October 2, 2007

October 2 | Rock Hudson

November 17, 1925 - October 2, 1985: Age 59

Born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., Rock Hudson was never a great actor. He failed drama school, and in his first movie part he had one line of dialogue, which required 38 takes for him to get right. He eventually became a passable actor, but never better than average. He had, however, two things indispensable to becoming an American screen star: good looks and screen presence. Somehow, when his image is on screen, you want to look at him, and you want to like him.

With his looks and likable personality he easily fit into the ideal of American manhood. But he was gay. This, amazingly, was kept from the public for almost 40 years, although it was fairly well known in certain Hollywood circles. There were a few scandals, but overall Hudson was reasonably discreet, and he was just so darned nice that nobody wanted to ruin his career by going public. After all, he wasn't hurting anybody. Even Kenneth Anger agreed to keep Hudson's name and story out of Hollywood Babylon for a paltry $10,000 bribe from Universal Studios.

In 1981 he had emergency quintuple bypass surgery. From that time on, he never looked "well" again. By 1984, it was clear something was wrong: during a stint on Dynasty he forgot his lines, mumbled, and lacked even the modest acting ability he had in his prime. In 1985 he appeared on "Doris Day's Best Friends", a cable show, and his gaunt appearance and incoherence shocked the nation. Under pressure to release some kind of information, it was announced first that he had liver cancer. Later his publicity people admitted that he had AIDS, but claimed he had contracted it during a blood transfusion. Finally, on July 25, 1985, he issued a formal statement that he was gay, and he had AIDS.

(This reminds me of a joke that my mom, who worked as a palliative care nurse at an AIDS hospice, told me. It goes like this: "Mom, Dad? I have good news and bad news." "What's the good news, son?" "I have AIDS.")

Today it may be difficult to grasp how shocking that announcement was. The public hadn't suspected a thing. At the time, AIDS was known as "the gay plague", and was something that happened only to some kind of sinful underclass: plenty of "respectable" people still brushed it off as divine retribution against homosexuals. Hudson's public statement changed everything. Suddenly it became OK for Hollywood types to talk about AIDS and campaign for a cure. Although it didn't exactly become OK to be a gay actor in Hollywood, it's fair to say Hudson's coming out at least brought us a step closer to that. Most of all, a lot of people who had previously dismissed AIDS as irrelevant to them started paying attention.

A month after his announcement he publicly donated $250,000 to the National AIDS Research Foundation. His popularity and charisma didn't fail him: people were genuinely sympathetic and most of his fans continued to love and admire him to the end. Shortly before his death Hudson stated, "I am not happy I am sick. I am not happy I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know my own misfortune has had some positive worth."

Sources: The Secret Life (and Death) of Rock Hudson, Wikipedia

Bonus page: Stag Night at the Steam Baths - a for-real 1950 magazine piece about a spa for men, featuring a half-naked Hudson cavorting with Tony Curtis and others. Hilarious!

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