Rock Hudson started his career as a small-town boy with a pretty face, but by the time he passed away from AIDS-related complications, he was Hollywood royalty. But for all he accomplished in life, his death had a far larger impact on this world.
Ryan Murphy’s newest Netflix show, Hollywood, depicts a fictionalized account of Rock Hudson’s early years in Tinseltown, along with other stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel, and Vivien Leigh, but as Murphy told the New York Post, “Fifty percent of it is based on reality.”
So which parts of Rock Hudson’s life were, in fact, real, and which parts were fictionalized? Here we break down Hudson’s early life, his rise to stardom, his closeted sexual identity, and the impact he had on the AIDS epidemic.
According to Biography.com, Rock Hudson was born on November 17, 1925, as Roy Harold Scherer Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois. When he was four, his father left his mother during the Great Depression. His mother remarried, and without Hudson’s consent, his stepfather adopted him; this is when his legal name changed to Roy Fitzgerald. Following high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and fought in World War II. In 1946, when the war was over, he moved to Los Angeles, where he lived with his birth father and attempted to become a Hollywood actor.
Rise to stardom
Hudson was known more for his all-American looks than his acting chops in the beginning of his career. But his handsome face was enough to get him signed by agent Henry Willson in 1947. IMDB notes notes that Willson picked the actor’s new name, “Rock Hudson,” for the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River. (Upon his death, the New York Times wrote an article stating that Hudson actually hated the name). Willson helped Hudson secure a long-term contract from Universal-International, where he received coaching in acting, singing, and dancing. For the first few years of his career, he had minor roles in films until he was promoted to a leading man for Scarlet Angel in 1952. But he became an A-list celebrity in 1956, when he was cast in Giant, where he acted alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. In fact, both he and James Dean were nominated for Oscars in the Best Actor category for that film.
His (not-so) secret queer life
There’s a lot of speculation and Hollywood lore about Hudson’s sexuality and personal life. But among the Hollywood elite, he was known to have a secret attraction to men. Numerous friends and celebrities knew about his his same-sex activity, noted People Magazine. Henry Willson did everything he could to hide Hudson’s personal life from the public. In 1955, when Confidential Magazine threatened to publish an article exposing Hudson’s sexuality, Wilson traded private information about two other of his clients to keep Hudson’s sex life out of the tabloids, according to a book called The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. In doing so, he saved Hudson’s career.
Following the averted crisis, Willson set up Hudson with his secretary at the time, Phyllis Gates, to help solidify his straight identity to the public eye. The couple got married and remained married for three years until Gates filed for divorce. It’s unclear exactly when and how much Gates knew about her husband’s sexuality. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter claimed to have obtained audio of Gates secretly recording Hudson’s “gay confession” in January of 1958, three months before Gates filed for divorce. In the audio, Gates allegedly said, “Everyone knows that you were picking up boys off the street shortly after we were married and have continued to do so, thinking that being married would cover up for you.” Hudson never remarried.
His HIV/AIDS diagnosis
Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS on June 5, 1984. He flew to France and other countries searching for treatment and ways to delay the spread of the virus. Despite speculation, he kept his diagnosis hidden from the public until July 25, 1985, when Hudson’s publicist confirmed that he did in fact have AIDS. On October 2, 1985, while receiving private hospice care at his home in Beverly Hill, Hudson died in his sleep at the age of 59, notes History.com.
His AIDS disclosure prompted talk of the actor’s sexuality. In August 1985, People Magazine published a story that discussed AIDS in the context of his queer sexuality, detailing the entirety of his sexual past, his sham marriage to Gates, and the number of colleagues who knew about his same-sex attractions.
His impact on the HIV/AIDS movement
Hudson was one of the first mainstream celebrities to be diagnosed with HIV and die from AIDS-related complications. In fact, he died before Ronald Regan even announced the words AIDS publicly.
His death humanized those who were dying from the disease, since he was a beloved actor and not seen as a sexual deviant, like most other gay/bi men at the time. Actress Morgan Fairchild went as far as to say that “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.”
Hudson’s death helped fundraise millions of dollars for AIDS research and pushed policy forward. In December of 1985, just two months after his death, People reported, “Since Hudson made his announcement, more than $1.8 million in private contributions (more than double the amount collected in 1984) has been raised to support AIDS research and to care for AIDS victims (5,523 reported in 1985 alone). A few days after Hudson died, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.” Right before his death, Hudson was the first to ever donate to amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, which is now one of the leading HIV/AIDS research organizations in the world. Hudson’s friend and co-star in Giant, Elizabeth Taylor, was one of the founders of amfAR; she acted as the organization’s principal spokesperson and titular head.