- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tab Hunter recalls a time when the word “gay” didn’t even exist in its current context. As a closeted homosexual in the 1950s, the matinee idol movie star lived a double life — even in the more permissive culture of Hollywood.

“Of course everybody was very closeted and very quiet,” Mr. Hunter, 84, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Hunter’s amazing journey from Hollywood teen idol to a has-been actor struggling with public perceptions of his sexuality is showcased in the new documentary “Tab Hunter Confidential,” which opens Friday at the District’s Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market and will also be seen this weekend at the Middleburg Film Festival. Loosely based on Mr. Hunter’s autobiography of the same name, the documentary weaves in interviews with Mr. Hunter, his longtime partner, Alan Glaser, and various other Hollywood personalities in between vintage film and TV footage of Mr. Hunter’s showbiz career.

Mr. Hunter’s road to stardom was an often-difficult journey. He was born Arthur Kelm in New York into an unstable family. His mother, Gertrude, left his abusive father behind and moved young Arthur and his brother, Walt, out to California.

“My mother was a very strong, very religious German woman whose idea was there’s yes, there’s no, and there’s no in-between,” Mr. Hunter said of his late mother, a devout Catholic. “She would say things like ‘nothing for show,’ and, of course, I wound up in show business.”

Young Arthur took a liking to horses and was soon spotted working in the stables by Tinseltown powerhouse agent Dick Clayton, who suggested he try acting. With his mane of brilliant blond hair, sculpted physique and all-American good looks, Arthur Kelm was rechristened as Tab Hunter. He quickly wound up in cheapies like “Island of Desire,” “The Steel Lady” and “The Sea Chase” before working with such directors as Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer.

“It was the end of the studio system,” Mr. Hunter said of Hollywood in the turbulent 1950s and ‘60s, as the Production Code fell and independent producers and filmmakers gradually took over Tinseltown. “You had Jack Warner at Warner Bros., Harry Cohn at Columbia, Daryl Zanuck at Fox, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and it was the end of that system where there was an aura of mystery about it, which was wonderful.”

Like the monolithic film studios, Mr. Hunter too had a mystery. While legions of young women swooned over him and sent him fan mail and marriage proposals, he kept his homosexuality a deep secret during a time when being gay was illegal — even in Hollywood. Despite once getting arrested at a “pajama party,” Mr. Hunter’s sexuality remained largely a secret from the scandal rags, whose exposes could ruin careers by slipping image-wrecking stories to a puritanical public.

“As far as the law of the past, I look at it this way: Whether it be a man and a man, a woman and a woman [or] a man and a woman is between those two people and their maker, period,” Mr. Hunter observes of America during a more repressive time. “Everything else is no one else’s business.”

The documentary details some of Mr. Hunter’s relationships, including an on-again, off-again affair with actor Tony Perkins, whose claim to fame came from playing Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s notorious “Psycho.”

“Tony was a very sensitive person, very career-minded and had a great, great sense of humor,” Mr. Hunter said of Perkins, who died in 1992 at age 60.

In addition to their own affair, Mr. Hunter and Perkins would often take out Hollywood starlets on double dates as a way of keeping up “appearances.”

“I’d take out Debbie Reynolds and he’d take out someone from Paramount,” Mr. Hunter said. “Some of it was for studio stuff and some of it we would just go out.”

As Mr. Hunter’s youthful looks began to fade, the roles too dried up. He bought out his contract to go freelance at a time when nearly all actors were beholden to the studios — a decision that proved disastrous for his career. He took the odd TV jobs — often as villains of the week — until Baltimore native John Waters, a longtime fan, cast him in “Polyester” in 1981 opposite the transvestite actor Divine.

“I was closing a play in Indianapolis and [Mr. Waters called and] said, ‘Hello, my name is John Waters. You may not have heard of me.’ And I said, ‘Heard of you? I love ‘Pink Flamingoes’!” Mr. Hunter recalled.

Mr. Waters then pitched him “Polyester,” but the entreaty came with a query:

“[Mr. Waters asked] ‘How would you feel about kissing a 350-pound transvestite?’ And I said, ‘I’m sure I’ve kissed a helluva lot worse,’” Mr. Hunter said with a laugh. “He was the one who really revitalized my career.”

Despite a second wind, Mr. Hunter stepped away from acting completely in 1992. He and his partner, Allan Glaser, live quietly in Santa Barbara, California, where Mr. Hunter has again returned to his first love of horses.

“I was happiest when I was out at the barn — shoveling the ‘real stuff’ as opposed to the Hollywood stuff,” he said.

His other passion, somewhat surprisingly, is Catholicism. Despite the Church’s rather difficult relationship to homosexuality throughout its history, Mr. Hunter has remained strong in his mother’s faith. He greatly admires Pope Francis and his “who am I to judge?” exhortation on gays and lesbians pursuing Christ in their own way.

And despite dodging questions about his sexuality for years, Mr. Hunter, thanks to his book and now the documentary, is out of the closet for good.

“You can’t walk out of the closet to do the documentary and then walk right back in it again and close the door,” he said. “It was a whole different ballgame, a whole different Hollywood [in the 1950s] than it is today.”

Mr. Hunter will be appearing personally in the District this weekend for screenings of “Tab Hunter Confidential.” He and Mr. Glaser will be at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia for screenings Friday at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 5:30. Mr. Hunter will also appear at the Angelika Sunday for the 11:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. screenings of the film that tells his life story.

“I think the important thing is that we’re all on a journey, and we have to be aware of what kind of journey it is,” he said. “We should grow mentally, physically and, number one, spiritually.”


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