Among the historical figures depicted in Hollywood is Henry Willson, the sinister agent played by Jim Parsons. Willson was a real-life figure, and played an outsize role in shaping the celebrity culture of the ’50s.
He played a fundamental role in Rock Hudson’s career.
Willson’s most famous client was Rock Hudson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Giant in 1957. In 1947, Willson was working as a talent scout for producer David O. Selznick when he came across photos that Hudson, then known as Roy Fitzgerald, submitted for consideration, the Los Angeles Times reported. Willson was heading off to set up his own shop and and brought the aspiring actor with him. Willson began working to shape Hudson into the form of a star through classes in speech and singing. The agent made Hudson get his teeth corrected and work on his posture; some believe Willson’s stage name for Hudson was inspired by both the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River.
Willson was credited with creating the “beefcake craze.”
Willson crafted many of his clients in an identical mold, changing their looks and even their names, and became known for working with very handsome young actors. (He also worked with Lana Turner and Natalie Wood.) Tab Hunter, then named Arthur Gelien, was signed by Willson when he was 17. “Acting skill was secondary to chiseled features and a fine physique,” Hunter said of Willson’s standards for clients in the 2005 book Tab Hunter Confidential. The similarly attractive Merle Johnson Jr. became Troy Donahue.
Willson relied on blackmail and is thought to have abused many of his clients.
In the 2005 book The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, author Robert Hofler writes that Willson’s career guidance came with an expectation that his male clients would sleep with him. He also very carefully made sure any of his clients who were gay made sure their private lives were kept hidden, and resorted to threats and blackmail when necessary. Willson set Hudson up on high profile dates with famous actresses and it’s believed that when he thought a gossip magazine was set to publish a story outing the actor, he offered them information on his other clients to quash it.
Shortly after the magazine scandal, Hudson married Phyllis Gates, Willson’s secretary. Many suggested that Willson orchestrated the relationship, which ended in divorce three years after the wedding.
Wilson’s life took a hard turn after he was fired by Hudson and other clients. He fell into addiction and poverty and died in 1978, at age 67, of cirrhosis. His grave was unmarked.
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