A Hollywood producer once called him “Prince Charming” – a fitting nickname for a man whose life seemed, for most of it, like a storybook. Rock Hudson started steaming up the screen in the 1950s, and continued for nearly four decades, in more than 60 films. But today he’s perhaps overlooked, said documentary director Stephen Kijak.
Smith asked, “Why do you think his name is not up there with the James Deans and the Marilyn Monroes?”
Kijak replied, “I don’t know. I think it’s partly because the legacy ends up just being, ‘Oh, Rock Hudson was that actor who died of AIDS.'”
But now, in his new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” Kijak explores Hudson’s whole life, as a global star, and closeted gay man. In the documentary, Hudson’s friend Ken Jillson said, “Our social life with him was very private. We didn’t go out to restaurants. We would go to Rock’s house. It was called the Castle.”
Yes, Prince Charming really did call his home “the Castle” – a Beverly Hills mansion that must have seemed a million miles away from Winnetka, Illinois, where Hudson grew up as Roy Fitzgerald.
It was a very modest background, said Hudson biographer Mark Griffin. And when Roy from Illinois met notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson, Griffin said, the first thing he did was change his name to a “manly” Rock Hudson.
“And then, you have to groom the person to match the name, as it were,” said Griffin. “And Rock really was Henry Willson’s most successful creation, by far.”
“He molded him into exactly what America was looking for?” asked Smith.
“Yeah, perfect archetype for American masculinity at that time.”
He was paired with the biggest stars, including Jane Wyman in “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant” (1956), and three movies with Doris Day, starting with “Pillow Talk” (1959):
Brad (Rock Hudson): “Look I don’t know what’s bothering you but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.”
Jan (Doris Day): “I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.”
Brad: “Oooh, that’s too bad!”
In real life, Hudson was dating men, like Lee Garlington, who in the documentary recalled, “We were ordered never to have our picture taken together, because somebody would know that we were gay.”
Hudson even married his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. It lasted just three years. But Hudson’s commitment to playing straight never faltered.
And friends like Doris Day kept his secret. In an archival interview Day said, “Many, many people would ask me, you know, ‘Is Rock Hudson really gay?’ And I said, ‘It’s something I will not discuss. First of all, I know nothing about his private life.'”
Hudson’s career evolved from movies to TV, including the hit ’70s series “McMillan & Wife.” But in the ’80s, his life collided with the emerging AIDS epidemic.
Kijak said, “It was still the dark ages, and so, everyone was afraid. There was a lot of fear, there was a lot of denial. And I think his way of coping was just to keep working, and to deny that anything was wrong. ‘Cause no one knew in those days, nobody knew what was gonna happen.”
As his health worsened, Hudson took on one last role with one last leading lady, Linda Evans, on “Dynasty.” As the documentary tells it, his diagnosis was still a secret to everyone, including her. At a time when some feared that kissing could transmit the virus that causes AIDS, the script called for just that.
“They wanted it to be passionate,” Evans told Smith. “And it didn’t end up being that.”
“How was he kissing you?”
“Very timidly, very unromantically. And I knew he knew how to kiss passionately, and that’s why I was surprised,” said Evans. “He’s a fine actor. He knows what he’s doing. So, it was confusing.”
But on July 5, 1985, it became clear, with a publicist’s announcement from Paris, where Hudson had gone for treatment. Yanou Collart told the assembled press, “Mr. Rock Hudson has acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which was diagnosed over a year ago in the United States.”
Kijak said, “How famous was he? One press conference announcing that Rock Hudson has AIDS, and in about five minutes it’s a worldwide news story. It’s on every newspaper, every news program, it’s the lead.”
Evans said, “I was just devastated for him. And then in thinking back, I felt very strongly that he kissed me like that to protect me. Nobody knew, but they said kissing could be one of the ways that you could catch it, possibly. And the thing that was so hard, so hard, was the press was so brutal with him after that. And they didn’t realize what he was going through.”
Returning from Paris was its own ordeal. Griffin said, “He’s actually forced, if you can believe it, to charter, at the expense of $250,000, a 747 which would fly him back to America, essentially home to die, as it were, because no commercial flights at that time would willingly accept even an A-list celebrity who was dying of AIDS.”
Back in the Castle, on his deathbed, he was comforted by his dear friend Elizabeth Taylor. “Everyone was maintaining a very polite distance,” said Griffin. “And Taylor, quite admirably, said, ‘Well, this is ridiculous.’ And she crawled into bed with him and cuddled with him, and hugged him … kind of a little bit of a maternal gesture.”
Taylor became a leader in the fight against AIDS. And, Griffin says, Rock Hudson played a vital role: “Because everyone knew Rock Hudson, now everyone in the world knew somebody who had AIDS. And suddenly, there was public interest.”
Smith asked, “Is it fair to say that there was AIDS before Rock Hudson, [and] AIDS after Rock Hudson?”
“It was Rock’s own physician who said, ‘Rock Hudson was the single most influential AIDS patient in history, because he changed the way that the disease was perceived,'” Griffin replied.
Rock Hudson died at age 59 on October 2, 1985. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d sent a note to be read aloud at an AIDS fundraiser: “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 my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
To watch a trailer for the HBO documentary “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Remington Korper.