Rock Hudson was once such a big star that he was dubbed “the king of Hollywood.” And the heartthrob actor had the talent to back this nickname up, too; he even earned an Oscar nomination for his role in ’50s movie Giant. Behind the scenes, however, Hudson hid a secret that may have caused a huge media scandal if it had been revealed during his heyday.
But Mark Griffin’s 2018 biography All That Heaven Allows – named after the classic 1955 movie in which Hudson starred – lets the world into some of those private affairs. The book also goes into detail about the obstacles that Hudson faced during his career as well as the circumstances of his saddening death in 1985.
Griffin’s work even looks set to become a movie itself one day, as Universal Pictures has snapped up the screen rights. And if that does happen, then Hudson’s story may just find a larger audience. At the moment, though, it’s a tale that many are unaware of today – and that perhaps indicates just how far we’ve come as a society.
Hudson’s real name was Roy Harold Scherer Jr., and he was born right on the cusp of the Great Depression. The future star didn’t have an easy childhood, either. After his father, Roy Sr., became unemployed, you see, he walked out on his wife and son. Hudson’s mother then married a man named Wallace Fitzgerald, and he reportedly abused his new stepson.
And Griffin’s book documents the beatings to which Hudson was allegedly subjected by Fitzgerald. “Rock did have this abusive, alcoholic stepfather, Wallace Fitzgerald, who was a former Marine,” the writer said during an interview with radio show Fresh Air in 2018. “And Rock tells this sort of tragic story that when he built up the courage to tell his stepfather that he had these ambitions to be an actor, his stepfather hit him.”
Even in the face of this disapproval, however, Hudson still wanted nothing more than to make acting his trade. He auditioned for school plays, for example, although he was continually rejected for parts owing to an inability to learn the scripts. And by the time he graduated from high school, something else stood in the way of Hudson’s dreams of stardom: World War II. In 1944, then, he signed up with the United States Navy.
The young Hudson subsequently underwent training, after which he headed off to the Philippines as a mechanic. And although he didn’t spend that long in the Navy – only two years in all – rumors have nonetheless circulated about his time in service. “More than one individual interviewed for this book insisted that while Hudson was in the Navy he fathered two daughters by two different mothers – though no evidence has been produced to support these claims,” Griffin states in his biography.
Then, after leaving the Navy, Hudson took on a series of odd jobs. He tried his hand at truck driving, vacuum cleaner sales and many other roles. But ultimately he still dreamed about becoming an actor. In 1947, then, he forwarded a photo of himself to agent Henry Willson – a decision that would go on to change his life.
Willson was so impressed, in fact, that he decided to create a leading man out of the young hopeful who’d landed at his door. To succeed in his mission, though, certain tweaks would need to be made. He arranged voice tuition for the would-be actor, for example, and decided that a name change was also in order. Something more fitting of a matinee idol was needed, Willson felt. And with that, Roy Fitzgerald became Rock Hudson – a moniker derived from the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River.
So, Hudson was ready to set out on the path to stardom. Yet he had a secret – and one that he knew would ruin him if it ever became public knowledge. Hudson was gay, you see, and in those days homophobia was dangerously rife in the U.S. An individual could easily be fired from their job if there was even a rumor that they were homosexual, for instance.
Nonetheless, gay people in the movie industry were still able to achieve success – as long as they kept their sexuality quiet. In fact, Willson – the man who kick-started Hudson’s career – was also homosexual. “He was a very influential figure in Hollywood, which is interesting when you think, you know, here’s a gay man who was – I wouldn’t say overt, but he wasn’t as closeted as some of the actors had to be,” Griffin said of Willson on Fresh Air.
Willson subsequently helped Hudson get ahead in the film industry – but only in exchange for sexual favors, according to Griffin. “Henry, unfortunately, did not have the most sterling reputation in the industry,” the author explained. “I think it was fairly well known that if you were a Henry Willson client, as Tony Curtis once expressed it, you probably had to sexually express yourself to Henry.”
And the agent worked to make Hudson a movie star even though the young hopeful seemingly wasn’t all that well suited to acting. You see, while Hudson only had one line as part of his role in Warner movie Fighter Squadron, it required almost 40 takes for him to say it properly. In spite of Hudson’s apparent shortcomings, however, Universal Studios handed him a contract.
Hudson then began to work on films for Universal, starting off with minor parts in pictures such as Undertow, The Desert Hawk, Tomahawk and Air Cadet. Gradually, though, he worked his way up to bigger roles. And by the end of 1952 he’d starred as the romantic lead in Scarlet Angel and Has Anybody Seen My Gal?.
From there, Hudson’s fame grew and grew, with the 1954 movie Magnificent Obsession considered to be the film that brought him to wider attention. Then the aptly named Giant – also starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor – went on to propel him to A-lister status. Yet despite all of his success, Hudson could still never talk about his sexuality openly.
For a while, Hudson maintained the public facade of a young guy who was yet to settle down with a woman. The gossip press of the day eventually grew suspicious, however; Confidential magazine even planned to out Hudson at the height of his fame. And as the publication had already exposed other actors, Willson didn’t take the threat lightly. He quickly stepped in, then, and took drastic action to save his client.
According to Griffin, Willson threw some of his other clients to the wolves in order to prevent Confidential outing Hudson. Yes, the agent apparently fed the magazine some different scandals in exchange for it leaving Hudson alone. So, instead of publishing its planned story on Hudson, Confidential outed another gay man whom Willson had once managed: Tab Hunter.
And Griffin believes that Willson’s maneuver was intended to save himself as much as Hudson. “Rock was very much [Willson’s] bread and butter at that point,” Griffin explained. “So that’s an unfortunate example of how a gay man, Henry Willson, would be willing to sell out another gay man, Tab Hunter, to save the career of a third gay man, Rock Hudson.”
Still, further action needed to be taken to prevent the same situation from arising again. Eventually, then, Hudson married Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates. “What’s fascinating is [that] you can talk to 20 different people about the marriage between Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates and get 20 different versions of what each individual believes actually happened there,” Griffin said.
Griffin interviewed multiple insiders for that part of his book. “It could be that Henry Willson very shrewdly put together Rock and his secretary. And a lot of people insist this is exactly how it happened. It was an arranged marriage from the get-go,” the writer revealed. “Other people have suggested to me that, yes, in the beginning, it may have been arranged. But ultimately and surprisingly, Rock and Phyllis may have developed some genuine feelings for one another.”
Unsurprisingly, though, the marriage didn’t last. The couple subsequently split up in 1957 amid rumors that Hudson had cheated; the divorce went through the following year. And ever since there has been plenty of speculation about the short-lived union – including the allegation that Gates was also gay and herself needed a marriage to maintain cover.
Then, two years before Gates passed away in 2006, she spoke to Larry King about her marriage to Hudson. And according to Hudson’s former wife, there had been genuine intimacy between the couple. “[Hudson] was always after me,” she stated. “All these stories I’ve heard that he didn’t want to make love – I can’t even believe it.”
Some biographers think, then, that Hudson may actually have been bisexual rather than gay. In Rock Hudson: Erotic Fire, for example, Darwin Porter suggests that the actor had affairs with many famous women – Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe all allegedly among them.
Rumor even has it that Hudson slept with both James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Giant. And one of Hudson’s former lovers, Marc Christian, would tell Larry King in 2001 that Hudson had indeed been bisexual. “He had been married, and he liked women as well,” Christian stated.
Whatever Hudson’s true sexuality was, though, he tragically fell victim to a disease that at the time was considered to affect only gay men. In 1984 he was diagnosed with HIV, and at the time so little was understood about the condition that it was sometimes called “gay-related immune deficiency,” or GRID.
HIV and AIDS were incredibly stigmatized during that period, too, with gay men largely bearing the brunt of any resulting prejudice. Some religious groups even asserted that the condition was a “punishment” for the supposed “sin” of homosexuality. And all the while, politicians seemed unwilling to do anything to tackle the spread of the virus. It was consequently a terrifying time to be a gay or bisexual man.
Hudson tried to hide his diagnosis initially. Instead, he carried on with his professional life as before while secretly hoping that a cure for HIV would be found. Soon, though, the media noticed how quickly his health was deteriorating. And while Hudson’s publicist initially claimed that the star had liver cancer, the truth would ultimately come out.
Meanwhile, Hudson feared that he had passed HIV on to others. He consequently arranged for a friend of his, George Nader, to send messages to everyone to whom Hudson may have unwittingly transferred the virus. Nader then proceeded to forward the unsigned correspondence on from Palm Springs so that no one would guess that Hudson was the source of the information.
Yet all these efforts to keep Hudson’s condition under wraps proved futile in the end. “We recently had sex together, and I have been informed by my doctor that I may have AIDS,” the letters read. “Please go to your doctor and have a check-up.” And one of the recipients guessed that the message was from Hudson. This man, referred to as “Tony” in Griffin’s biography, subsequently sold the story to the tabloids.
Then, on July 25, 1985, Hudson’s publicist Yanou Collart stated that the actor was suffering from AIDS. The media was quick to report on the announcement, too, with The New York Times describing the condition as one that “most frequently strikes homosexuals, intravenous drug users and recipients of blood transfusions.” Collart informed the press, however, that Hudson “doesn’t have any idea now how he contracted AIDS. Nobody around him has AIDS.”
And Hudson was in fact one of the first celebrities to be diagnosed with AIDS – making the news even more stunning. Hudson’s secretary Mark Miller, who was interviewed for Griffin’s book, explained that at the time Hudson was diagnosed, AIDS was thought of as something “fairies on Santa Monica Boulevard got.” Hudson felt “filthy” because of it, he said.
Hudson then traveled to France to seek out medical treatment that could save him. In the U.S., he’d had no luck; indeed, Ronald Reagan had actually cut funding for research into AIDS. And even though Hudson was friends with the president and first lady at the time, they refused to assist him when he asked them to.
Then in August 1985 – not long after the news of Hudson’s HIV status had broken – People magazine interviewed the actor’s aunt and uncle. And while the pair were understandably upset that their nephew appeared to be dying, the conversation took a curious turn when the subject of homosexuality was broached. “Never would we think that he would be that,” Hudson’s aunt Lela said. “He was just always such a good person.”
People therefore noted wryly, “In some parts of Rock Hudson’s America, it is still a fairly radical proposition that someone can be both good and gay.” Other people were interviewed for the piece, though, and a number sang Hudson’s praises for revealing his AIDS diagnosis during such a turbulent time.
Joan Rivers applauded the actor for his brave step, for example. “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn’t get one major star to turn out… I received death threats and hate mail,” she said to People. “Rock’s admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public. But by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage.”
Sadly, Hudson would pass away on October 2, 1985, with his body being cremated mere hours after he’d died. And although the Roman Catholic-raised star had considered himself an atheist for a long time, he’d rediscovered religion on his deathbed.
Yet the way in which Hudson had died made its own impact – not just on the gay community, but on America as a whole. “The fact that rugged, red-blooded Rock Hudson – who had been butch enough to share the screen with John Wayne in The Unfettered – also happened to be homosexual instantly shattered stereotypes and challenged people’s perceptions of what ‘gay’ meant,” Griffin wrote in All That Heaven Allows.
Things have changed a lot since Hudson’s time, of course. These days, for example, there are a lot more openly gay and bisexual people working in the entertainment industry. Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen Page, Wanda Sykes, Zachary Quinto and Ellen DeGeneres are just some of the many stars who have maintained successful careers after coming out.
Moreover, HIV is also no longer the death sentence it once was. Yes, although there still isn’t a cure for the condition, it can at least be easily controlled with the right medication. Thankfully, then, HIV-positive people should on the whole go on to lead fairly normal lives – and not suffer what Hudson and so many others once did.
So, it appears that Hudson’s legacy is twofold. Not only did he leave behind many great movies and acting performances, you see, but he also changed the world a little bit by challenging the stigma of AIDS. And as Griffin writes in All That Heaven Allows, “Ironically, having the disease would turn Rock Hudson, silver-screen hero, into a real-life hero.”