I did the book. Why not?” And we’ve got so much memorabilia on old Hollywood, so he went out and found our director and I think he did an amazing job.
K: I would agree! I read a lot of celebrity biographies and autobiographies. Although, I’ll confess, yours is part of my ever growing “need to read” pile.
TH: You know you can’t put everything in the 90 minutes of a film. You have to pick and choose, and I think Alan’s decision to do interviews with people of that era I had known or worked with was a very good choice also.
K: One of the things you mention in the documentary is you don’t watch your old films. You still have such a big fanbase and TCM has revived them so much in the last few years so how do you mitigate all of that?
TH: I’m appreciative when they do things like that. I’ve been there and I’ve done that; I’ve gotta get out with my horse and her baby. I think there’s more important things to do than watch myself on television.
K: You’d be surprised, when I asked people to send in questions, how many marriage proposals you received!
TH: That’s very sweet!
K: I’m assuming that’s something that never gets completely comfortable.
TH: It’s a lovely thought. I almost did get married to Etchika Choureau. We touch on that in the documentary. She was an extraordinary person, but it was very difficult; I was going through a lot of growing pains. You’ve got to be truthful to yourself and how truthful would I have been had I gotten married? I wouldn’t know. My choice was not to. But I love the proposals, keep ’em coming; if they don’t mind an old man!
K: I’m not sure if that’s just celebrity in general, but there’s a desire to ask the deeply personal.
TH: That’s our society today. In the old days it was totally different, nothing was ever said about a person. People might have said something behind closed doors, but it was never out there, in your face. And when you were under contract to a studio, the studio was there to promote and build you and the picture you were in. It was a job, and either you did the job to the best of your abilities or you were out and someone else was in.
K: The documentary shows that fame, under the studio system, was a double-edged sword. As someone who experienced both halves – was there more benefits to popular stars who might have been squandered creatively or to be a free agent who had less job security but could be creative?
TH: That depended on the individual because everybody’s different. People so often want to hang a label and the studio created these images. In the old days – I was at the end of the studio system – the studio had an aura of mystery about it that was quite wonderful, and I kind of liked that. I wanted to know more about Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire. The studio system was very protective of their stars.
K: The studio era was the one controlling the star’s persona whereas now the star’s are the ones doing the creating. There’s unpredictability, both positive and negative.
TH: It’s a totally different business, you’re absolutely right. They play down to people as opposed to elevating the audience’s thinking.
K: Well, I’m a big Esther Williams fan…
TH: Million Dollar Mermaid was just on a few days ago!
K: I was saying to someone, we’ll never get an Esther Williams because no one wants to see a girl swim in a pool anymore. That would never make a $100 million box office opening weekend.
TH: You hit on a figure; they didn’t make pictures for that amount of money. I’d rather see four or five pictures made on a lower budget. I love the lower budget films, the independents. I think the demise of the studio system was when the European films came in; people wanted real people in real situations as opposed to the fabrication of the Hollywood aura and era.
K: I was gonna ask, did you feel or notice a difference working in a big studio production vs. something like a John Waters film that’s obviously lower budget?
TH: A large budget film, they take their sweet time. It gets watered down with too much thinking. What starts out as a good idea gets diluted till it’s a bowl of pablum. In a low budget film, you get a creative group together and really do something, like a lovely foreign film, or even a comedy like John does. Working with John Waters was a delight; it was easy and quick. You had to be on your game and you worked well as a unit, quickly.
K: To go back to the studio era, can you explain what was a typical day like? When your film career picked up you had TV and magazine covers so you must have been busy.
TH: Well, if you were on a project you’d be there early in the morning till late in the evening, filming. You did whatever they asked. If they said you had an interview, or you have to do a photographic layout, that was your job. They’d send a limo to send you to your premiere. It was part of the game of Hollywood moviemaking. In my day every free minute when I wasn’t working – I did a few films before I got the Warner Bros. contract – I did a lot of live TV. They would loan me out to do live TV or go to other studios. Live TV was the growth area for an actor. The days of Playhouse 90 or Philco, Studio One, or guesting on the variety shows. They would give the studios the plug as you appeared….live TV presented so many unique opportunities for actors, directors – the John Frankenheimers, the Arthur Penns, the Sidney Lumets.
K: I’ve noticed it’s often more difficult for studio era stars to watch contemporary films, but you’ve worked in both the studio system and with John Waters, who’s about as contemporary as you can get!
TH: John has a great sense of humor about his work which is wonderful. John just goes for pure fun and escapism and you go with the flow. There’s so many films that don’t feed you in that capacity.
K: In terms of modern filmmaking, do modern films grab you?
TH: I don’t go to a lot of movies, but I am an Academy voting member. I know of a few I want to see, and I have a great friend, Michael Dealy, who produced Blade Runner and Deer Hunter, and I ask him. I do see as many as I can around awards time and I definitely see the ones up for the final awards. I’m always a lover of the independent film that gives us something to think about.
K: Is there anything this year that’s intrigued you?
TH: I haven’t seen any of the big films but they’re starting to send them to me now!
K: There’s definitely a bit of a back and forth over sexuality during the studio era. Some people were able to avoid dating women or getting married because their sexuality was an open secret, whereas there were others who played the Hollywood game so far as getting married.
TH: Well my sexuality was never mentioned at Warner Bros. If they had I would have freaked out and not known what to say. People had a tendency, in the old days, to not say anything. The word “gay” wasn’t around. You might hear “rumor has it,” or you’d see people who were flamboyant here and there, but you wouldn’t go beyond that. There were more manners. The other thing missing was style. Who had more style than Fred Astaire?
K: You look at the pictures of Randolph Scott and Cary Grant, their house together. People had to know something was going on, but no one ever said anything.
TH: People are too in your face today. People should live the life they wish to live, but you have to make the choice of what kind of life that’ll be. It’s all about the journey and hopefully we’ll grow on this journey, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
K: You worked with some AMAZING people! Natalie Wood, Linda Darnell, Debbie Reynolds, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, John Wayne!
TH: Don’t forget Sophia [Loren]!
K: Is there an actor/actress you enjoyed working with or left a lasting impression?
TH: Oddly enough there are three actors I’ve worked with who I pray for every Sunday: Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, and Van Heflin. They were really impressive people, particularly for a young actor learning his craft.
K: Those are such titans of that era! Outside of George Abbott (director of Damn Yankees) whom you mention in the documentary you didn’t get along with, were there any other directors or costars you probably don’t mind seeing again?
TH: No. I’ve had unpleasant experiences but you’re all working toward the same end. You’re all working on the same project to make it as best as it possibly can, and that’s what it’s all about.
K: If you had to do it all over again – the studio politics, the double life – would you?
TH: In this day and age, I’d have been a horse trainer somewhere because I showed horses, judged horses, gave riding clinics.
K: Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me.
TH: Well, thank you! This has been a frantic time and I’m just overwhelmed by the response. Alan’s spent seven years putting this together. He worked very closely and I’m just overwhelmed with the response.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.