Ron of ‘Retired In Delaware’ passed along his copy of the book; Tab Hunter Confidential. [Thanks Ron!] Published in 2005, it’s a great read for anyone interested in stories of old Hollywood. But there’s more to it than that.
I had the book with me in a restaurant recently and the not-yet-twenty-something server, seeing the title, asked; “Who’s Tab Hunter?”. I knew who Tab Hunter was before reading the book; or so I thought. Hearing his name conjured up the correct face in my mind. I knew he was gay. In reading the book, however, I realized I actually knew very little about his career. I’ve learned this is typical. For people of a certain age, he much for famous for being “a star” than for actually ‘starring’ in anything.
Before reading the book, had I been asked to name Tab Hunter movies three titles would have come to mind; “Damn Yankees”; “Polyester”, and “Lust In the Dust”. I’ll admit I might also have briefly considered including “A Summer Place” but I am pretty sure I would have stopped myself. That was Troy Donahue. I learned I am not alone in making that mistake.
According to TabHunter.com, “The Official Tab Hunter Website”, he made 42 films between 1950 and 1992. Aside from the 3 I mentioned, there were 4 titles I recognized but did not associate with Hunter; “The Sea Chase”, “They Came To Cordura”, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”, and “Grease 2”. The remaining 35 titles were unfamiliar.
I knew he had a hit record, “Young Love”, but did not know that there were other recordings, or that he had actually toured as a singer; with the Everly Brothers no less. There was work in the early days of live television. Later in his career, there were guest appearances on television series. In between there was a lot of stock and dinner theater.
Hunter’s career took a path more often associated with female stars. At the time he started in show business he had few marketable skills. There was one overriding characteristic, however, that made all the others less important; he was drop-dead, breathtakingly, good-looking. His earliest career successes were based solely on this fact.
He was still a teenager when he was taken from the horse barn and put into movies. He was the male lead of the film the second time he appeared before a camera. He created a #1 hit record the first time he set foot in a recording studio. He was the packaged and promoted so successfully that he was among the most popular entertainers in America before he had actually done much. He was the boy-next-door heart-throb… the “Sigh Guy” for the first generation of teenagers to flex their economic muscle as consumers of popular entertainment. The years of struggle one associates with an actor’s life would come later.
Hunter writes candidly about his early success; what it was like to see his face on the cover of all the fan magazines and still be struggling to pay his rent; how he chose to learn the craft of acting after he was already a huge star, often over the objections of those more interested in exploiting his matinée idol status. I did not sense any bitterness in his description of the decline in his popularity and the challenges of finding work and making a living as an actor after having been so successful. Indeed, I wish he’d written more about how he felt about that. I was reminded of the lyrics to “High Flying Adored” from Evita; “
“…So famous, so easily… so soon
Is not the wisest thing to be….”
He writes matter-of-factly about his personal life; growing up, his family, his developing awareness of his sexual orientation, his mother’s struggles with mental illness. There is nothing in the book that could be described as ‘kiss-and-tell’. I’ll admit I was hoping for at least a little of that. He acknowledges relationships as they came… and went, but there is no gossip, angst or melodrama. Perhaps, as one of the earliest beneficiaries, and victims, of what would become the tabloid media, he’d had enough of that. Maybe it’s just not his style.
There is a lot of the kind of name-dropping one hopes for in a celebrity biography. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes about the people he knew and with whom he worked. Many had already had long and successful careers when he first encountered them, others would go on to be successful….. or not.
I seldom read autobiographies because, at the risk of sounding insensitive, the endings often seem anticlimactic. I enjoy reading memoirs because they describe specific events or times; subjects that have a beginning and an end that the writer can look back on them with some perspective; if not objectivity. There is something unsettling about a person writing the story of their own life. Certainly their perspective is unique but no matter when they write it, the story will be incomplete. I’m glad I read this one, however. It sheds light on aspects of the history of American popular culture. It offers an eye-witness account of the end of the studio era in Hollywood. It affords some insight into the changes taking place as the baby-boomers were coming of age at the same time their parents were beginning to choose television as their primary entertainment source. It also documents one man’s journey through society’s evolving views and attitudes about homosexuality.
In the end, he is a much more interesting person than I’d imagined. I still wish there was a little more “dish” but I suspect there are plenty of “unauthorized biographies” out there that would cover that in lurid detail