Tuesday, April 7

Rock Hudson

In the 1950s and 1960s, he was Hollywood's golden boy.  He had the looks of those who descended from Mt. Olympus.  Not since the days of pretty boys Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power had the movies seen anyone this handsome.  He stood tall at 6'5" with a strong voice and one of the heartiest laughs in the business.  He also had a secret and a very dangerous one for the times but it was a far different Hollywood then than it is now and for the most part the movie folks and the press were willing to look the other way.

He was born Roy Scherer Jr. in November, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois, an only child.  His father left the home for California, leaving Roy and Mama to fend for themselves.  He adored her and the feeling was mutual.  He was also very close to his grandmother.  Mama married a man named Wally Fitzgerald who routinely slapped the youngster around, often not for any infraction but to get him to be a man.

It seemed that the men who were in his family's life would make cracks about him being a sissy.  At a young age he said he knew he was gay but he resented the sissy part.  He had a free-range sort of childhood, largely unsupervised and rarely in trouble because he couldn't hurt his mother.  He loved the water and especially diving and when he saw actor Jon Hall do a spectacular dive in The Hurricane (1937), he determined that one day he would be an actor.  He did try out for school plays but was rejected time and again because he could not memorize lines.

He did a three-year Navy hitch and then joined his father in Long Beach, California.  Here his gay life took off and he hoped he would be able to get a shot at the movies.  One day he was at a party where he met the flamboyant agent, Henry Willson, who took one look at Roy's handsome face and asked him if he wanted to be an actor.  Willson, famous for changing young actors' names to unusual ones, turned Roy into Rock Hudson, although for his entire life those who knew him called him Roy.

Director Raoul Walsh gave him a bit part in Fighter Squadron (1948) and was so impressed with him that he signed Hudson to a personal contract.   Failing to use him again, however, Walsh sold Hudson's contract to Universal-International, which was more like a school than a studio.  They were trained in horseback riding, fencing, dancing, singing, proper carriage, you name it but they usually ended up leaving the studio as soon as they could.  U-I had a terrible reputation for putting out junk.  I, however, loved much of it.  His early work was most appealing to kids.

Hudson would become the biggest star U-I had at the time.  He made one crowd-pleasing B-movie after another, mainly westerns and adventure flicks, often costarring Julie Adams, Piper Laurie, Barbara Rush and Yvonne de Carlo.  If most of Hollywood dismissed him as just another pretty boy, the public took him to its collective bosom.  He was well-aware of his popularity with women and gay men.  The fan mail told Hudson and his bosses all they needed to know... and then some.  Its sheer volume could not be ignored.  His face was plastered on and in every movie magazine even though he had not done one important film.  The mags featured him at home BBQing or on a sailboat or at a premiere and always in the company of some glamour girl.  MGM dancer Vera-Ellen helped him out with photo-op dates as did secretaries and script girls.  Coworkers knew he was gay because he brought handsome men to the set with him.  The public hadn't a clue.

He acquired two great pals who would not only become lifelong friends but who would assume the task of handling Hudson's messy estate after his death.  One of them was the handsome, hunky actor, George Nader, a fellow U-I contractee, and the other was Nader's lover, Mark Miller, who would become Hudson's personal secretary.

Rock and his good pal, George Nader

In 1952-53, after making 14 so-so movies, he finally made two that caused people to sit up and notice more than his physicality.  They were westerns, both co-starring Julie Adams. One was Bend of the River, a colorful tale of a wagon train bound for Oregon.  Hudson played a gambler and more than held his own against James Stewart (with whom he had also costarred in Winchester 73) and Arthur Kennedy (a costar in Bright Victory).  The other one was The Lawless Breed, portraying western outlaw John Wesley Hardin, where Hudson aged throughout the story.  It was this film that veteran director George Stevens saw that would result in him  offering the actor the lead in Giant.  It would be the first film where he pulled out all stops to show what he could do and he would be rewarded with his only Oscar nomination.

After a series of more unremarkable but highly popular films, he costarred in the first of two films with the older Jane Wyman.  The first was an overly-sentimental remake of Magnificent Obsession (1954), in which he plays a rich, reckless playboy who is enamored of Wyman but is responsible for blinding her in an accident.  He then becomes a doctor, restores her sight and they presumably live happily ever after.  Pure hokum but it provoked his next surge of popularity.  Their second film together, the following year, All that Heaven Allows, was also wildly popular, with him as a young gardener romancing an older widow.  He always credited Wyman with coaching him in the finer points of screen acting.

In 1955, dark clouds appeared, due as much as anything to his phenomenal popularity.  A vicious ragmag of the time, Confidential Magazine, was going to out him and they informed Universal.  The studio and agent Willson went into fierce damage control and it was decided that they would offer Confidential a sacrificial lamb.  They would give the magazine a salacious but true story about the earlier criminal life of actor Rory Calhoun in exchange for killing the article about Hudson.  Over the years it has been said that Hudson's pal Nader was led to the slaughter rather than Calhoun, but Hudson would never have gone along with that.  He had no such concerns with the hatchet job on Calhoun.

While the rumors still remained inside the sequined walls of Tinseltown, the drums were beating louder and Willson concocted his grandest plan.  He would have his lesbian secretary, Phyllis Gates, marry Hudson.  Rory Calhoun should have been best man.  No one ever expected the marriage to last long (it didn't... about three years... most of it apart) but it seemed to do the trick and order was restored.

The beauty hurts my eyes

In 1955... for a 1956 release... he made two wonderful films.  The first was Giant.  Even though others were considered for the role, director George Stevens thought he possessed all the right qualities to play Jordan (Bick) Benedict, a stubborn Texas cattle baron, eventual oilman and racist.  Hudson's real-life pal, Grace Kelly, was tagged to play his feisty wife, Leslie, but she elected to move to Monaco instead.  In her place came Elizabeth Taylor, an actress that Hudson came to dearly love as a friend.  She equally liked costar, James Dean, but the brooding young actor, also gay, and Hudson didn't like one another at all.

The second film, Written on the Wind, also about an oil-rich family, is one of the best soap operas Hollywood has ever produced.  Directed by Douglas Sirk, who also steered Hudson in eight other films, it was tremendously popular.  Despite the fact that Hudson and Lauren Bacall were the leads, the acclaim went to Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone as the wealthy, damaged siblings.  Regardless, it was a sensational year for Hudson, the best he'd ever  experienced.

In the next couple of years he made the Korean War drama, Battle Hymn, the barnstorming pilot drama The Tarnished Angels with Stack and Malone, and the African drama Something of Value with Sidney Poitier.  Both Hudson and Cyd Charisse were miscast in the seafaring drama Twilight of the Gods.  He made a terrible career decision to star opposite Jennifer Jones in a tepid remake of A Farewell to Arms.  It was not only a rather embarrassingly limp, bloated production but Hudson gave up the leads in Sayonara, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur to make it.

I was a mere 15 in 1960 when I met Rock Hudson at an all-gay party.  I should not have been there at my age but I wanted to be and I was a fooler at a height of 6'6".  It was a party filled with gay and bisexual stars of the time and I must confess to being both star-struck and dumbstruck at my stroke of luck.  I met Hudson quite quickly after arriving and was amazed that he would take such a personal interest in me.  I was flattered that he would spend the next few hours mainly chatting with me.  We spoke of how much movies meant to us as children and how our mothers shipped us off to see one when things were tense at home and a great deal more about our childhoods, which were similar..

Not all actors know all that much about the trivia side of movies.  They don't always know who was married to whom, who did which movies and so on.  Hudson knew it all.  He loved talking about movies, who was dating whom, who was sleeping with whom... or in other words, he spoke of the various things he hoped no one was saying about him.

We both discovered that we had some things in common as well, starting with our height.  Anyone at 6'6" or thereabouts knows how odd it is to run into others the same height.  We found that funny.  We had laughter in common as well.  All he seemed to do was laugh... it was volcanic and rather childlike and I got to the point of finding ways to make him laugh which was not difficult at all.  We were both Scorpios, both born in Illinois, both having a great love and knowledge of movies.  We even played what I called Who Am I, another version of 20 Questions.  We both loved playing cards and loved Mexican food.  I did notice that he drank and smoked a lot.  It was a heady experience.

They were the best of pals

Pillow Talk with Doris Day had just been released to glowing reviews (the best he'd had since Giant) and he was on quite a high.  They became great friends, he said, and planned on making more films together if they could.  He had some time off before going to Italy to make Come September with Gina Lollobrigida and Sandra Dee (he couldn't believe I liked her so much) and he was looking forward to it.  He'd heard nothing but positive reviews of his comedy acting and was thinking that he would have a whole new career for himself in romantic comedies.

I don't remember our discussing The Last Sunset (1961) which was released before Come September but I thought it was a wonderful adult western.  Again costarring with Dorothy Malone, Kirk Douglas was also on board as Hudson's nemesis.  The two actors had completely different styles and played off one another surprisingly well.

Getting back to those romantic comedies he wanted to make, I think they set a standard for the rest of his career and I'm sorry to say it.  With few exceptions, the 60s were not his best work although it was certainly a busy time.  He made two more films with Day, Lover Come Back (little more than a retooled Pillow Talk) and Send Me No Flowers (the least successful of their trio of films).  He also made clunkers like Man's Favorite Sport?, Strange Bedfellows, A Very Special Favor, Blindfold and A Fine Pair, mainly with European actresses.  Look at it like this... good comedy is very good and bad comedy is very, very bad.  His professional reputation suffered because he continued grinding out one stupid-ass movie after another.  Rock Hudson and Doris Day, together and separately, are responsible for my long hatred of most romantic comedies, although I did like Pillow Talk

He made some dramas in the 60s as well, mainly war films such as A Gathering of Eagles, Tobruk and the fine Ice Station Zebra.  Along with Giant, his favorite film was one he made in 1966, Seconds, about a man who fakes his own death to acquire a new identity.  It was a little film, not made with Hollywood's usual types.  Hudson was so proud of it that he threw a wrap party at his home.  It had a Mexican theme... a mariachi band performed on a raised area of the patio, margaritas poured from a fountain and handsome young men walked around offering mini Mexican delights.  How do I know?  I was there.

A friend who worked on the film invited me to the party.  He and Hudson played a lot of Hearts and had become good friends during the shoot.  We brought our wives.  I'd never mentioned anything about Hudson to mine so she was fairly surprised when she was introduced to Hudson's partner, the also very tall Tom Clark.  The six of us stood in a circle getting wasted on margaritas (well, the guys did) while discussing Seconds, Grace Kelly and how much she loved to drink with Rock, Mexican food, Hollywood parties and his home and grounds.  I was not overly impressed with his house but the grounds, looking out over the canyons of Beverly Hills, were terraced and quite beautiful.  He gave us a brief tour, pointing out the flowers and the areas that were the result of hard work.  He was enormously friendly and although he mingled with other guests, he returned to our little group several times.  Neither of us ever mentioned our meeting several years earlier.  Seconds, by the way, was one of the biggest flops of his career.

In 1969 he made a western with John Wayne, The Undefeated.  The film itself was no great shakes but there was a bit of whispering about how these two tall gentlemen from opposite sides of just about everything would get along.  As it turns out, very well.  But lurking behind the scenes was a silly story about Hudson marrying TV comedian Jim Nabors.  It got far more press than Hudson cared for.  Untrue as it was, it gave the larger public its first taste of gay rumors.

His first film in the 70s was Darling Lili, which I loved, and I was apparently one of the few.  Paired with Julie Andrews, he was a flying ace during WWI and she was a dancehall queen who was also a spy.  The characters loved and bickered and were altogether charming.  Off screen, there was no doubt who the star of the picture was.  This was the first time Hudson was not top-billed over an actress since Giant.  And in The Undefeated he took second billing to Wayne.  Times were changing.

Also a change was that he played a villain, a murderer, in Pretty Maids All in a Row, pretty much a stinker from French director Roger Vadim, trying to break into American films.  It was 1971, the same year he began work on the television series, McMillan and Wife.  There was always some press about him and Susan St. James not getting along but on screen they were terrific as a modern-day Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man fame.  Everybody watched it but it signaled the end of his movie career.

The only theatrical movie in his last decade or so of any note whatsoever was 1980s The Mirror Crack'd.  It was only moderately successful but it was a whodunit and had great stars, both of which assures my ticket purchase.  Along with Hudson was his old pal Elizabeth Taylor, his Universal-International buddy, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak and starring a pre-but-similar Jessica Fletcher, Angela Lansbury.

He made television inroads by doing a few miniseries with varying successes.  He took a couple of turns on Broadway and became a song-and-dance man.  In his final theatrical movie, The Ambassador (1982), he was third-billed after Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn.  The only thing notable about it was the press coverage on the rows between Hudson and Mitchum.  One thing people noticed was Hudson didn't look well and he suddenly appeared older than his 57 years.

To any of you who may not know much about Rock Hudson, he became the face of HIV/AIDS.  That must have killed him before the disease finally did.  We knew little about it before we learned Rock Hudson had it.  To his credit and as he was dying, this private man gave his story to author Sara Davidson and she wrote the best of all the bios on him called Rock Hudson: His Story.  He told friends to talk to her and he provided her with access to all his personal papers.  It was a great read.  He wanted that book to be his legacy. Rock Hudson died at age 59 in 1985.

I would rather think of how he lived than how he died. I smile when I think of Giant, Written on the Wind, Pillow Talk and all those colorful B-movies from Universal-International.  He may not be remembered as one of the great actors but it would be plain silly to not recognize him as one of the great movie stars.  I have never been more pleased at meeting a movie star than I am with him. For three or four golden hours in my youth, he allowed me to feel very important.

Movie Review


  1. While reading your post I felt as if I were watching a beautiful movie with handsome actors.
    Has anybody seen my girl? is the first movie I saw with RH ...and he didn't impress me. Can You believe it? But Iwas still innocent and with no experience then. Then a few years later i saw Magnificent Obsession and this time I filled my eyes with such a beauty. I filled them so much that I had a wet dream.
    Among His movies, thos I like better are Giant, Written on the wind and Something value. Of course I couldn't miss Come September which I liked but not so much. I hated deeply Strange Bedfellows.
    He may be would have never become a GREAT actor, but with no doubt he was one of the most handsome actors of all times.
    You made a magnificent movie! BRAVO!

  2. Great article on one of our most enduring stars, and how amazing that you got to spend time with him at one of those legendary parties...all in all, he seems to have been a lovely man.

    I am so glad you mention the little-known as-told-to memoir in which he discusses his sexuality and his illness. He was very brave to do so, but it never received much publicity, unlike the memoir by Phyllis Gates, who claims their marriage was legitimate (Was she really gay, too?).

    My two personal favorite Hudson films are All That Heaven Allows and Giant. Though I love both Rock and Doris, I am not a big fan of their films together...though they had great chemistry.
    Cheers, love your wonderful blog!

  3. great review of a true movie STAR....I have always loved Rock as an actor and the personal interaction makes this more human. Thanks for sharing.....