Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.; November 17, 1925 – October 2, 1985) was an American actor.
Hudson is generally known for his turns as a leading man in the 1950s and 1960s. He achieved stardom with roles in films such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Giant (1956), and found continued success with a string of romantic comedies costarring Doris Day (Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), Send Me No Flowers (1964)).
After appearing in films like Seconds (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Ice Station Zebra (1968) in the late 1960s, Hudson began a second career in television through the 1970s and ’80s, starring in the popular mystery series McMillan & Wife and the soap opera Dynasty.
Hudson was voted Star of the Year, Favorite Leading Man, and similar titles by numerous film magazines. He completed nearly 70 films and starred in several television productions during a career that spanned over four decades. Hudson died in 1985, becoming the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness.
Hudson was born in Winnetka, Illinois, the only child of telephone operator Katherine Wood (of English and Irish descent) and auto mechanic Roy Harold Scherer, Sr. (of German and Swiss descent), who abandoned the family during the depths of the Great Depression.
His mother remarried and his stepfather, Wallace “Wally” Fitzgerald, adopted him and changed his surname to Fitzgerald. Hudson’s years at New Trier High School were unremarkable, although he sang in the school’s glee club and was remembered as a shy boy who delivered newspapers, ran errands, and worked as a golf caddy.
After graduating from high school during World War II he trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and with orders to report to Aviation Repair and Overhaul Unit 2 then located on Samar, Philippines, as an aircraft mechanic he departed San Francisco aboard the troop transport Lew Wallace.
In 1946, after returning to San Francisco aboard an aircraft carrier, Hudson moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and applied to the University of Southern California’s dramatics program, but he was rejected due to poor grades.
He worked as a truck driver for some time, longing to be an actor but with no success in breaking into the movies. After he sent talent scout Henry Willson a picture of himself in 1947, Willson took Hudson on as a client and changed his name to Rock Hudson, although Hudson later admitted he hated the name.
Hudson made his acting debut with a small part in the 1948 Warner Bros. film Fighter Squadron, and took 38 takes to successfully deliver his only line in the film. Hudson was further coached in acting, singing, dancing, fencing, and horseback riding at Universal International, and he began to be featured in film magazines where he was promoted (possibly on the basis of his good looks).
In 1953 he appeared in a Camel commercial which showed him on the set of Seminole.
Director Douglas Sirk gave Hudson his first leading role, in the 1954 film Magnificent Obsession, co-starring Jane Wyman. The film received positive reviews, with Modern Screen Magazine citing Hudson as the most popular actor of the year.
His popularity soared with George Stevens’ film Giant (1956). Hudson and his co-star James Dean were both nominated for Oscars in the Best Actor category. In the 1950s, Hudson made nine films with acclaimed director and father-figure Douglas Sirk, with Sirk’s own favorite being The Tarnished Angels (1958).
Following Richard Brooks’ acclaimed film Something of Value (1957) was a moving performance in Charles Vidor’s box office failure A Farewell to Arms (1957).
In order to make A Farewell to Arms, Hudson reportedly turned down Marlon Brando’s role in Sayonara, William Holden’s role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Charlton Heston’s role in Ben-Hur.
A Farewell to Arms received negative reviews, failed at the box office and became the last production by David O. Selznick.
Hudson sailed through the 1960s on a wave of romantic comedies. He portrayed humorous characters in Pillow Talk, the first of three profitable co-starring performances with Doris Day. This was followed by Lover Come Back, Come September, Send Me No Flowers, Man’s Favorite Sport?, The Spiral Road, and Strange Bedfellows.
Along with Cary Grant, Hudson was regarded as one of the best-dressed male stars in Hollywood, and received Top 10 Stars of the Year a record-setting eight times from 1957 to 1964. He worked outside his usual range on the science-fiction thriller Seconds (1966).
The film flopped but it later gained cult status, and Hudson’s performance is often regarded as one of his best. He also tried his hand in the action genre with Tobruk (1967) and spy thriller Ice Station Zebra (1968), a role which he had actively sought and remained his personal favorite. He also dabbled in westerns with The Undefeated (1969).
Hudson’s popularity on the big screen diminished after the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, he starred in a number of TV movies and series. His most successful television series was McMillan & Wife opposite Susan Saint James, which ran from 1971 to 1977.
Hudson played police commissioner Stewart “Mac” McMillan, with Saint James as his wife Sally, and their on-screen chemistry helped make the show a hit. Hudson took a risk and surprised many by making a successful foray into live theater late in his career, the most acclaimed of his efforts being I Do! I Do! in 1974.
In the early 1980s, following years of heavy drinking and smoking, Hudson began having health problems which resulted in a heart attack in November 1981. Emergency quintuple heart bypass surgery sidelined Hudson and his new TV show The Devlin Connection for a year, and the show was canceled in December 1982 soon after it had first aired. Hudson recovered from the heart surgery but continued to smoke. He nevertheless continued to work with appearances in several TV movies.
He was in ill health while filming the action-drama film The Ambassador in Israel during the winter months of 1983 to 1984. He reportedly did not get along with his co-star Robert Mitchum, who had a serious drinking problem and often clashed off camera with Hudson and other cast and crew members.
During 1984, while filming the TV drama The Vegas Strip Wars, Hudson’s health grew worse and prompted rumors that he was suffering from liver cancer (among other ailments) because of his increasingly gaunt face and build.
From December 1984 to April 1985, Hudson appeared in a recurring role on the ABC prime time soap opera Dynasty as Daniel Reece, the love interest for Krystle Carrington (played by Linda Evans) and biological father of the character Sammy Jo Carrington (Heather Locklear).
While he had long been known to have difficulty memorizing lines, which resulted in his use of cue cards, it was Hudson’s speech itself that began to visibly deteriorate on Dynasty.
He was originally slated to appear for the duration of the show’s fifth season; however, because of his progressing ill health, his character was abruptly written out of the show and died off screen.
While his career developed, Hudson and his agent Henry Willson kept the actor’s personal life out of the headlines. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an exposé about Hudson’s secret homosexual life. Willson stalled this by disclosing information about two of his other clients.
According to some colleagues, Hudson’s homosexuality was well known in Hollywood throughout his career, and former co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Saint James claimed that they knew of his homosexual activity, as did Carol Burnett. Soon after the Confidential incident, Hudson married Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates.
Gates later wrote that she dated Hudson for several months, lived with him for two months before his surprise marriage proposal, and married Hudson out of love and not (as it was later reported) to prevent an exposé of Hudson’s sexual past.
Press coverage of the wedding quoted Hudson as saying: “When I count my blessings, my marriage tops the list.” Gates filed for divorce after three years in April 1958, citing mental cruelty. Hudson did not contest the divorce and Gates received alimony of $250 a week for 10 years.
Gates never remarried. After her death, the LGBT news magazine The Advocate published an article by Willson’s biographer, who claimed that Gates was actually a lesbian who believed from the beginning of their relationship that Hudson was gay.
According to the 1986 biography Rock Hudson: His Story by Hudson and Sara Davidson, Hudson was good friends with American novelist Armistead Maupin and his lovers included Jack Coates (born 1944); Tom Clark (1933–1995), who also later published a memoir about Hudson, Rock Hudson: Friend of Mine; actor and later stockbroker Lee Garlington, and Marc Christian (born Marc Christian MacGinnis), who later won a suit against the Hudson estate. An urban legend states that Hudson married Jim Nabors in the early 1970s.
Not only was same-sex marriage not recognized under the laws of any American state at the time, but, at least publicly, Hudson and Nabors were nothing more than friends.
According to Hudson, the legend originated with a group of “middle-aged homosexuals who live in Huntington Beach” who sent out joke invitations for their annual get-together. One year, the group invited its members to witness “the marriage of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors”, at which Hudson would take the surname of Nabors’ most famous character, Gomer Pyle, becoming Rock Pyle.
The “joke” was evidently already in the mainstream by the very early 1970s.
In the October 1972 edition of MAD magazine (issue no. 154), an article entitled “When Watching Television, You Can be Sure of Seeing…”, gossip columnist ‘Rona Boring’ states: “And there isn’t a grain of truth to the vicious rumor that movie and TV star Rock Heman and singer Jim Nelly were secretly married! Rock and Jim are just good buddies! I repeat, they are not married! They are not even going steady!” Those who failed to get the joke spread the rumor and as a result, Hudson and Nabors never spoke to each other again.
Three years later, Nabors would begin a long-term (and, until 2013, secret) relationship with Stan Cadwallader, a retired firefighter from Honolulu and the man he would eventually marry once same-sex marriage was legalized.
Unknown to the public, Hudson had been diagnosed with HIV on June 5, 1984. During most of 1984 and 1985, Hudson kept his illness a secret while continuing to work and at the same time travel to France and other countries seeking a cure, or at least treatment to slow the progress of the disease.
On July 16, 1985, Hudson joined his old friend Doris Day for a press conference announcing the launch of her new TV cable show Doris Day’s Best Friends in which Hudson was videotaped visiting Day’s ranch in Carmel, California, a few days earlier.
His gaunt appearance and almost incoherent speech pattern was so shocking that the reunion was broadcast repeatedly over national news shows that night and for days to come. Media outlets speculated on Hudson’s health.
Two days later, Hudson traveled to Paris, France, for another round of treatment. After Hudson collapsed in his room at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on July 21, his publicist, Dale Olson, released a statement claiming that Hudson had inoperable liver cancer. Olson denied reports that Hudson had AIDS and would say only that he was undergoing tests for “everything” at the American Hospital of Paris.
On July 25, 1985, Hudson’s publicist confirmed that Hudson did in fact have AIDS and had been diagnosed over a year earlier.
In another press release a month later, Hudson speculated he might have contracted HIV through transfused blood from an infected donor during the multiple blood transfusions he received during his heart bypass procedure in November 1981. He flew back to Los Angeles on July 30. Hudson was so weak that he was removed by stretcher from the Air France Boeing 747 he had chartered and upon which he and his medical attendants were the only passengers.
He was flown by helicopter to UCLA Medical Center, where he spent nearly a month undergoing further treatment. He was released from the hospital in late August 1985 and returned to his home, “The Castle”, in Beverly Hills.
On the morning of October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson died in his sleep from AIDS-related complications at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 59, just over six weeks shy of his 60th birthday. Hudson requested that no funeral be held. His body was cremated hours after his death and a cenotaph was later established at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cathedral City, California.
The disclosure of Hudson’s AIDS provoked widespread public discussion of his homosexuality. In its August 15, 1985, issue, People published a story that discussed his disease in the context of his sexuality.
The largely sympathetic article featured comments from famous show business colleagues such as Angie Dickinson, Robert Stack, and Mamie Van Doren, who claimed they knew about Hudson’s homosexuality and expressed their support for him. At that time, People had a circulation of more than 2.8 million, and, as a result of this and other stories, theories about Hudson’s homosexuality became fully public.
Hudson’s revelation had an immediate impact on the visibility of AIDS, and on the funding of medical research related to the disease. Among activists who were seeking to de-stigmatize AIDS and its victims, Hudson’s revelation of his own infection with the disease was viewed as an event that could transform the public’s perception of AIDS.
Shortly after Hudson’s press release disclosing his infection, William M. Hoffman, the author of As Is, a play about AIDS that appeared on Broadway in 1985, stated: “If Rock Hudson can have it, nice people can have it. It’s just a disease, not a moral affliction.”
At the same time, Joan Rivers was quoted as saying: “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn’t get one major star to turn out. … Rock’s admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public, but by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage.”
Morgan Fairchild said that “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.” In a telegram Hudson sent to a September 1985 Hollywood AIDS benefit, Commitment to Life, which he was too ill to attend in person, Hudson said: “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
Shortly after his death, People reported: “Since Hudson made his announcement, more than $1.8 million in private contributions (more than double the amount collected in 1984) has been raised to support AIDS research and to care for AIDS victims (5,523 reported in 1985 alone).
A few days after Hudson died, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.” Organizers of the Hollywood AIDS benefit, Commitment to Life, reported after Hudson’s announcement that he was suffering from the disease, it was necessary to move the event to a larger venue to accommodate the increased attendance.
Shortly before his death Hudson made the first direct contribution, $250,000, to amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, helping launch the non-profit organization dedicated to AIDS/HIV research and prevention; it was formed by a merger of a Los Angeles organization founded by Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, Hudson’s physician, and Elizabeth Taylor, his friend and onetime co-star, and a New York-based group.
However, Hudson’s revelation did not immediately dispel the stigma of AIDS. Although then-president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were friends of Hudson, Reagan, who was viewed by some as indifferent to the disease and its sufferers, made no public statement concerning Hudson’s condition. At the same time Reagan called Hudson privately in his Paris hospital room where he was being treated in July 1985 and released a statement after his death.
After Hudson revealed his diagnosis, a controversy arose concerning his participation in a scene in the television drama Dynasty in which he shared a long and repeated kiss with actress Linda Evans in one episode (aired in February 1985 for the first time). When filming the scene, Hudson was aware that he had AIDS, but did not inform her. Some felt that he should have disclosed his condition to her beforehand.
At the time, it was thought that the virus was present in low quantities in saliva and tears, but there had been no reported cases of transmission by kissing. Nevertheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had warned against exchanging saliva with members of groups perceived to be at high risk for AIDS.
According to comments given in August 1985 by Ed Asner, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, Hudson’s revelation caused incipient “panic” within the film and television industry. Asner said that he was aware of scripts being rewritten to eliminate kissing scenes.
Later in the same year, the Guild issued rules requiring that actors be notified in advance of any “open-mouth” kissing scenes, and providing that they could refuse to participate in such scenes without penalty.
Linda Evans herself appears not to have been angry at Hudson, and asked to introduce the segment of the 1985 Commitment to Life benefit that was dedicated to Hudson.