Monday, May 18, 2009

The Pictures of Youth, Tab Hunter, Part 3

"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"