A Refugee from B Flicks, Tab Hunter at 46 Returns to Hollywood Via Fernwood, Ohio
By Sue Ellen Jares
In 1949 and 18-year-old named Art Gellen made his screen debut in The Lawless. His only dialogue (“Hi, Fred”) was cut from the final print. When producers did not subsequently flock to Gellen’s door, his agent decided that a name change might help. Hollywood legend has the agent racking his brain and finally crying out in frustration, “Well, we gotta tab him something!”
Six years later Tab Hunter was voted “outstanding new personality” in an audience poll. In 1957, after only five days of serious singing, he recorded “Young Love,” a song that went gold in three weeks. “I’m a product of publicity,” admitted Hunter at the time, “a case where the publicity has exceeded the product.”
After a short-lived TV series and a descent into B pictures, “the Golden Boy of the Drive-Ins” decided he’d had enough. “This town has a tendency to use people and discard them,” he recalls. “They literally said to me, ‘You’ve been a good old wagon but you done broke down.’”
Now, after a 10-year hiatus, Hunter is back in Hollywood—not without some apprehension. “In this town,” he says, “you can go to bed one night, wake up the next morning and discover that you’re 65.” On the other hand, if you’re factory worker George Shumway of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” you can fall asleep on a conveyor belt, tumble into a vat of Rust-Oleum, undergo extensive plastic surgery and wake up looking like a 46-year-old Tab Hunter. It is the improbable turn of plot that allowed Hunter to replace actor Phil Bruns as Shumway in “Forever Fernwood,” the late-night series that meanders on where “MHMH” left off.
Hunter is appearing in 19 episodes, all of them already shot. Now he is trying to peddle a series he wrote for himself and Chita Rivera called “The Reverend and Rosie.” In the meantime he has hired a trio of hungry young agents to find him parts.
Hunter can always return to the dinner-theater circuit that paid the bills during the lean non-Hollywood years. Since 1973 he has leased farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, so that when not on tour he could pursue his love of horses. “We all need to straighten out our heads,” says Hunter. “Some people go bowling on Tuesday nights. Riding a horse is my therapy.’
After a Washington Post interview last year alluded to relationships with both Joan Cohn Harvey (widow of Harry Cohn and Laurence Harvey) and a male secretary, Hunter—who has never married—became close-mouthed about his private life. “Joan wouldn’t speak to me after that,” he complains. Right now his main concern is staying off the unemployment line in a town that turned its back on him. “I don’t care about being a Big Star,” he insists. “I just want to work.”