Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson died at his Beverly Hills mansion on this day, eleven weeks after the actor had shocked his fans across the world by revealing that he was dying of AIDS. He was the first big movie star seen to succumb to what at the time was a killer virus, HIV.
Hudson was a good actor; in the right project he could even be very good. But, he also had something extra special from the very start, a sparkling screen presence. He could totally fill up the screen. Hudson was unworldly handsome, with a broad chest, a deep, velvety voice and a smile that dazzled. He was that rare Hollywood commodity, a class act and an authentic leading man who could work in any genre: Westerns, Melodramas, Thrillers, War flicks, and Rom-Coms.
Rock Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. He was 6 foot 5 inches of solid rock, just like the name dubbed him by his agent Henry Willson in 1948. Willson was also gay and built a stable of stars by cruising clubs looking for talent for his personal and professional handling. He usually gave his clients new names and new backgrounds that included conventionally masculine pursuits such as football or fishing. He coached them on how to shed any obvious gay traits.
Hudson’s new identity was assembled around his easy going, natural charm and hunky body, his Mid-Western roots and his wholesomeness. His public persona was defined by strength, firmness and constancy, although Hudson’s years as a heavy drinker suggest he had a private struggle.
Willson’s most successful star package was Hudson and the agent worked hard to make sure he continued to be a money maker. As Hudson became more famous, the press demanded to know when “Hollywood’s Most Eligible Bachelor” would find the right girl.
In 1955, Confidential Magazine threatened to leak a story, complete with photos, about Hudson’s secret gay life, a revelation that certainly would have destroyed his budding career. But, Willson quickly put together a marriage for Hudson to his secretary Phyllis Gates. The gossip rags reported on their whirlwind romance and film fans accepted the story because they wanted to.
Known for his easy going demeanor in civilian life, Hudson was well liked by his colleagues. He seemed to enjoy a rich and happy life in the public eye. But in truth, Hudson endured a deeply troubled private life. It was no secret to Hollywood insiders and his closest friends that Hudson was gay, but he worked within a studio star system that regularly rewrote an actor’s life story to match what film-goers demanded and found most palatable. Being gay did not fit this script. When Hudson was named the Number One Box Office Star in 1957, he still was forced to sell his sailboat because someone kept painting “faggot” and “queer” on the bow.
Hudson was one of the greatest film stars of all time, but he was a gay man who played the part of an international symbol of heterosexuality. In the more open 1970s, Hudson did open his closet door a crack. He was spotted in bars and bathhouses of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and was even included anonymously, but with his blessings, in his former lover Armistead Maupin‘s classic serial novel Tales Of The City.
Tragically, after contracting HIV, his private life was pushed onto the public. Hudson was the first major Hollywood casualty of the plague. Hudson’s sex life finally received detailed attention after his passing, when his boyfriend, Marc Christian successfully sued his estate claiming that Hudson had not informed him of his diagnosis. Christian died from a drug overdose in 2010.
Hudson’s death not only brought long overdue awareness of HIV/AIDS, it inspired his good friend Elizabeth Taylor to begin her decades long role as a prominent AIDS activist, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for her organization amfAR.
Hudson finally came out of the closet, forced really, when the press and the public stopped buying into the stories of weight loss from anorexia. We all discovered the truth in July 1985 when news spread that he had collapsed in his hotel room in Paris where he had gone for undercover treatments of the antiviral HPA-23, not a horse de-wormer and unavailable at the time in the USA.
Commercial airlines refused to fly Hudson back to Los Angeles from Paris after his diagnosis became public. His friends Nancy and Ronnie Reagan refused to help. He was forced to pay $250,000 (one million in today’s dollars) for a chartered plane to take him home. The cost reflected the deep panic and prejudice towards people with AIDS in the first decade of that plague.
I remember how shocked and confused I was by his gaunt appearance and sad eyes when Hudson’s episodes aired on the prime-time soap Dynasty in 1984.
Hollywood promoted the fantasy that Hudson was the ideal American male because he looked like a real man: muscular, broad shouldered, deep-voiced and square-jawed. Watching it this summer, I had to laugh at the scene near the end of Lover Come Back (1961) where two guys are watching Hudson’s character run through his apartment building dressed in nothing but a woman’s fur coat. They express their disbelief with:
“He’s the last guy in the world I would have figured.”