Tab Hunter is the best-looking 82-year-old you will ever see. While many handsome men lose their looks after 50, Hunter has been doubly lucky. As a young man in Hollywood in the 1950s he achieved iconic status as the most handsome man in the world. Sixty years later he is a gay icon and the last remaining male lead star from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Hunter was in Ft. Lauderdale to accept a Lifetime Achievement award from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Oct. 29. Before a screening of his film Polyester, he gave a wide-ranging interview about his life and career to a sold-out audience at the Cinema Paradiso.
“When I first got into the business, I was told that I may be alright as the physical type but quite inadequate as an actor. Hollywood placed such emphasis on all the externals. So I figured somewhere down the line I better learn my craft. It isn’t something you can just phone in because if you’re not going to dedicate yourself there are a lot of other people who will.”
But Hunter admits dedication is not enough. “I think luck plays a very important part in our lives – if you turn right at a corner instead of left, your whole life is changed.”
He caught the movie bug early on in life. “I’ve always been a movie fan. As a teenager I would get my homework done quickly, sneak out of the house and get off to the movies. I would see any double-bill at the theatre.”
The year 1955 was a crucial one for Hunter. “I did nine tests for Battle Cry and they weren’t sure if they wanted me or not. On the 10th test I was ready to kill myself because I was so bad at the test, and that was the test that got me the role.” The film was a hit and received an Academy Award nomination. Shortly afterwards he was put under contract with Warner Brothers studios.
Hunter reminisced about the great James Dean, tragically killed in a car crash in 1955, the year Hunter achieved stardom. “I knew him really well. He used to come and sit on my dressing room steps when I was doing Battle Cry. He was very quiet – he didn’t speak to a lot of people.”
Two years later Hunter scored a surprise hit - not with a movie but with the song Young Love. “Howard Miller, a DJ, heard me singing. ‘How would you like to record?’ he asked. I said I just sang in the shower and in church. He introduced me to Randy Wood at Dot Records. He presented me with a tune on Friday and recorded it on Saturday.
“I heard it on the car radio on Monday as I was driving down Sunset Blvd. and I almost hit a palm tree. I couldn’t believe it! It shot up to the number 1 song in the nation and knocked Elvis out of the number 1 slot.”
Then Warner Brothers got in on the act. “They said, wait a minute! You are under contract to us for everything. I said to Mr. Warner, but you don’t have a recording company! “We do now” he replied, and that is exactly how Warner Brothers Records got started.” The audience at the Cinema Paradiso got to see Hunter’s live TV performance of the song on the Perry Como show. His bashful appearance evoked great laughter in the Cinema, and Hunter admitted how scared he was doing the big hit for the Como show.
Despite his fame Hunter is a private person, preferring to be with horses than in the limelight of the Hollywood press. An incident in 1955, when he was 24 years old, was a warning shot of how close his career came to being ruined by that press. A scandal-mongering publication called The Confidential was planning to run a story about Rock Hudson, outing him as a gay actor when such a revelation would have been a career-ending move.
“Henry Wilson gave them the story of me being arrested. I went to a party when I was 15. It was a gay party with a bunch of guys and a few gals dancing. I walked in, went to the refrigerator door, and at that moment the police came in and raided it.”
Even though Hunter did not come out of the closet until his autobiography was published 8 years ago, he admitted he was “very fortunate” at the time as the story “did not hurt my career at all.” Soon after the story was published, he was at a Hollywood event and someone from The Confidential asked him to smile for a picture. Studio head Jack Warner was beside him. “Jack turned me around to face the guy and said ‘just remember that today’s headline is tomorrow’s toilet paper!’ From that moment on I loved Jack Warner.”
Hunter said the word “gay” wasn’t around in those days, “and I figured my private life was my private life. I firmly believe we all have a barrier and I don’t think you should be one of those blah-blah kinds of individuals. I think with this barrier you open the door to those people who you want to communicate with and vice versa. Otherwise it’s nobody’s damn business what kind of life you live. I try to live the best life I possibly can as a human being,” he said to sustained applause.
The human beings he most admires are Fred Astaire, Van Heflin and Gary Cooper. Hunter admits to saying a prayer for them every week.
His encounter about the actress Tallulah Bankhead did not elicit such admiration. “Talullah was a piece of work. In rehearsal for a movie she kept interrupting me and I told her to stop. She called me the rudest young man she had met since Marlon Brando! I felt she had dissipated her talent.”
He said of the movie Ride the Wild Surf that it has become “a cult film, but I was way too old” for the surfer dude character in the movie. He was 33 then.
Hunter’s star career pretty much ended when he got out of his Warner Brothers contract. In the late 50s and early 60s studios would loan their stars to do television shows. Warners wanted him to appear in the hit show 77 Sunset Strip “and I turned it down. Really dumb.”
After working in dinner theatre for quite a few years he appeared in the 1981 film Polyester. Before accepting the role, he was asked how he would feel about kissing Divine, a 300-pound transvestite. “I’m sure I’ve kissed a helluva lot worse!” he replied.
Hunter said of the acting business that “ego is a killer.” No one in the Cinema Paradiso was in any doubt the Tab Hunter left his ego at the door many years ago. His self-deprecating wit charmed everyone. It wasa tour-de-force performance by a man whose mere presence made everyone feel more alive to the possibilities of life. A genuine icon - on and off the silver screen.
To hear Hunter sign Young Love, click on the video box at the right of the front page of this newspaper site.
For more about Fort Lauderdale's great film festival, visit their website: www.fliff.com