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Interview: Tab Hunter

Tab Hunter Confidential has been making the rounds at festivals. Tab Hunter was a 1950s movie star, handsome and a hearthrob, who worked with Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood, and Rita Hayworth. Welcome to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Tab Hunter Confidential gives us new insight into this era.

I caught up with Tab, to talk about the documentary, as he took us back to the studio system of Hollywood and what it was like being gay in mid-century America.

Tab Hunter: What is Jazz your nickname for? Is that your real name?

Awards Daily: It’s not, my real name is Jasmine, but everyone calls me Jazz and it kind of stuck.

TH: Well, Rita Hayworth had a daughter called Yasmin, and when she was little we used to call her Jazzy Yazzy. It was very cute, and I haven’t heard that in years. It’s a great nickname.

AD: Where did your nickname originate from?

TH: Well you know in Hollywood, you used to change your name. Now you can be called anything and they’ll keep it. In the old days, Piper Laurie was Rosetta Jacobs, Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz. I was Arthur Gelien, and they said we have to call you Tab something. I showed hunters and jumper horses, so it became Tab Hunter as opposed to Tab Jumper.

AD: It’s an honor to speak to you because I’m a big fan of your films and classic Hollywood. Damn Yankees is one of my faves.

TH: I have to tell you, Damn Yankees was something I really enjoyed doing. It’s one of the better ones at Columbia because it was the whole Broadway cast, and I was the outsider, but God, I loved doing that film.

 

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AD: I saw the documentary. What’s interesting is seeing someone tell their own story. You never really know their struggles until you read about it or see it on screen.

TH: Well, Jazzy, I’m really glad you mentioned that. Allan [Glaser] worked on it for seven years, putting it together, and as you know the sign of a good producer is the person that causes and creates the whole film to be made. Over that period of time, he was there from raising the first dollar, hiring a director, doing everything, and working closely with him. Instead of just telling a Hollywood story, he told the journey of a young man, his Hollywood years, and his Golden years. He did a magnificent job. I’m very pleased.

AD: He did. You are a private person, how hard was it to deal with your sexuality, and having to tell your family.

TH: It was just my mother, my brother and myself. I never told anybody anything. I was brought up in a way where you don’t talk about things. I’m just old-fashioned, with an old-fashioned mother who’s very religious and very German. That was part of my upbringing. Where as today, everything seems to be so in your face. I’m not used to that.

AD: Let’s go back, what made you want to write the book?

TH: That’s where it all started. Allan said to me, someone is going to be doing a book on you, I think you should do a book. I said, “Who’d want to read a book on me?” and he said that I’d be surprised. He finally talked me into doing it, get it from the horse’s mouth, not from the horse’s ass who never knew me and would put a spin on my life.

Everybody loves to do that, when they never knew you. This is the journey, take it or leave it. It’s all part of the growth process, mentally, physically and number one, spiritually. That is important.

AD: Then you went from the book to the film. What challenges did you or Allan have when making the documentary when deciding what to leave out?

TH: I trusted Allan completely to do the documentary, but it took him a long time to convince me to do it. I said, let sleeping dogs lie, but he said it would be wonderful to put the book on film. Years ago, Darryl Zanuck used to buy bestsellers and when you buy them for Fox Studios, you can’t put the whole thing on film in that short time you have to make a film, so you have to pick and choose.

I’m very sorry there’s certain things we didn’t get in the documentary like the play on Broadway. I’d have love to have done something on that. He’s a fine producer and I went along with him. We did as much as we could, as close as we could to the book.

AD: You’ve had a great career. You’ve also had a recording career.

TH: Natalie Wood and I were on a publicity tour, promoting a film called The Burning Hills. The best thing about that film was I used my horse in the film. Natalie and I used to joke about it. While I was there Howard Miller was a disc jockey backstage. He suggested and wondered if I wanted to sing. He said he wanted to introduce me to Randy Wood. I met Randy, he called me and he heard me sing. He presented “Young Love” to me and we ended up knocking Elvis off the number one spot and stayed there for over six weeks.

AD: What did Elvis have to say about that?

TH: Elvis was upset we had used his back up group. Jack Warner was more upset, he called me into the office and said, “We own you forever, you can’t record that.” I told him, “Mr Warner, you don’t have a recording company.” He replied by saying, “Well, we do now,” and he started Warner Brothers Records. He was a powerful man.

AD: As someone who’s gay in 2015, it’s easier nowadays. Take me back to the ’50s and tell me what it was like being gay back then?

TH: The word was not around. People intimated it, but they never said the word because it was taboo back then. It was forbidden. If anyone said or intimated it to me, I would immediately clam up and run out to the stable where I had my horses where I could be shoveling the real stuff out of the barn, as opposed to the Hollywood stuff.

I was not comfortable in the Hollywood skin. As far as my sexuality, it was never ever discussed. There was only one person that I could talk to, and that was Dick Clayton who in my mind was the best agent in Hollywood. He acted for Jimmy Dean, Burt Reynolds. He was part of my family.

AD: It’s a nice story and you’ve mentioned some names already, but you have worked with some great people.

TH: Oh yeah, Geraldine Page. What about the directors? Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer. They were great contributors, they were great directors.

AD: You worked under the studio system.

TH: I was there at the end. You had those wonderful moguls that ran it; they were wonderful. They ran a tight ship, and they were your employers and you did what they said. If you didn’t, you were out, and someone else was in. It was that simple. Do it to the best of your ability, or get the hell out and let someone else in there.

AD: The studios sent you out on dates?

TH: Well, if I wanted to take Debbie Reynolds out, we’d out go because she was a great friend. We used to have a lot of Hollywood premieres in the old days. Careers were built through those magazines. So they would say, “Would you like to take a star out? We’ll send a car for you. I’d like you take so and so there.” You’re not going to say no, they’re your bosses. Why not?

AD: Give me some highlights of working with Natalie Wood?

TH: Natalie was like my kid sister. I knew her really really well. She was like my kid sister. I loved the fact that RJ talked about her. Bob and I never talked about Natalie, and the press has been so despicable about their relationship. So I was thrilled when RJ told stories about us because she was terrific and they were a lovely couple.

AD: I’m familiar with your body of work. For those who haven’t seen your work, what films would you recommend we start with?

TH: There are three films that I like. I love That Kind of Woman. Lumet directed it. It had Sophia Loren for godsake.

AD: She’s wonderful. It was great to see her honored by the AFI last year.

TH: She’s fabulous. Damn Yankees. Then I’d have to saw Gunman’s Walk because it was the first time I played a heavy and it was a damn good Western.

AD: As a voting member of the Academy, what recent films have you liked?

TH: I haven’t seen any recent films. They’re just starting to send them out now. I watch them. It’s a different business now. Movies are such a great form of thinking, and also for planting seeds. Hopefully they’ll plant something where we can learn from. The Theory of Everything was a fabulous film last year. I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel, that was fun, the escapism. There are some very creative people in the industry, let’s keep them doing the good stuff.

AD: So what are you up to right now?

TB: I’m lying in bed, talking to you. Then in a few minutes I’m off to the film festival where they’re showing the film.

AD: That’s very exciting.

TH: It is. I’m thrilled with the response. It opened last week in New York theatrically. It’s a journey, and it’s all about that. We’re all on it, let’s make it a good one, and make it the best we possibly can.

We have to be positive people, especially in this day and age.

AD: Is it harder being a star today than in the 50’s?

TH: I have no idea. I know the press is down your throat and that’s disgusting. People are so disgusting. There’s no aura of the movie business. There was a mystery that I loved in the old movie stars. When I was a kid I looked up to them.