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The younger cohort could be forgiven if they didn’t recognize the name of the film’s subject at the screening of Tab Hunter Confidential at Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival. Tab Hunter, Warner Brothers’ biggest box-office star for four straight years in the late 1950s, saw his big-screen career start to sink while JFK was still President.
But for those who saw Hunter’s remarkable life story unspool on screen — and especially for those who stuck around while Hunter answered questions afterward — the 84-year-old star stands as one of Hollywood’s indelible personalities.
Oddly enough, he is also one of its enduring success stories.
When you get an eyeful of young Tab Hunter’s blond hair, piercing eyes, cleft chin and chiseled frame, the word “handsome” doesn’t quite cut it. Indeed, it’s hard not to describe him as “beautiful.” Hollywood cast him in his earliest films based on looks alone, but bad reviews spurred him to study the actor’s craft — he even put in time on stage — and soon he was carrying his own weight in such dramatic and light-comedy films as Battle Cry and Damn Yankees. Hunter’s turn as a cold-blooded killer in a 1958 Playhouse 90 episode, Portrait of a Murderer, cemented him as a respected actor. He even became a successful recording star with hits including Young Love and Ninety-Nine Ways.
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Hunter was romantically linked to any number of starlets, Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds among them. But the truth — first hidden by the studio, then an open secret in Hollywood — was that Tab Hunter was gay.
Still, Hunter’s lifestyle didn’t cause his downfall: When Confidential magazine revealed it, studio head Jack Warner personally quashed the rumors. Only when Hunter decided to leave Warner Brothers did things turn sour. From then on, every “Tab Hunter role” went to a new guy in town, Merle Johnson. (We know him better as Troy Donahue.)
“It’s funny, says Hunter, who was born Arthur Kelm. “Troy Donahue was the first name my agent tried to give me when I was starting out.”
After the Middleburg Film Festival screening, Hunter — still strapping, by the way — confessed that although the film was based on his best-selling autobiography, he really didn’t want to rehash it all on screen.
“I had to talk about a lot of things that I’m not always comfortable talking about,” he said.
In fact, said the film’s producer, Allan Glaser, “It took two years to talk him into doing the movie. After the book he said, ‘Let’s let sleeping dogs lie. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. That’s it.’”
Hunter and Glaser, who have been in a relationship for more than 30 years, enlisted a parade of friends and coworkers for the film, including Reynolds; Clint Eastwood; film historian Robert Osborne; Natalie Wood’s husband, Robert Wagner; and director John Waters.
Waters had brought Hunter his greatest post-Warner success, casting him opposite legendary drag actor Divine in 1981’s Polyester.
“I was finishing a play in Indianapolis when the phone rang,” Hunter recalled. “It was John Waters. He said, ‘You probably don’t know me…’ and I said, ‘Whoa, I’m a big fan! I loved Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a script and I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing it. But I have one question first: How do you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?’
“I said, ‘I’m sure I’ve kissed a helluva lot worse!’ And you know, Divine was one of my favorite leading ladies. I put him right up there with Sophia Loren and Natalie!”
It’s been 20 years since Hunter last acted onscreen, and he’s fine with that.
“It was spooky enough having to do this documentary!” he said. “You have to open up and tell things. I’m just not comfortable with that. I was raised by a very strict German mother who said, ‘Nothing for show!’ Of course, somehow I wound up in show business!”
Though Tab Hunter Confidential relates how the actor’s sexual orientation forced him out of the Catholic Church, he now attends Mass every Sunday.
Hunter refuses to define his relationship with the church as a “reconciliation,” however.
“That’s between you and your Maker,” he said. “That’s what’s important. And I love what the Pope said: “ ‘Who are we to judge?’ That’s pretty powerful. And we’re all guilty of judging people. We shouldn’t do that. We’ve got to lift our thinking, particularly in this day and age when everything seems to be so negative.”
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Hunter and Glaser now live in Santa Barbara, where the star can spend time with his beloved horses. In fact, he says Hunter, horses have been his “true escape” since his earliest days in Hollywood.
“They were my touch with reality,” he said. “Every free minute I would run out to the barn to shovel the real stuff as opposed to the Hollywood stuff!”
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