With his urbane charm, dashing good looks, and virile masculinity, Rock Hudson epitomized Hollywood’s classic matinee idol image – used to great effect in many a romantic comedy in which he was often paired with the equally magnetic Doris Day. One of the most popular movie stars of his time, Hudson’s screen career spanned five decades and was a shining example of Hollywood’s classical “star system”-style career promotion – his early success coming as the result of careful cultivation and nurturing by major movie studios. While generally underappreciated for his skills as an actor, Hudson nevertheless showed unexpected glimmers of brilliance, as he did in George Stevens’ 1956 epic, “Giant” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Known for his easy-going demeanor off-screen, Hudson was well-liked by colleagues and seemed to enjoy a rich and happy life in the public eye. In truth, however, Hudson endured a deeply troubled private life, living a lie for the sake of his career – including going along with a studio-arranged marriage. Manufactured to be Hollywood’s ultimate ladies man, Rock Hudson was, in reality, a lifelong homosexual. Tragically, he would become a cautionary tale as well. After contracting the HIV virus and dying of AIDS in 1985 – his private life now thrust public for the world to see – Hudson would become the first major Hollywood casualty of the misunderstood and widely feared disease. But he would not die in vain. His death not only opened people’s eyes to the disease itself, it inspired his good friend and onetime co-star Elizabeth Taylor to begin her decades-long role as a prominent AIDS activist, raising millions in the fight against the deadly disease that had robbed her friend of his golden years.
Born Leroy (Roy) Harold Scherer, Jr. on Nov. 17, 1925, in Winnetka, IL, the future movie idol was the son of a hard-drinking auto mechanic, Roy, Sr. and a telephone operator named Katherine Wood. In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, like many distraught dads of that time, Hudson’s father abandoned the family. Fortunately, a year later, his mother remarried a man by the name of Wallace Fitzgerald, who adopted Roy, Jr. and gave him his last name. A poor student growing up, Hudson narrowly graduated from Winnetka’s New Trier High School – the same alma mater as Ann-Margret and Charlton Heston – in the early 1940′s. Far more enamored of movies than his school work, Hudson got a job as an usher at a local movie theater, where he developed a passion for acting. Eager to get started, Hudson tried out for roles in school plays but was rejected for never knowing his lines.
After a brief tour of duty in the U.S. Navy as an airplane mechanic during World War II, Hudson moved to Los Angeles. Determined as ever to make it in show business, Hudson applied to the University of Southern California’s drama program, but was disqualified due to poor grades. To make ends meet, Hudson found a job as a delivery truck driver, but spent most of his working hours idling outside of studio gates, passing out his headshots. Hardly the way to go about breaking into show biz, to be sure – but in this case, persistence paid off. In 1948, the handsome young Hudson caught the eye of powerful Hollywood talent scout, Henry Willson. The rest, as they say, was history. According to author Robert Barrios’s 2002 best-seller Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, the openly homosexual Willson almost single-handedly launched Hollywood’s highly profitable “beefcake craze” of the 1950′s, thanks to his knack for discovering and renaming young actors “whose visual appeal transcended any lack of ability.” Among Willson’s other discoveries were such nobodies-turned-Hollywood-golden-boys Arthur Gelien (a.k.a. Tab Hunter), Merle Johnson, Jr. (better known as Troy Donahue), and Bob Mosely (a.k.a. Guy Madison). According to Hollywood folklore, Willson changed Roy Fitzgerald’s name to the more masculine sounding “Rock Hudson” by combining the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River.
In preparation for his first film role in Raoul Walsh’s “Fighter Squadron,” the newly re-christened Hudson got caps put on his teeth and received intensive coaching in acting, singing, dancing, fencing and horseback riding. Still, according to legend, it took no less than 38 takes for Hudson to successfully deliver his one line. Nonetheless, as a contract player for a major Hollywood studio, Hudson enjoyed a degree of job security that would disappear along with the studio system decades later. Cared for and jealously protected as a valuable studio asset, Hudson was literally groomed for leading man status. Studio P.R. flacks used their pull to push magazine publishers into plastering Hudson’s handsome mug across the covers of countless film magazines. At 29, Hudson earned his first professional recognition for his role as a bad boy redeemed in the mawkish romance “Magnificent Obsession” (1954) starring Jane Wyman. Hailed by Modern Screen Magazine as one of the best films of the year, the magazine also named Hudson the year’s “most popular actor.”
As Hudson’s marquee value increased, however, so too did the pressure to hide his homosexuality. In 1955, as a pre-emptive measure, Henry Willson arranged a marriage of convenience between Hudson and his (Willson’s) secretary, Phyllis Gates. Much to his credit, according to Hudson biographer, Sara Davidson, the actor made an earnest go at trying to make the sham marriage work. Unfortunately, the effort failed and the two subsequently divorced in 1958. In the meantime, however, with Hudson’s heterosexuality firmly established in the public eye, his acting career soared to new heights. A year after his highly publicized nuptials, Hudson landed his biggest payday to date – $100,000 to star in “Giant”(1956), director George Steven’s sprawling three and a half hour epic based on Edna Ferber’s novel. Cast opposite two of Hollywood’s other top rising young stars, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, Hudson delivered a powerful performance as Texas rancher, Bick Benedict. As a result of their searing performances, both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor Oscars at the 1957 Academy Awards.
Hudson closed out the decade with strong performances in a string of merely adequate vehicles. Two notable exceptions were director Richard Brook’s sublime interracial drama, “Something of Value” (1957) and the overly long, but nevertheless effective adaptation of “A Farewell to Arms” (1957), based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. In the late ’50′s, Hudson’s career took another huge leap forward when he was cast opposite Doris Day in a string of light bedroom comedies – starting with 1958′s “Pillow Talk.” Audiences enjoyed the delightful chemistry between Hudson and Day so much that the pair reunited for two more outings, “Lover Come Back” (1961) and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964) – all big at the box office.
As he approached middle age, Hudson’s career began slowing down. Losing out on choice roles to younger men must have surely been a blow to his ego. Nevertheless, the actor continued churning films out at a steady pace. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hudson’s best work of the period came in a film where he played a character forcibly confronted with his own mortality and the grim realities of age in John Frankenheimer’s engrossing science-fiction/fantasy thriller, “Seconds” (1966). In it, Hudson gave a first-rate performance as a middle-aged man who is given a younger body, only to discover too late that he has made a Faustian bargain that has robbed him of both his sanity and his trust in humankind.
Still, roles like the one in “Seconds” were increasingly far and few between. Lured by the financial incentives and displeased with the feature scripts he was receiving, Hudson reluctantly agreed to do television. One of TV’s last major matinee holdouts, Hudson still commanded enough clout to at least get first choice of projects. In 1971, Hudson signed on to do a 90-minute made-for-TV movie of the week called “Once Upon a Dead Man” (NBC, 1971). A light mystery in the vein of 1934′s “The Thin Man,” “Once Upon a Dead Man” would eventually serve as a backdoor pilot for the highly successful series “McMillan and Wife” (NBC, 1971-77). Modeled after the comic adventures of husband-and-wife sleuthing team Nick and Nora Charles, “McMillan and Wife” starred Hudson as San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan and pretty newcomer Susan Saint James as his flighty (but sporadically helpful) wife, Sally.
Hudson’s career hit a low in the early 1980′s. With his years of heavy smoking and drinking beginning to take its toll on his health, Hudson could no longer play leading man roles. His last high-profile gig was as the star of the short-lived series, “The Devlin Connection” (NBC, 1982), about a reluctant father-and-son detective team. Premiering as a mid-season replacement in the winter of 1982, “The Devlin Connection” started out strong in the ratings; only to have its momentum interrupted when Hudson suffered a massive heart attack during filming. As Hudson recovered from quintuple heart bypass surgery, production on “Devlin” shut down for nearly a year. While Hudson bounced back, the long delay proved fatal to the health of the show. By the time it returned to the airwaves, viewers had lost interest. The show’s final episode aired on Christmas Day, 1982.
Over the next two years, Hudson’s health continued to deteriorate. At first, this was attributed to the star’s lingering heart problems, but before long, other whispers and rumors began to spread. In 1985, Hudson signed on to play his last major role as Daniel Reece, the love interest of Linda Evans’ character, Krystal Carrington, on the hit primetime drama, “Dynasty” (ABC, 1981-89). Although the role of Reece was originally conceived to become a major character, Hudson’s rapidly declining health dictated that the storyline be revised. When producers noticed Hudson looking increasingly frail and steadily losing weight over the course of the season, they began to worry and kept their fingers crossed. The final straw came, though, when Hudson’s speech started to become affected, preventing him from delivering his lines. Left with no other option, the Daniel Reece character was written out after 14 episodes. Though Hudson kept it a secret, in reality, the actor was aware of the severity of his condition, having been diagnosed with AIDS in June of 1984.
After months of seclusion, Hudson resurfaced in July of 1985 to join his old friend and co-star, Doris Day, for the launch of her new cable show, “Doris Day’s Best Friends” (CBN, 1985-86). In his final public appearance, a skeletally gaunt and incoherent Hudson confirmed the awful truth – he was knocking at death’s door. The shocking image of the once robust dreamboat withering away to nothingness was broadcast again all over the national news shows that night and for weeks to come. But at the end of the day, it was Doris Day’s devastated stunned silence that seemed to sum it up best.
No longer able to deny the obvious, Hudson and his doctors released a statement shortly after his appearance, stating that the actor had terminal liver cancer. A week later, however, Hudson came clean and publicly confirmed that he was dying of AIDS. How the actor contracted the deadly disease was unclear, but Hudson speculated that he may have contracted the HIV virus from infected blood he had received as part of his numerous heart bypass procedures (At the time of his operation, blood was not tested for the then-unknown HIV antibody). Hudson died on Oct. 2, 1985 of complications from AIDS. As per his instructions, he was cremated and his ashes buried at sea.
By this point, the question of whether or not Hudson was secretly gay seemed all but moot; most of his colleagues knew and it had long been an open secret in Hollywood’s gay underground. Nevertheless, the details of Hudson’s lifestyle became startlingly public following the funeral when Hudson’s longtime partner, Marc Christian, sued the actor’s estate on grounds of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Although he himself tested negative for the disease, according to Christian, Hudson continued having sex with him for a year after he had been diagnosed. In 1991, Christian reached a settlement with Hudson’s estate.
As the first high-profile Hollywood celebrity to die from AIDS, Hudson’s greatest legacy may have come in death. Casually dismissed for far too long as just a “gay disease” by the public, AIDS research had traditionally held a low priority among the medical establishment. After Hudson put a recognizable face on the disease, however, public awareness of AIDS increased dramatically. Hudson’s death also galvanized the Hollywood community for the first time to take a stance against the plight, helping to raise money and erase some of the stigma attached with the disease – typified best by his good friend Elizabeth Taylor’s activism, done in honor of her doomed friend. Had it not been for Hudson, it is unknown when, if ever, Hollywood would have come around to embrace this tradition of compassion and awareness regarding AIDS.
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Filed Under: Actor Profile