Rock Hudson (1900-1974)

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson was the classic Hollywood leading man. Handsome, tall, strong and charming, he seemed ideally suited to the role of matinee idol. But appearances were deceptive. Rock Hudson was a troubled man leading a double life, for many years trying to conceal his homosexuality behind a front of conformity.

He was an excellent example of artificial star creation by the Hollywood studios. He was discovered as a good looking young man and moulded and manipulated into a film star. The surprising thing is that Rock Hudson rose above it all and actually became a good actor, not just a stooge for his employers. His career lasted over 40 years and, amidst dross, he made some good movies and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant performance in 'Giant' in 1956.

He became well known for a series of romantic comedies with Doris Day, such as 'Pillow Talk' in 1959 and 'Send Me No Flowers' in 1964 and in the 1970s and 1980s he established a highly successful second career on television in the series 'McMillan and Wife' and the soap opera 'Dynasty'.

He was as famous in death as in life when, in 1985 he be became the first major Hollywood star to die of AIDS.


He was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois, on November 17, 1925. His father was a car mechanic who abandoned the family in the Depression years of the early 1930's. When his mother remarried, his name was changed to his stepfather's, Fitzgerald.

Early Years

He attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, where he first developed an interest in acting, although he was not able to perform in school plays as he found it difficult to remember his lines. As a teenager he worked as an usher in a local cinema where he developed a love for movies and an ambition for film stardom.

World War II 1942

After graduating from High School when he was seventeen, Hudson joined the U S.Navy and worked as an aircraft mechanic on Samar Island in the Philippines. After the war he moved to Los Angeles to further his movie ambitions.

He briefly became a truck driver after failing to complete a drama course at the University of Southern California due to poor grades. Desperate to break into the movie business he resorted to standing outside the gates of movie studios, handing out photographs of his handsome features. Bizarrely this stratagem worked. He came to the attention of Hollywood talent scout, Henry Willson.

Hollywood 1948

Henry Willson (yes, spelled with double 'l') was a powerful man in Hollywood who had the reputation of being a predatory homosexual. He was highly successful in launching the careers of numerous young actors, such as Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and Guy Madison. All were good-looking young men, and all had their name changed to sound masculine and all were groomed into the star system by Willson. Young Roy Fitzgerald was no exception and his name was changed by Willson, supposedly, by combining the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson river.

Willson began moulding Rock into the future movie heartthrob, including working on the timbre of his voice, altering the clumsy way he walked and changing his smile by having his teeth fixed. He also arranged for Rock to receive coaching at Universal Studios in acting and voice projection as well as in singing and dancing.

Hollywood Actor

Hudson's movie career began slowly with an uncredited role in 1948 in 'Fighter Squadron' in which he supposedly needed 38 takes to deliver his only line. His first credited appearance came the following year playing a detective in 'Undertow'.

Over the first years of his career Rock's handsome features could be found on the covers of many movie magazines, as Willson's publicity machine got into gear. The publicity worked and in 1954 he appeared in three movies, including the romance 'Magnificent Obsession', starring Jane Wyman. He was described by 'Modern Screen Magazine' as the "most popular actor" of the year. In the year of Spencer Tracy in 'Bad Day at Black Rock', Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon in 'Mister Roberts' and James Dean in 'East of Eden', this was no mean achievement. Rock Hudson had arrived.

Hollywood Marriage 1955

Hudson was now an established Hollywood star and as his fame increased, so did the pressure on him and his agent to hide his homosexuality. Accordingly, in 1955 Henry Willson arranged a marriage between Hudson and Willson's secretary, Phyllis Gates. The marriage ended in divorce after three years with Gates citing mental cruelty. It was not contested by Hudson and he paid Gates alimony of $250 a week for 10 years. Phyllis Gates never remarried.

The original intention of the marriage worked perfectly and Hudson became firmly fixed in the public eye as a desirable, heterosexual matinee idol. His career soared and in 1956 he appeared in the epic 'Giant' alongside two other rising Hollywood stars, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Hudson gave a strong performance and was nominated, alongside James Dean, for The Best Actor Academy Award.

In 1957 Hudson gave another critically well received performance in the highly successful 'Something of Value', co-starring Sidney Poitier. He followed it with 'A Farewell to Arms' with Jennifer Jones, a commercial failure, although his own performance received generally positive reviews.

Romantic Comedies

When Hudson costarred with Doris Day in the popular 'Pillow Talk' in 1958 it was the start of a new golden period in his career, playing the male lead in a string of romantic comedies, with a succession of glamorous leading ladies.As well as two more films with Doris Day, 'Lover Come Back' in 1961 and 'Send Me No Flowers' in 1964 he appeared with Gina Lollobrigida in 'Come September' in 1961 and 'Strange Bedfellows' in 1965, with Leslie Caron in 'A Very Special Favor' in 1965 and with Claudia Cardinale in 'Blindfold' in 1965 and 'A Fine Pair' in 1968. Audiences enjoyed the sophistication, humour, glamorous locations and the romantic atmosphere of the films and they did well at the box-office.

Between the romantic comedies Hudson occasionally appeared in more serious movies such as the war movie 'Tobruk' in 1967 and the cold war drama 'Ice Station Zebra' the following year. In 1969 he co-starred with John Wayne in 'The Undefeated' and in 1971 he appeared in the mystery comedy 'Pretty Maids All in a Row' with Angie Dickinson, but he was beginning to find good parts in decent movies hard to come by. The answer to his career slowdown was television.

Television Career

Hudson first appeared on television in 1957 in an episode of 'Lux Video Theater' but then ignored the medium for many years, making him one of the last major Golden Age stars to make the transition to small screen. When his movie career began to slow down, and attracted by the financial rewards on offer, he reluctantly agreed to appear on television. He hit success immediately. After making a TV movie called 'Once Upon a Dead Man' in which he played the role of Commissioner Stewart McMillan, he was asked to build up the part into a series. Co-starring Susan Saint James, 'McMillan and Wife' became extremely popular and ran for forty episodes between 1971 and 1977. After this Hudson began to suffer long term health problems which affected him for the rest of his life. After a short-lived series 'The Martian Chronicles' in 1980, Hudson began filming the detective series 'Devlin and Son' in 1981 but suffered a serious heart attack and underwent heart bypass surgery in November 1981. The series was aired the following year but was canceled in December 1982.

The series 'Dynasty' was Hudson's last television series but after he had appeared in 9 episodes from 1984-85 his character, Daniel Reece, had to be cut out due to his rapidly worsening physical state. Although not announced publicly he had already been diagnosed with AIDS and was having difficulty speaking and in remembering his lines. His publicity doctors gave the official line in public that he had liver cancer.


There is little doubt that Hudson's lifestyle of heavy drinking and smoking contributed to his heart attack at the age of 56 in 1981. He recovered from that but continued to drink and smoke.

In 1985 he appeared on a Doris Day cable program 'Doris Day's Best Friends' but the emaciated state of this once prime specimen was a shock, both to Doris Day herself and to the public at large. It was soon admitted by Hudson that had contracted AIDS and, as the first public figure to make such an admission, he attracted worldwide attention.

In July 1985 Hudson flew to Paris for treatment but collapsed in his hotel room. He was flown back to America and spent a month in the UCLA Medical centre. He left hospital and returned home to Beverley Hills in August, 1985.

Rock Hudson died in his sleep on October 2, 1985. He was aged 59 years. As he had requested, there was no funeral and his body was cremated within hours of his death.

Impact and Legacy

Hudson's death had an impact and importance far greater than his celebrity status would indicate.

Many people were inspired to become activists against the disease which killed him, not least his friend and 'Giant' co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, who helped to raise enormous sums to help fight the disease.

Homosexuality was much more freely and publicly discussed and his revelation about having AIDS undoubtedly helped to de-stigmatize the disease and its victims. Public perception of the disease and of homosexuality was transformed. Rock Hudson led a troubled life but it was not wasted. He left a valuable legacy.

Rock Hudson Academy Awards

One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... Giant (1957)

Rock Hudson Filmography

Fighter Squadron
One Way Street
I Was a Shoplifter
Winchester '73
The Desert Hawk
Air Cadet
Bright Victory
The Fat Man
Iron Man
Bend of the River
Here Come the Nelsons
Scarlet Angel
Has Anybody Seen My Gal
Horizons West
The Lawless Breed
Sea Devils
The Golden Blade
Gun Fury
Back to God's Country
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (narrator)(uncredited)
Taza, Son of Cochise
Magnificent Obsession
Bengal Brigade
Captain Lightfoot
One Desire
All That Heaven Allows
Never Say Goodbye
Written on the Wind
Battle Hymn
Something of Value
The Tarnished Angels
A Farewell to Arms
Twilight for the Gods
This Earth Is Mine
Pillow Talk
The Last Sunset
Come September
Lover Come Back
The Spiral Road
A Gathering of Eagles
Man's Favorite Sport?
Send Me No Flowers