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In his new miniseries Hollywood, producer Ryan Murphy seeks to right some of the wrongs of the entertainment industry’s past. While the show is largely fictional, it features several real life characters, including actor Rock Hudson. With the show, Murphy hoped to revisit Hudson’s stories and explore what his life and career could have been, absent the homophobia that permeated the industry. But just who was Hudson?
He had a humble beginning in Illinois.
Born Roy Harold Scherer Jr. in 1925, Hudson was raised in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. His father left the family when he was a young child and the boy was later adopted by his stepfather, who changed his last name to Fitzgerald. Hudson’s stepfather was an abusive addict who violently discouraged the young man from acting, author Mark Griffin wrote in his recent Hudson biography All That Heaven Allows.
After graduating from high school, Hudson enlisted in the Navy and served as a mechanic in the Philippines during World War II. After leaving the service he lived in Los Angeles, reunited with his biological father and worked as a truck driver while he pursuing an acting career, the Chicago Tribune reported in his obituary.
He was signed by notorious agent Henry Willson.
Willson discovered Hudson in 1947 and gave him his new name, which was reportedly inspired by both the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River. Willson was drawn to Hudson’s height (he was 6’4″) and believed he had the good looks to become a star, the Tribune recounted. After appearing in a small role in the 1948 picture Fighter Squadron, Hudson was signed to a contract with Universal-International. He appeared in a series of films in the late ’40s and early ’50s and moved into increasingly large roles. In 1956 he starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in the western Giant, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Hudson then found a hit starring in 1959’s Pillow Talk with Doris Day, a frequent co-star. He was voted the top star of the year in 1958 by Look magazine.
Hudson was encouraged to remain in the closet.
Willson positioned Hudson as a clean-cut ’50s heartthrob and was very invested in maintaining the image of him as a straight man. Though many in Hollywood knew that Hudson was gay, Willson, who was also gay, was able to keep it out of the press by bargaining with magazines. In 1955 Hudson married Phyllis Gates, who was Willson’s secretary, a coupling likely engineered by Willson, the Los Angeles Times wrote after her 2006 death. The marriage lasted three years before it ended in divorce.
He was the first major star known to have AIDS.
When Hudson slowly fell out of the Hollywood A-list in the late ‘60s, he successfully transitioned to television. He starred as a police officer in the well-received series McMillan & Wife from 1971 to 1977. Heart issues, which led to bypass surgeries, hindered his career in the ’80s. In 1984, he was diagnosed with AIDS; speculation about his health arose when he appeared at a press conference with Doris Day and looked dramatically different. “He was very sick,” Day later said to People. “But I just brushed that off and I came out and put my arms around him and said, ‘Am I glad to see you.'”
Hudson’s health continued to decline and in the summer of 1985, while he was being treated at a Paris hospital, his publicist confirmed he had AIDS. That September, a Los Angeles benefit for which Elizabeth Taylor chaired raised $1 million for research. The New York Times reported that in a message read at the event, 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.” Hudson donated $250,000 to launch what is now known as AMFAR. He died that October at age 59.