Once Closeted 1950s Movie Star Says Gay Men Still Can’t Succeed in Hollywood
In the 1950s, Tab Hunter was a blue-eyed, blond-haired, all-American movie star who rose to fame playing hunky romantic leads opposite Sophia Loren, Natalie Wood, and the French star Etchika Choureau, whom he almost married. But for most of his time as a Hollywood heartthrob, Hunter harbored a secret. He feared revealing he was gay would blacklist him from the industry.
Now 84, the charismatic California-based actor publicly came out in his 2006 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential, which he decided to write only after hearing a rumor that someone else had been planning to write a book about him. “I didn’t want someone else putting a spin on me,” he told TakePart in a phone interview this week. Nearly a decade after it was published, The New York Times best seller is the basis of a new documentary of the same name, which explores Hunter’s life as a closeted movie star in the conservative 1950s. It opens in theaters across multiple cities on Friday.
Even now that he’s been able to tell his own story in his own words—“Better to get it from the horse’s mouth, not the horse’s ass,” he said, chuckling—the longtime equestrian remains deeply private about his personal life. That includes his relationship of more than three decades with partner Allan Glaser, who was a producer on Tab Hunter Confidential. “Tab opened the door, came out of the closet, did the documentary, came back in, and closed the door,” Hunter recalled Glaser joking to an interviewer recently.
In an era where many gay and lesbian celebrities are proudly proclaiming their identity and serving as positive role models for LGBT youths—who face disproportionately high risks of bullying, harassment, and suicide—Hunter sees no place for advocacy in the entertainment industry. “People love to label you,” he said, pointing out that his autobiography opens with the line “I hate labels” in big bold letters. “What concerns me more is, We’re all human beings, but what kind of human being are you? That, to me, is really important.”
His views aren’t that different from those of contemporary stars such as Matt Damon, who faced a backlash last month over controversial comments to The Guardian that were interpreted by many as a suggestion that gay actors should stay closeted. The criticism prompted Damon to clarify on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that he meant actors would benefit from keeping their personal lives private. When asked for his take on the initial comments, Hunter said, “I respect [Damon] for doing that,” referring to Damon’s defense of celebrity privacy.
A lifelong devout Catholic, Hunter was born Arthur Gelien on July 31, 1931, in New York City, the younger of two boys raised by “a very strict, old-fashioned German mother,” he said. From an early age, movies were his great escape from the severity of his mother and the discipline of the watchful nuns in his parochial school. Though he’d always sensed that he was different in some way, “the word ‘gay’ wasn’t around when I was a kid. It was never talked about”—and he liked to keep it that way.
“If somebody would talk about it to me, I would just turn my back and go away. I wouldn’t confront things,” he said, recalling being “so guilt-ridden” about his sexuality that he went to confession as a teen, “and the priest made me feel like I was terrible.”
Once he got to Hollywood, Hunter had even more reason to conceal his sexuality. After changing his name and acquiring an agent, he landed his first starring role in the 1952 survivor love story Island of Desire. With a number of subsequent roles playing military heroes, he became the embodiment of American masculinity.
“I did the job because it was a job. The important thing for me was to learn my craft,” Hunter said, describing himself as frightened and shy when he first joined the business. “Working with these wonderful people, the directors and the actors and actresses, they helped me a great deal.” Hunter especially has fond memories of the late Dick Clayton, his good friend and former talent agent, who warned him that if he didn’t stay closeted, his career would be ruined.
“There were very devastating consequences. You couldn’t have a life being gay back in the ’50s,” George Takei says in the documentary. The actor best known for playing Sulu in the 1960s Star Trek TV series would know: He came out publicly as gay in 2005 and has since become an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. “Tab would be foolish not to hide, or he would not have a career,” Takei says in the movie.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; consensual sex acts between two men were considered illegal in some states until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, and same-sex marriage was outlawed in more than a dozen states until a Supreme Court decision earlier this year.
But despite advances in LGBT acceptance—a majority of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they supported same-sex marriage even before its legalization nationwide—Hunter maintains that when it comes to Hollywood representation, not much has changed since his heyday. “The difficult thing is, there are people who are gay—male and female—who are comedians, who are sidekicks, character roles, but you don’t see them as leading men in motion pictures that I can think of,” he said. “It’s still the same today.”
While there are exceptions, for the most part the numbers back Hunter up. Of the 114 films released by major studies in 2014, just 17.5 percent contained gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender characters, according to GLAAD’s most recent findings. The majority were minor characters, some of them cameos. Of the 20 films researchers identified as LGBT inclusive, half contained less than five minutes of screen time for LGBT characters. In several films, that screen time totaled less than 30 seconds.
Hunter, who gained a new following in the 1980s starring opposite drag queen Divine in John Waters’ camp classic Polyester, has been surprised and touched by the positive response to the documentary, which premiered in March at South by Southwest. But, he said, any perception of him as a gay activist has been wholly involuntary.
“You’ve got to be truthful to yourself, and you know, I can’t give advice to anyone. I’m not in a position to do that,” Hunter said. “I just say, go on the journey. Make it a positive journey.”