More Than a Teen Heartthrob— A Good Actor, Briefly a Star

Tab Hunter’s career as a star was actually quite short—six or seven years, from about 1953 to 1960, when it

Tab Hunter’s career as a star was actually quite short—six or seven years, from about 1953 to 1960, when it became obvious that he’d been replaced by other fresh-faced, short-term juveniles like Troy Donahue and Richard Beymer. But Tab Hunter Confidential isn’t a short memoir: nearly 400 pages to cover a roster of movies that includes The Burning Hills (1956), The Girl He Left Behind (1956) and Battle Cry (1955)—films only Myra Breckinridge could love.

Of Mr. Hunter’s movies, some four or five are of real interest—and not, strictly speaking, because of his presence. Damn Yankees! (1958), of course; the innovative and physically beautiful Track of the Cat (1954), as well as Lafayette Escadrille (1958), both directed by the perennially underestimated William Wellman; Gunman’s Walk (1958), a solid western; and They Came to Cordura (1959), a tangled western by the fascinating Robert Rossen.

Beyond his archetypal blond beauty—his face must have inspired some of Tom of Finland’s most startling images—Mr. Hunter carried intimations of something more than a teenage heartthrob, though an underlying petulance made him seem slightly callow. Tab Hunter Confidential is more interesting than most of its author’s movies, thanks to the plainspoken way he takes us through a maelstrom of sudden fame. The soundtrack is provided by the predecessors of those screaming girls who—in their fantasies, anyway—would ravish Elvis and the Fab Four.

Emotionally speaking, Mr. Hunter’s plate was always more than full. Born Arthur Gelien in 1931, Tab had a fierce, forbidding mother who suffered a full-tilt, running-naked-down-the-street nervous breakdown when he was 22 and already a young male ingénue in the stable of Henry Willson, the notorious talent agent who also promoted the careers of Rock Hudson, Rory Calhoun and Guy Madison.

The usual pressures and insecurities of his position were amplified because, as you may have heard, Tab Hunter is gay.

“Finding out who I was, sexually, was one thing. Admitting it was something else entirely, since any evidence could have destroyed my livelihood …. Accepting that I was wired differently was no cause for celebration, believe me. We all have our various urges and desires and shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of them …. Not that I’d ever feel that way. To me, it’s like saying you’re ‘proud’ to be hetero. Why do you feel you need to wear a badge? You simply are what you are.”

An on-and-off liaison with Anthony Perkins was difficult because Perkins was terrified of being outed by the scandal magazine Confidential, as Mr. Hunter actually was. Mr. Hunter’s waggish landlord had superior gaydar and promptly dubbed the boyfriend “Ma Perkins.”

Perkins was also more of a careerist. Mr. Hunter starred in the TV production of Fear Strikes Out, but Warner Bros. wouldn’t buy it for him; Perkins convinced Paramount, to whom he was under contract, to buy it for him. All’s fair in love, war and careers: “Our relationship didn’t end after that,” Mr. Hunter writes, “but it definitely changed. We still saw each other, but from then on we weren’t nearly as close.”

On some level, Mr. Hunter seems to have known he was in on a pass, so he gravitated toward quality. Of the people he worked with, the male co-stars he most admired were Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper—not just as actors, but as people. John Wayne, on the other hand, was a big, amiable lug; although “he was a consummate pro, which I admired … his ‘leader of the pack’ routine was overbearing. I’m not into macho bullshit. I didn’t like football jocks when I was in school and I didn’t like them all grown up and transplanted to a movie set.”

Mr. Hunter pays generous tribute to Van Heflin, one of those rare actors who was always good, but whose versatility and slightly recessive quality worked against him—Heflin never became a star, which requires a persona.

Mr. Hunter admired William Wellman but not Raoul Walsh, for whom he made Battle Cry and whose directions focused almost completely on the physical: “Shag ass up that hill,” or “Put some sex into it!”

He cared less about being a star than about being a good actor, and he clearly tried hard, in TV and stage vehicles that are now vanished. He appeared with Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore under the direction of Tony Richardson, and his description of the terribly diminished Bankhead descending to the level demanded by her camp followers is one of the best things in the book. He did television with John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, and turned down the chance to follow Paul Newman in the Broadway run of Sweet Bird of Youth—“one of the worst decisions I’d ever make.” Ultimately, Jack Warner’s lack of attention to quality pictures, at least when it came to Tab Hunter, drove the actor to demand his release. It didn’t work out very well. His post-Warners pictures were minor, a TV series likewise failed, and soon Mr. Hunter was working in Italy, or opposite Soupy Sales. After that, there was a long career in dinner theater, which paid the bills.

The trajectory is eerily similar to that of Troy Donahue, Mr. Hunter’s replacement in the Warner Bros. blond-juvenile-hunk sweepstakes. Thankfully, Mr. Hunter’s career had a happy ending: Whereas Donahue was managing a trailer park shortly before he died, Mr. Hunter enjoyed a brief career renaissance with John Waters’ Polyester (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1984), in which he did a witty parody of Clint Eastwood.

Like many people who are devoted to animals—his passion for horses and dogs is an abiding and attractive feature of the book—Mr. Hunter seems basically uneasy with people; in a word, touchy. Besides the relationship with Anthony Perkins, there was a liaison with Rudolf Nureyev and a few relatively long-term relationships that petered out; more recently, he’s been with the producer Allan Glaser.

His memoir is at all times intelligent and interesting, but rarely moving, because Mr. Hunter never allows himself to get emotional about anyone except his weirdly blocked, unemotional mother.

Tab Hunter Confidential is primarily valuable for its hard-won wisdom about the ragged end of the studio system, told by a man who was a movie star before he was an actor in the middle years of the 20th century.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon and Schuster) was published in April.

More Than a Teen Heartthrob—  A Good Actor, Briefly a Star