INTERVIEW: Tab Hunter on Hollywood, His New Documentary, and Playing Baseball With Debbie Reynolds

Jaguar PS /

Jaguar PS /

“One of the favorite things my mother would always say was, ‘Nothing for show.’ So what happens? I end up in show business.”

That’s how Hollywood legend Tab Hunter recalls his mother, a woman he describes as a “strict, religious German.” She also had another catch phrase that stuck with Hunter: “We can’t play down young minds. Elevate your thinking.”

“That’s a great phrase,” he said. “We ought to tell that to film makers these days.”

Hunter and I ended up talking about his mother after I asked him what he thought about modern Hollywood. After all, he was the quintessential leading man in the golden age of American film, and played opposite stars like Gary Cooper, Sophia Loren, and Natalie Wood.

“I honestly am not really into Hollywood today,” he said. “The whole face of the industry has changed so drastically. There’s some very creative young people, but for every one of those, there’s a heck of a lot of dreck, and it is expensive dreck, too. I think ego gets in the way with a lot of stuff. But there is pleasure when we find a good [film].”

Tab Hunter 2

Tab Hunter

And what does Hunter consider recent “good ones”? American Sniper, Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Theory of Everything. “They weren’t gazillion-dollar pictures,” he added. “They were decent pictures.”

Hunter has the right to judge: He has starred in over 40 major motion pictures during his career (“Some I’ve forgotten,” he admits. “It’s called survival. Sometimes you do a job because you need a job.”), and has become something of a new poster child, not necessarily for his acting, but because he was a publicly closeted star. His story has recently been captured in a new documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, and he shared some of his struggle.

“I never looked at it as living a double life,” he told me. “I looked at it as doing my job. Your job is to do what you’re told to do. When you’re a bulletproof young kid, you think you’re invincible, but honestly, I was scared of my own shadow.”

That’s remarkable for a number of reasons, especially given the roster of leading Hollywood stars Hunter has performed with. However, he never saw many of them through the filter of the glitz and glamour associated with Hollywood. When I asked him about Natalie Wood, he lovingly recalled, “I knew Natalie when she was a little girl. She was like my kid sister.”

And Debbie Reynolds? “I used to call Debbie “Mary Francis.” I knew her family back in Burbank. Her first big paycheck, she put in a giant pool that barely fit in the backyard of her house. We used to play baseball with her mother’s biscuits because they were so hard!”

Debbie Reynolds and Tab Hunter in "The Pleasure of His Company."

Debbie Reynolds and Tab Hunter in “The Pleasure of His Company.”

In short, these women were friends.

“I was never comfortable meeting new people,” he said. “Unless you were working, I was very insecure. But then I’d meet people like Sophia [Loren], and she was fabulous. People like Fred Astaire, John Huston, Gary Cooper, they helped me so much.”

What also helped was his love for horses. In fact, Hunter told me that as soon as he got off the phone,  he was going to visit his newest mare a mile or so from his house.

“Every free minute I got in Hollywood, I would run back out to my horses,” he said. “You know, it allowed me shovel some real crap!”

It was touching to see just how overjoyed Hunter was with the response to the new documentary, based on the book of the same name. “I’m just overwhelmed,” he shared.

“You know what it is: It addresses a journey, and we’re all on a journey, whether that’s mental or physical or spiritual, which happens to be mine. Everyone must find their journey. It’s a more positive film, too. We have too much negativity in our lives. We can get so wrapped up in the minutia of life that it can really interfere with our proper growth and development.”

It has, indeed, been a long journey for Hunter, who recalled the first film he was cast in: He was only hired “as a favor to someone” and had one line that ended up on the cutting room floor. That’s a far cry from his long-standing Hollywood career and from becoming what appears to be a happy, honest man in the process.

“Somewhere under the pile of crap, there’s a pony,” he joked. “You just have to go for it properly.”

“Tab Hunter Confidential” will play the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse, November 20 through the 26. For more information, click here.