The Pictures of Youth, Tab Hunter, Part 3

May 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

“Once in a while a good opportunity would come along, like the first ‘Playhouse 90’ ever to air — working in television afforded me my best opportunities. The (film) industry was going through such turmoil at the time — studios didn’t know where to go anymore, they were falling apart, television was there. They didn’t … know what kind of films people wanted. The European films were making a huge impact because those films wanted real people in real situations.” — Tab Hunter, in his Roundtable Pictures interview.

By Lars Trodson

Laughter still comes easy to Tab Hunter. During our interview he laughed often, and easily. It wasn’t necessarily prompted by what he had heard from us, but rather at some fond remembrance, or an anecdote he recalled, or at the thought of someone he had met. Some people have a laugh that has no mirth. Some people have a laugh that is actually sad. Hunter’s laugh is joyful.

If I was more skeptical (and I am skeptical), I would dismiss this as some kind of showbiz stance. But, first of all, Hunter doesn’t have to try to impress us here at Roundtable. Second — just to verify my feeling — I looked up just about everything I could about Hunter on the internet and he was always unfailingly polite, thoughtful and warm. So, as Hunter would often say, what you see is what you get.

We also watched his movies — the famous and the obscure alike — and you definitely saw some performances that were trying too hard, but you also saw an actor who had dignity, and who more often than not added to the pleasure of the film you were watching. And you saw his warmth. He was, in the end, the perfect person to record a youthful ballad called “Young Love.”

As “Battle Cry” hit the theaters in late 1955, Hunter was making personal appearances, guesting on television, and was receiving a record number of fan mail each week, someone realized there was one corner of the entertainment market that Hunter hadn’t conquered: music.

Recording artists seem to take forever to make a new recording today. It is no longer unusual to hear that years have passed between recordings, and that the recording process itself takes an unusually long time.

This is relatively new phenomenon. It seemed unheard of when the Beatles sequestered themselves for a year to make “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967. That not only seemed self-indulgent, but was more probably thought of as an indication that the artist didn’t know what they were doing.

But back in 1956 you simply had to get it done. And so Tab Hunter recorded a song called “Young Love”, which turned out to be a pretty good career move. As for the speed in which it was recorded and distributed — three days — Hunter has a simple explanation: “They wanted to get it out.” He was a huge movie star with a youthful following.

The song was recorded on Dec. 15, 1956, a Saturday. When Hunter arrived at the studio he met his backup singers, called the Jordanaires, who sang for a little country act who had the last name of Presley.

“Randy Wood of Dot Records was an incredible man. His whole operation was so down-home and warm and friendly. It was really a refreshing group to work for,” said Hunter of the man who started Dot Records in the late 1940s. In his book, Hunter calls Dot Records a “modest musical empire”, which is a nice turn of phrase, and right on the money.

“Randy heard about the song. Natalie (Wood) and I were on tour and a DJ in Chicago had heard it and suggested I call Randy. He said this song was going to break wide open in the country field and I should record it for the pop field,” Hunter told us. “He asked me if I could sing, and I sang a few bars. That was on a Friday. I recorded it the next day and by Monday there was more than 100,000 copies were already being distributed.”

If the recording process was fast, the way a record marched its way on to the charts was something less than that. Although recorded and shipped in December 1956, “Young Love” hit the number 4 spot on Feb. 2, 1957, and wasn’t officially declared the number one record in the country on Feb. 16. Tab Hunter had kicked Elvis off the top of the charts.

The film career continued to proceed in fits and starts, and Hunter had another plum part offered to him in 1958 when he landed the lead in “Damn Yankees“, which opened to glorious reviews.

Hunter says matter-of-factly about that picture that he was happy to do it “because I always wanted to make a musical” — which indicates the attitude he had: I am going to take full advantage of the opportunities this life has given to me.

“Damn Yankees” was directed by the dream team of George Abbott (who lived to be 105) and Stanley Donen (who is still with us), and was based on the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” For pop history completists, we note that the book was written by Douglass Wallop, who was, parenthetically, married to the second greatest radio writer of all time: Lucille Fletcher. She wrote “The Hitcher” and “Sorry, Wrong Number”, among many others. For the record, Norman Corwin (also still with us at the age of 98) is the greatest radio writer of all time.

OK, so much for that.

“Damn Yankees” today may be most famous for the line, “What Lola wants, Lola gets”, and is fondly remembered for giving Gwen Verdon her most famous film role and it gave Hunter, as Yankee Joe Hardy, another hit film.

“Tab Hunter may not have the larynx that Stephen Douglass had as the original hero, but he has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star. He is really appealing with Miss Verdon in the boogiewoogie ballet, ‘Two Lost Souls’, which is done in a smoky, soft-lit setting and is the danciest dance number in the film,” wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times.

Hunter’s acting career intersected with some of the most interesting and creative people in the film business. He was directed by Tay Garnett (director of the original “The Postman Always Rings Twice” who Hunter called a “gentleman”), Rod Serling (who wrote the very first ‘Playhouse 90’, titled ‘Forbidden Area’), Joseph Losey, John Farrow, John Wayne, Gary Cooper (who Hunter calls a mentor), the underrated director Phil Karlson, Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, Sophia Loren — you name it. This lineup alone is fascinating.

Of the directors he has worked with, he said: “some are just traffic cops and others are just wonderful directors that can plan out wonderful scenes.”

Hunter also remains clear-eyed about his performances.

“I think there were different performances for different projects. ‘Portrait of a Murderer’ with Geraldine Page. That’s outstanding for me because it was a great role and Gerry was one of the most outstanding people ever. ‘Gunman’s Walk’ because it was a really good script written by Frank Nugent, who had written “The Quiet Man”, and I loved working with Van Heflin. It was an opportunity to play something out of the norm. ‘Damn Yankees” because I wanted to do a musical. There was a guilelessness to the character,” Hunter remembered.

Of all the people he worked with, Hunter has his favorites: “The three men in the business that meant more to me than anyone were Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire and Van Heflin. I knew them, I was a fan of their work, and I understood what their contributions to life were.”

And then, by the early 1960s, the famous name lingered but his role as a major American movie star was coming to an end. Hunter is the first person to say he had always “wanderlust” and he began a peripatetic phase of his life: dinner theater, European films, and an occasional role in an American film, such as “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”, with Paul Newman and directed by John Huston.

There was also tragedy. We can’t, in this instance, forget the real power of that word. In the mid-1960s, Hunter’s brother Walt died in Vietnam.

“He was the one who was able to get me out of my shell because I was afraid of my own shadow. He wad the one who opened up the world to me,” Hunter says today.

There was also a decade and a half of semi-obscurity, and then John Waters gave Tab a call.

John Waters has achieved such a reliable layer of respectability in the past couple of decades that we need to go back 10 years before that to realize that when Hunter signed on to “Polyester” (1981) Waters was still very much on the fringe, very much underground, and very few stars with Hunter’s name recognition had ever signed on to this kind of project.

“Polyester” was decidedly not an underground director’s bid for respectability. If that had been so, Waters would have cast Shelley Winters instead of the great Divine (as the gorgeously named Francine Fishpaw), and he wouldn’t have asked Hunter to play a freaked out cokehead. No, the movie is screamingly anti-establishment.

It’s pleasure has been somewhat dimmed if only because it’s garish take on middle class suburbia has been cloned so many times, in almost every phase of entertainment from lounge singers to such important video artists as Ryan Tecartin (“I-be area”, 2007), but it’s funny.

From the faux-documentary opening, to the gross out humor, to the wonderful “Odorama”, its Waters at his best — it is a pure Waters film. He may have “toned down” the shock tactics, as Variety noted, but Waters really found his soul with this film. It’s gross, kitschy and sweet. There’s Mink Stole, and the astonishing Edith Massey (thank goodness), Divine and Tab Hunter — who was about to have a moment when he once again, 25 years after he started, connected with young audiences.

I have a personal affection for Divine. I love the character, and I like the actor (not ever having met him) behind the persona. I told Hunter that I just liked Divine, plain and simple.

“There was a sweetness about him, a vulnerability. Vulnerability in people is such a jewel and he certainly had that. He was an incredible person,” said Hunter.

Hunter also had an opportunity to record the title track, which was written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who at the time were heading up Blondie.

“That was just a lark. They asked me to do it and I said I’d be glad to. It was kind of weird. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were so nice. And of course I had a great time working for John. He’s like your friendly undertaker. He’s just the best,” Hunter said.

“Polyester” was famously shot for $300,000 — giving every independent filmmaker hope.

“I remember when John called me and I was really pleased I could do that. He allowed me the freedom when you go out on that stage and you wanted to do everything for him because he was so open to what you brought. I was out doing dinner theater and I had a few weeks off and that’s when I did the picture,” said Hunter. “I had an agent in California who said you can’t tell anyone you’re doing a picture with John Waters and I said, ‘Why not?’ I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.'”

Which was exactly correct.

“All I know is that it was a fun project. I love Divine and I was a big fan of John Waters. When he introduced himself to me on the phone, he said: I don’t know if you know me. I said, know you? I’m a major fan,” Hunter said.

Hunter was back in the limelight, and he was able to produce a movie that had been close to him for some time, even if the results were less than he wanted them to be. The project was “Lust in the Dust.” (The title has a famous Hollywood origin. David O. Selznick, famously looking for a project to rival his own “Gone With the Wind”, tried for greatness once again with a film called “Duel in the Sun” — but it was mockingly called “Lust in the Dust” by some wags who were less than impressed.

Hunter wanted Waters to direct “Lust”, but it did not come to pass.

“I’d have given anything if he had directed ‘Lust in the Dust’, anything! But he only does his own material. I liked (director) Paul (Bartel) but he didn’t get what I wanted. I wanted Divine in a Sam Peckinpah western,” says Hunter of his vision of the 1985 film. “I wanted Divine in ‘The Wild Bunch.’ I wanted him as a Mexican slut who was deadly. It would have been perfect. He and Lanie (Kazan) were wonderful together. We loved doing it. Paul handled it delicately and I wanted balls.”

The reviews for the film were mixed, but Hunter was getting his due:

“‘Lust in the Dust’ has no comic center, being a series of rude, random gags and sketched about a search for buried treasure in and around the desert town of Chile Verde. Among the competitors for the prize are a tall, handsome, taciturn gunman named Abel, played by Tab Hunter in what is the film’s funniest performance for being played completely straight…”, wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times in 1985.

The picture was produced by Hunter and his current companion, Allan Glaser.

And, then, that was pretty much it — at least for the movies. This is not a sad ending. Please. There is too much life to be lived.

When I asked Hunter how he happened to remember everything, he said “For years I kept a little Brooks Brothers diary, so I knew exactly where I was on such and such a date, and I was going to throw them out but Allan (Glaser, his companion for many years) kept them, so they were very important when I was doing the book. Plus all the Playbills from the theaters, and fan magazines. You see I never kept anything.”

When I mention a lovely portrait of Tony Perkins Hunter had taken in 1960 that appears in his book (“That just happened,” Hunter said, “I think I was given a Polaroid and that was a snap I took…”), I had also assumed that he had kept it all these years. But, no.

“I was driving down Crescent Heights and there was a yard sale… and there it was in the 50 cent table. I don’t think anyone knew what it was, but I said, ‘I took that,'” says Hunter.

This is a sign of the wanderlust, of moving on, of remembering the “operating manual” of his mother from so many years ago: DO NOT GET CLOSE.

But he did get close, after all. He calls Dick Clayton “the most important” person in his life. “He discovered me when I was shoveling the real stuff at the stables,” he says. And there was Van Heflin, his co-star in “Battle Cry” and two other films. A mentor.

He remains a fan of movies, and has special praise for Kate Winslet, didn’t like the latest Bond film (“Quantum of Solace”) or the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie, but loved “Slumdog Millionaire.”

He doesn’t ride so much any more, and has settled into a life of domestic happiness, and has clarity about what has come before.

We had talked about many things in the hour we were on the phone, but in the end the talk rounded out to family, to friends, and to horses, and to his mother, and about what he had learned. “I’ve been fortunate,” he said. “I’ve led a wonderful life.” He mentions that “there should have been some bad things that could have happened, but you just get on with it.”

This is not a cliche, as odd as it may sound. So many people have regrets, have hated what they have done, have felt as though they have accomplished next to nothing. Not so with Hunter.

We talked about a few more things, and I randomly asked how long his mother had lived, and he said she lived to 92. This sparked an anecdote.

“My favorite is one day we were sitting on the porch, we’d have breakfast after church on Sunday and she’s sitting out there looking at the yard and in her heavy German accent she said, ‘Was I that difficult when you were growing up?’ Now how the hell do you respond to that,” Hunter recalled. “But I looked at her and said, ‘Well, let’s put it this way: If you were on the drugs 40 years ago that you’re on today we’d have had the best relationship!’ And she had a big smile on her face, and said ‘I love you.'”

And Tab Hunter, thinking of the memory, laughed out loud. Again.


For part one of our interview with Tab Hunter, click here:

For part two of our interview with Tab Hunter, click here:

Visit Tab Hunter’s official site:

Here are some clips:

An interview with the actor who played Gunther on “Friends”:

The trailer for “Damn Yankees”


The Pictures of Youth: Tab Hunter

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Still burning bright at 78, Tab Hunter talks to Roundtable Pictures about life

By Lars Trodson

Tab Hunter is probably not the first name you would put at the center of the major sea-change that occurred in American movies in the 1950s — but then so much about that decade is misunderstood. His name may conjure up a kind of manufactured time — candy-colored appliances and thick-finned automobiles.

But if Tab Hunter hadn’t made an impact, in some way, how could he possibly have penned a memoir — “Tab Hunter Confidential” — 30 years out of the limelight and have it end up on the bestseller list?

Sure, you can say that we are a celebrity-crazed society and we’ll read anything by someone famous. But the bargain bins in bookstores are filled with books written by people trying to recapture the buzz of some forgotten past.

But there is also something about the very mention of Tab Hunter that resonates as the mention of so many of his contemporaries do not. “Tab Hunter!”, was the reaction of many when we mentioned we were speaking to him. Maybe James Dean was the better actor, maybe Rock Hudson was the bigger movie star, but their names inspire a respectful nodding of the head, as though you want someone to know you’ve read an important book.

But mention Tab Hunter and there is a burst of recognition, it’s something much more personal.

Dean and Newman and Brando had a dark, serious cloud over their head. Hunter was the corrective to that: like the southern California sun.

He was also one of a handful of actors that shifted major studio fare away from the idea that movies were only for adults — that adults were the only people with money to buy a ticket. Hunter was an actor — a presence — that helped studios realize they could make sophisticated entertainment and still have it appeal to kids. In the 1950s, for the first time, there was money in the suburbs and in the pockets of the young postwar generation, and Tab Hunter had such massive appeal that he helped create a business model for movies that of course exists to this day.

Not just anyone could do that. Hunter had ethereally good looks, yes, but he seemed accessible, a pleasing essence that few people possessed. He was the necessary bridge between the rigid confines of the recent but self limiting phase of post-war realism and film noir to the more daring, wideopen prospects of a Cinerama future. Just as Marlon Brando could push the boundaries of realistic acting because he looked like a movie star, Hunter could help the studios tinker with the boundaries of the censors because he gave audiences the sense that everything was going to be fine. Tab Hunter helped usher in this area — and if you think about it, he was really the only one who could do it.

There is a misconception about the 1950s that still exists, and that is the idea that it was a complacent, conformist, content decade. Almost every fact about the decade belies that — and mass entertainment tried its best to suppress the turmoil until no one could really ignore it any longer.

As the 1950s rolled in, movies had yet to discover CinemaScope and color film was still an anomaly. Television was in its infancy, live, shot on video tape out of New York — and popular music was so in flux Frank Sinatra was recording novelty tunes.

But as the decade bubbled on, rock and roll and jazz started to hit the airwaves, white kids were getting mass exposure to black music, and TV launched into its golden era — live dramas and situation comedies that pioneered the medium. Movies were also slow to mature, but “From Here to Eternity” and “The Moon Is Blue” were released to great success in 1953 — an unthinkable prospect just a few years before. A long and arduous trek outside the shadow of the old Code, that series of arcane rules that tried to make an artform into a role model, was just beginning.

Everyone, including audiences, were tired of the restrictions imposed on the studios.Young writers who had come home from the war were exploring themes influenced by their time overseas and they were interested in using film to portray life in its many forms, much of it awkward, delicate and private. And what is the most awkward and delicate and private time of life? Youth. And who had both a little money and leisure time for the first time in American history? Youth.

But don’t take my word for it. Veteran New York Times critic Bosley Crowther reviewed “Battle Cry” when it came out in 1955. In his lightly dismissive review, Crowther closed out his column with his doubts about the veracity of the film, but no doubts about who the movie appealed to: “This, we might add, is not exactly the way we heard it was with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II. But a predominantly youthful audience at the Paramount yesterday morning ate it up.”

There you are.

Tab Hunter was born just at the right time. We have to spin back to the raucous, careening, Tower-of-Babel atmosphere that must have been New York City in 1931 — a time when dance music wafted from the ballrooms of hotels, gin was served out of a sink and every borough of the city might as well have been its own country. In that year a shy, beautiful baby was born to a German mother and an absent father. The baby was named Art Galien, the first incarnation of Tab Hunter.

And yet it is not quite accurate to say the baby was even born Art Galien. That name actually came later. The birth certificate simply called the child “Male Kelm.” Kelm was the birth father’s last name — the last name of a man who was not around to provide his own child a first name.

This could have been an obstacle, but not to the child, who seemed to have been born with a preternatural ability to withstand adversity, to make a go of it. Tab Hunter has approached the world in the 78 years since with enough eclat to let other people name him, and to let others affix to him their own desires and needs.

But throughout the years he has also been strong enough not to allow others to shape his own path, and that was the most important thing.

And that could be why he alone — who was there at the creation of all the Rocks, and the Rorys and the Tabs and the Troys — is the only one still standing.

The voice on the other end of the line is happy, convivial. We’re talking to Tab Hunter.

“How are you,” Tab Hunter asks and the voice has that same timbre as it did in “They Came To Cordura” or “Damn Yankees“; not slowed or dulled by age or experience.

What started this conversation was simple. I was reading about the filmmaker John Waters online, and remembered the movie “Polyester“, which clicked in memories of Tab Hunter, who so famously shared the screen with Divine. I went to Hunter’s website, saw that he had written his autobiography and went out to buy it at the Barnes & Noble. I picked out “Tab Hunter Confidential” and there was his face on the cover: gleaming, sheepishly aware of his powerful allure, as though he had just come walking out of the sea. The women I knew who looked at the photo said simply, “Ahh, yes.”

This was not an unusual reaction. Even at the beginning, before he was a movie star, when he was still just Art, and he was heading off to DuBrock’s Riding Academy in Southern California to tend to his beloved horses, he had young women who would simply follow him around, and who got to be known as “Art’s Harem.” “People used to joke about ‘Oh, there goes Art and his harem,” Hunter says of the memory that is now more than 60 years old (and using the name he was known as when he was a kid).

And that was where he was “shoveling shit”, as Hunter says on the phone, when a young actor by the name of Dick Clayton — who was later to become his manager and was a lifelong friend — walked up to him and asked if he ever thought about being in pictures. Tab Hunter was not even a teenager, and he was standing in horse manure, and yet he still stood out. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star.

When I mention that I enjoyed his book, he said, “Well, thank you. The only reason I wrote it is because I didn’t want some schmuck writing it when I was dead and gone. I don’t want someone putting a spin on my life that didn’t know, that didn’t have any idea.”

He calls his first chapter “Baby Kelm”, and immediately we’re drawn into the tricky idea of what is identity and how we identify ourselves. We learn what is important to Hunter — and so often it is something outside the movies, outside Hollywood, such as Hunter’s love for his family, which is his mother and brother Walt, friends and his other passion, horses. “I was extremely shy. I could only communicate with the horses when I was down at the barn,” he said.

And we learn that Hunter was lucky to have a guide in a strong-willed mother named Gertrude who was present at the beginning, and who lived into her 90s.

“I had a German mother who was really good at planting a helluva lot of seeds. The only important thing is whether you cultivated them or not, you know,” he says today. “She’s a pretty interesting character. Someone once said — we’re doing a screenplay on the book — and someone said who will play you, and I said, no, no, no, no – the important thing is who will play my mother? Now that’s the role.” (A delicious part for Meryl Streep.)

The seeds were homilies in the form of everyday advice (“For every door that closes, two open”) that seemed to have shaped Hunter’s attitude that almost anything that happens to you can can be positive. Even the title of his book, “Tab Hunter Confidential” is a playful nod to a scandal involving the most notorious tabloid of the 1950s that tried to “out” Hunter as gay.

Leaving New York for the west Coast came in short order, and even in his teens he felt the need to keep moving. He calls his childhood “nomadic” and writes about his mother and his upbringing this way: “I later came to think of my mother as a self-sufficient survival machine. In her operating manual, it said in big capital letter: TO AVOID SERIOUS INJURY, NEVER GET CLOSE. My childhood lessons came from the same manual…I never got close to anyone, knowing I was going to leave them behind in a few months.”

It’s no wonder that the chapter in his book that brings Hunter into his teenaged years is called “At Sea.”

And so it was. He says today: “I left home at 15 to join the Coast Guard, I just lied about my age. I was thrown out to sea for 30 days on a weather ship and we went out to the Pacific. That was all right,” Hunter says in his light, dry sense of humor, “if you like chipping paint.”

The same young actor, Dick Clayton, who saw him at the stable, was now his friend and would introduce the young seaman to another new world.

“Dick Clayton had gone back to New York and was doing a play there on Broadway. When I went back to Connecticut to training station, I would go into New York and Dick would introduce me to Broadway people, Broadway shows and all of New York theater. He opened up my vistas to so many things — a style I had never known existed. For a kid to be exposed to that, it was fantastic,” Hunter says today.

In short order, however, Hunter gets booted from the Coast Guard for being underage. He finishes his education, and starts a new chapter in his life: ice skating.

What we often forget about movie stars — or people in show business in general — is how hard they work. The great appeal of movie stars is also a part of their act: so much of it looks fun, effortless, stylish and pampered. What we almost never see — and why so few people actually ever make it — is because of the discipline and sheer work that must be done.

Hunter, a born athlete, shows us the kind of drive it takes to make it. Anyone can simply “decide” one day to be a movie star, or an ice skater, or a writer or a professional rider, but it is another thing to actually head off and do it.

There is an amazing picture in “Tab Hunter Confidential” and it shows Hunter (then known as Art Galien) in mid-air, dressed in a neat bow-tie and suit, arms gently spread out for balance, skates on his feet. Not a hair is out of place, and even in the still shot he looks like Fred Astaire, and even in motion he looks poised and in control.

There is some natural talent to this, of course, but you also need to stick to it. The control and discipline that took this young man from New York to California to the Pacific Ocean to New York and then back to the sun-dappled west coast, from awkward boy to rising skating star, from Art Galien to Tab Hunter, requires a kind of steely discipline that few people have.

Because Tab Hunter isn’t going to be a rising skating star much longer. He’s about to become a movie star.

For Part 2, click here:

For Part 3, click here:

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