Who was Rock Hudson? A new movie separates fact from fiction

Certainly, he was far more than just the first famous face of AIDS.
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Outside the hospital he’d been rushed to after collapsing several days earlier, reporters lined the streets, wanting to know if the rumours were true.

Rock Hudson movies showed a man glowing of health. But his gaunt appearance over the last year was troubling with reports it was down to anorexia, liver cancer, exhaustion, many things. Rumblings were beginning to surface that these were masks for his true condition.

With long-time friend and confident Mark Miller by his side, the actor agreed to release a statement which would, according to Mark, be “the ruination of Rock Hudson’s life.”

“God, what a way to end a life,” Rock moaned, knowing the secret he’d tried to hide since being diagnosed a year earlier was about to hit the papers.

Yanou Collart annonce à la presse que l'acteur américain Rock Hudson est atteint du SIDA devant l'hôpital américain de neuilley ou l'acteur est venu consulter des spécialistes, Neuilly le 25 juillet 1985, France. (Photo by Frédéric REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

And so on June 25, 1985, Yanou Collart, his French publicist, fronted the hordes of cameras outside. “Mr Hudson has AIDS,” she said simply as the news cycle went into overdrive.

At first, there was a wave of negative and misinformed press. But within months he would become what some now call an accidental activist. As the first famous face of the AIDS crisis, Rock’s Hollywood compatriots would rally for much-needed awareness and funds to help others. He would bring the disease into mainstream discourse at the same time.

Today, this is the memory for many of the man whose all-American good looks saw him dominate the silver screen in his heyday. But, says Stephen Kijak, director of new documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, there is plenty more we should be talking about when it comes to the star. So he went in search of Rock’s most intimate friends – and re-examined Rock Hudson movies – to gain a real insight into what made him tick.

Rock on vacation in Puerto Vallarta (Photo courtesy of Lee Garlington).

“(The film) is a historical corrective on many fronts,” he tells The Weekly of why he chose to revisit the star’s life. “As an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood he’s one who has faded a bit from people’s collective memory. And then, of course, the impression of Rock Hudson as the first famous person to die of AIDS just lingers and obscures a lot of the other facts of his life. Ultimately, it’s a new look at an old story. At a cultural figure who, without even knowing it, had an incredible impact on history.”

Young Rock Hudson

What was Rock Hudson’s given name?

Roy Harold Fitzgerald arrived in Los Angeles in 1946 at the age of 21. After his discharge from the United States Navy, he’d decided to make the move from his hometown of Winnetka, Illinois to stay with his biological father, Roy Sr. This was despite the fact he’d moved there after abandoning his young family when his son was just four years old.

Roy Jr was, in his own words “a mid-Western hick.” But landing in LA opened his eyes to a world of new possibilities. He’d always dreamed, he said, of being an actor. But he’d never talked about it as a child because “that’s sissy stuff. You want to be a policeman or a fireman. That’s why I never said anything. I kept my mouth shut. Nor did I join the drama society or anything like that. I used to work all the time so I couldn’t do any form of extra-curricular activity.”

Helping him realise this dream was Kenneth Hodge, the first friend he made in Hollywood.

Rock as a young man

“Kenneth was somebody who loved to help people,” Richard Hodge, Kenneth’s nephew reveals in All That Heaven Allowed. “It was never spoken of that he might be gay. Being gay was considered a neurosis. Rock was just getting out of the Navy and hadn’t started in pictures yet. And Kenneth was just really enthralled with him. It was sort of love at first sight, I think. They were very much lovers.

“Kenneth had a big Hollywood job he was a director in radio. He had a good network, and he had a lot of people to introduce Rock too. He helped facilitate some of Rocks’ early career.”

Rock Hudson and his dog

Who was Rock Hudson’s first agent?

Rock was 6 foot 3 (1.9 metres), with a chiseled face and toned body that was very much the look of the time.

When agent Henry Willson – who had newly been appointed as head of talent at David O. Selznick’s Vanguard Picture – saw Rock’s photograph in 1947, he knew he’d hit gold dust. And so he began overhauling his star in the making He got him diction lessons, helped to lower his voice, taught him to ride horses and more.

“In the 1920s and ‘30s, the images of masculinity were slightly different,” explains Stephen. “It was more effete; the dandy was more of an acceptable icon. In the post-war period the images of men and masculinity completely change and start getting so much more rugged and masculine. The shirts come off, they have to be buff, they have to be extra virile. Images of sailors and soldiers have influenced the culture and that’s what people wanted in their movie stars.”

Rock Hudson, 1954

“He groomed the male stars to be more butch frankly and he did it with a number of these guys who were ex-soldiers and sailors. Rock Hudson was one of them,” Henry Willson’s biographer Robert Hofler reveals in the film. “He showed them how to do their hair, what to wear all of that. He was a real grooming school, he taught them how to be heterosexual.”

Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, poster, US poster, top from left: Charles Coburn, Piper Laurie, Rock Hudson, 1952. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Soon, he was signed by Universal Pictures, but the first Rock Hudson movies were nothing to write home about. This all changed when he appeared in director Douglas Sirk’s 1952 comedy, Has Anybody Seen My Gal? co-starring Piper Laurie.

How did Rock Hudson get his break?

“I took a look at the actors at Universal and there were many,” Douglas would say of how he created a matinee idol. “There was an actor I wanted to try for this project: Rock Hudson. And I kind of ‘got him off the truck’, to say it in a figurative way.

“At the end of the movie, at the premiere, I was told immediately ‘Douglas, you have a new star, and the studio has one. That’s Rock Hudson.’”

With fan letters starting to pour in, producer Ross Hunter was quick to campaign for more and better parts for Rock, getting him out of the schlocky roles he’d been assigned to, instead casting him in glossy melodramas which showed the star’s mettle.

By the late 1950s, Rock was starring in bonafide hits. The studio had put him up in a mansion he dubbed “The Castle” and the run of work was unceasing. So too was the publicity that followed it which included him draped over a series of attractive young women. It was all he’d hoped for. But, according to biographer Mark Griffin, it posed a few problems too.

(Original Caption) In typical movie fashion, Universal City, a 400 acre municipality in San Fernando Valley with its own official post office and film production as its sole industry, elected Rock Hudson, Universal-International screen star, as Mayor in a balloting that totalled 1984 votes. Mary Castle, (right) a red haired beauty from Pampa, Texas, had a badge pinned on her bathing suit as honorary police chief, and Jackie Loughery (left who was Miss United States in last year's Miss Universe contest), won the post of fire marshal.

It was the McCarthy era. From the early 1950s the FBI were making reports on communists and homosexuals in government. And it wasn’t long before Hollywood came under scrutiny too. Rock’s name came up frequently in these files and soon the tabloids were sniffing about. When Confidential magazine planned to “out” Rock in 1955, Henry Willson threw another of his clients under the bus to keep his number one star’s name out of the papers. So ended the career of talented young actor Tab Hunter.

What happened to Rock Hudson’s wife?

“Rock’s great popularity as a matinee idol poses this significant problem for his handlers and studio executives,” Mark explains in All That Heaven Allowed.

“(In Rock Hudson movies) he’s wooing women like Jane Wyman and Piper Laurie and the fans are really eating it up. But he’s nearly 30 years old and he’s suspiciously unmarried.”

(Original Caption) 11/12/1955-Santa Barbara, CA: Film actor Rock Hudson gets the first piece of the wedding cake from his bride, the former Phyllis Gates at the reception following their surprise wedding on Wednesday night in the Lutheran church here. Hudson is 29 and his bride, 25. It is the first marriage for each.

Just weeks after the planned expose and days before his 30th birthday, Rock wed Henry Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. It would last just a few years before they divorced. Phyllis later claimed in her autobiography, she had no idea of her husband’s true sexuality, something many find hard to swallow.

According to Stephen, studios were used to not only turning a blind eye to their stars’ lives behind-the-scenes but using any means possible to make sure others did too.

“So they’re gay, so they’re having gay pool parties so what,” Stephen says of the attitude at the time. “We have to protect them at any cost.”

Lee Garlington is a former lover and friend of Rock’s who appears in the documentary. He recalls the fun and mischief Rock encouraged, laughing at how they would defy the studio rules.

Rock Hudson holidaying with a friend

“We enjoyed travelling together,” he recalls. “He drove the management at Universal crazy by taking off he and I without telling them where we were going. They got really upset. He just said screw it, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But there was a lot of sneaking around.”

But despite his living openly privately, all who knew him say there would have been no thought of him coming out publicly. This was common in gay stars of his generation, explains Stephen, who understands it’s something modern society struggles to understand.

“What did they have to benefit from coming out,” he poses. “Their livelihoods, their security, all of it depended on them maintaining that double life. They grow to be comfortable with it and they don’t know that there’s another way to live. So who cares? There’s absolutely nothing at stake for them.”

Did Rock Hudson have a boyfriend?

“He had boyfriends that were mostly young and pretty and showed huge baskets,” added another long-time friend, Joe Carbery. “I don’t recall him ever having a very long relationship with anybody other than friends.”

Rock Hudson and Doris Day relax on set of the film 'Pillow Talk', 1959. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

What movies was Rock Hudson famous for?

George Stephen’s 1956 film Giant introduced Rock to Elizabeth Taylor – with whom he’d forge a lifelong friendship. And of all Rock Hudson movies, Giant earnt him his only Oscar nomination. As the decade closed, he found more success alongside Doris Day in the first of their comedies, Pillow Talk.

Along with Cary Grant he was considered one of the best dressed and most popular actors. He would co-star alongisde Hollywood beauties including Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinalle. But by the late 1960s his film career was in decline.

In the ‘70s, he turned to television, with his run in McMillan & Wife finding him a new generation of fans. Appearing in one of the episodes was a young Linda Evans. She was thrilled when she learnt in late 1984 that Rock would be appearing in a seven-episode arc on Dynasty as a love interest for her character Krystle Carrington. But this role would prove a poisoned chalice.

Rock Hudson on holidays at lake September 1971

When did Rock Hudson find out he had AIDS?

On June 5 that same year he’d been given the diagnosis that would change everything. After discovering a lesion on his neck, he’d gone to the doctor where the AIDS diagnosis was made. Rock flew to Paris for a clinical trial which seemed to have given him hope. But, as we all know now, there was no cure for AIDS – instead it was a slow march towards his end.

Linda admits she was shocked by his appearance when he came on set. He was a shadow of the man seen in those early Rock Hudson movies. But Rock had suffered a heart attack a few years earlier thanks to a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. She put it down to that, along with plenty of travelling.

So the duo got to work, a clearly ill Rock giving it his all. But then came a day he’d dreaded – shooting a scene with an onscreen kiss. At the time, there was no clear information about how AIDS could be transmitted, and the actor was terrified.

DYNASTY -  "Photo Gallery" which aired on December 28, 1984. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images) LINDA EVANS;ROCK HUDSON

Mark Miller’s long-time partner George Nador made a diary entry, detailing his friend breaking down in the aftermath.

“Rock returned from work the day they did the kiss scene and said to Mark, ‘This has been the worst day of my life. I used every possible mouthwash known to man. An awful day.’ He also said, ‘I kept my mouth closed and so did she.’”

It was something that vexed Linda on the day. Rock was a great romantic partner, his onscreen kisses with female co-stars had made movie audiences swoon. Yet he was clearly reluctant to get into the scene with her.

“It makes me cry because I know he was protecting me,” she recalls in the documentary. “I didn’t know that at the time, I was confused… But part of the reason I get so upset is he was doing everything he could do to make it alright for me in case because nobody knew in those days. It hurts my heart even now when I think about it.”

What happened when Rock Hudson admitted he had AIDS?

Six months later when Rock announced his health diagnosis, the world turned on the star. Headlines sledging that kiss dominated. Linda recalls people being reluctant to come to her dressing room or interact with her as a result. “I had personal friends who wouldn’t come over to dinner,” she recalled. “I was never afraid I would have AIDS… I thought where is your humanity, where is your compassion? What’s wrong with this world right now?”

Actors Rock Hudson (1925 - 1985) and Elizabeth Taylor (1932 - 2011), circa 1982. (Photo by Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images)

Another former co-star was thinking the same thing. In the wake of Rock’s announcement, Elizabeth Taylor decided she needed to do something, not just for her friend Rock but for all who were facing this terrible death sentence.

“I was made so aware of the silence,” she would say. “The huge loud silence regarding AIDS. No one wanted to talk about it, no one wanted to become involved. Certainly, nobody wanted to give any money or support. And it so angered me that I finally went, ‘Liz, do something yourself.’”

She galvanized her Hollywood compatriots, she lobbied then-President Reagen, she co-founded The Foundation for AIDS Research. She would go on to raise millions for the cause.

One participant holds a sign saying "We love you Rock" during a three-hour walkathon through Hollywood, Calif., July 28, 1985, in a fundraising effort sponsored by AIDS Project Los Angeles. More than 2800 people participated n the walkathon, which netted an estimated $630,000 to be used for AIDS prevention education and support services for victims. (AP Photo/Jim Ruymen)

On September 19, 1985, Burt Lancaster read out a statement from Rock at one of these fundraisers. “I am not happy that I am sick,” the ailing actor had written. “I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has some positive worth.”

When did Rock Hudson die?

Just a few weeks later he would lose his battle, passing away on October 2 at his Beverly Hills home.

Today, the overarching memory is of this part of the actor’s life – his final year and inevitable death. But take away his sexuality, says Stephen, and when you watch Rock Hudson movies the man you see on screens was the real Rock Hudson – funny, witty, charming, mischievous and, most of all, generous.

Actress Doris Day and actor Rock Hudson laughing at the beach in a scene of "Lover Come Back" at Los Angeles, California in 1960. (Photo by Leo Fuchs/Getty Images)

“He was just a natural,” sums up the director of what made Rock not just a movie star but a human being who charmed all. “That was the key to his success. He taps into his ease and comfort, and was so good looking and tall. Clothes just hung perfectly on him. He was one of them most perfect cinematic objects of his time.

“There’s no friction with his sexuality. He’s not a tortured soul wringing his hands in the dark going, ‘I wish I could have a boyfriend.’ I think he was having lots and lots of fun. He had a great circle of friends, and he was extremely dedicated to his craft. He is someone who would show up on time, know all his lines and have respect for everybody from the PA to the lighting tech. He was one of those great magnanimous good guys who was a total pro.

“If you take the sexuality out of it, what you see is what you get. You can get a really good impression of what he was like by watching his best work.”

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is available to download now on all major digital platforms.

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