Rock Hudson was a popular American film and television actor, noted for his stunning looks and most remembered as a romantic leading man during the 1950s and 1960s. Hudson was voted Star of the Year, Favorite Leading Man, or any number of similar titles by countless movie magazines, and was unquestionably one of the most popular and well-known movie stars of the time. He completed nearly seventy motion pictures and starred in several television productions during a career that spanned over three decades.
Hudson was born Leroy Harold Scherer Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois, the son of Katherine Wood, a telephone operator, and Roy Harold Scherer Sr., an auto mechanic who abandoned the family during the depths of the Great Depression, in the early 1930s. His mother remarried and his stepfather adopted him, changing his last name to Fitzgerald.
After graduating from high school, he served in the Philippines as an aircraft mechanic for the Navy during WW II. In 1946 he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and applied to the University of Southern California's dramatics program, but was rejected due to poor grades. Among a number of odd jobs, he worked as a truck driver for a couple of years to support himself, longing to be an actor but with no success in breaking into the movies. A fortunate meeting with powerful, Hollywood talent scout Henry Willson in 1948 got Hudson his start in the business - and Willson renamed him Rock Hudson.
Neither a gifted nor a natural actor, he was neverthless blessed with enormous charm and with time proved to have a flair for comedy and was capable of strong and memorable performances in drama. He was coached in acting, singing, dancing, fencing and horsebackriding, and he began to feature in film magazines where he was promoted on the basis of his good looks. Success and recognition came in 1954 with Magnificent Obsession in which Hudson plays a bad boy who is redeemed. The film received rave reviews, with Modern Screen Magazine citing Hudson as the most popular actor of the year.
Hudson's popularity soared in George Stevens's Giant, based on Edna Ferber's novel. Co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, and as a result of their powerful performances both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars.
Following Richard Brook's notable Something of Value in 1957 and a moving performance in Charles Vidor's A Farewell to Arms, based on a Ernest Hemingway's novel, Hudson sailed through the 1960s on a cloud of romantic comedies. He portrayed humorous characters in Pillow Talk, the first of several profitable co-starring gigs with Doris Day; followed by Come September; Send Me No Flowers; Man's Favourite Sport, with Paula Prentiss, and Strange Bedfellows, with Gina Lollobrigida.
His popularity on the big screen diminished in the 1970s. He performed in a 13-city US tour of the musical Camelot. He was quite successful on television starring in a number of made-for-TV movies. His most successful series was McMillan and Wife opposite Susan Saint James from 1971 to 1977.
Following years of heavy drinking and smoking, by the early 1980s, Hudson began having health problems. Heart bypass surgery sidelined Hudson and his then-new TV show, The Devlin Connection, for a year; the show suffered for the delay and was cancelled not long after it returned to the airwaves. He recovered from the surgery, but a couple of years later Hudson's health had visibly deteriorated again, prompting different rumours.
In 1984 and 1985 Hudson landed a recurring role in Dynasty. While his inability to memorise dialogue was the stuff of legend, now he was exhibiting all the signs of a man in serious trouble. The need for cue cards was one thing, but when his speech began to deteriorate, everybody knew the least of Hudson's problems was simple forgetfulness. The word cancer was tossed around, but not, at least by those who had something to lose, was the phrase 'gay cancer' mentioned. Not yet.
While Hudson's career was blooming, he was struggling to keep his personal life out of the headlines, although the Hollywood media was complicit in concealing his homosexuality from the general public. Throughout his career, he epitomised an ideal of wholesome manliness, and in 1955 he wed Willson's secretary at the time, Phyllis Gates, and the news was made known by all the major gossip magazines. The union lasted three years. Gates filed for divorce in April 1958, charging mental cruelty; Hudson did not contest the divorce. Loyal friends and the now-unimaginable support of the media kept Hudson successfully in the closet to all but those 'in the know' until the 1980s.
In 1985, Hudson joined his old friend Doris Day for the launch of her new cable show, Doris Day's Best Friends. His shockingly gaunt appearance, and his nearly-incoherent speech, was so shocking that it was broadcast again all over the national news shows that night and for weeks to come. Doris Day herself stared at him throughout their appearance together.
Hudson was diagnosed with HIV on June 5, 1984, but when the signs of illness became apparent, his publicity staff and doctors told the public that he had liver cancer. It was not until July 25, 1985, while in Paris for treatment, that Hudson issued a press release announcing that he was dying of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This had an enormous impact as he was the not only the first major celebrity to come out with the disease but because most of his army of fans still had no idea that Rock Hudson was gay.
Shortly before his death Hudson stated, 'I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.' Hudson's death is said to have pushed his long time friend and then Republican President Ronald Reagan to change his tune on efforts to fight and publicise the epidemic. Rock Hudson's death from AIDS was a highly significant and tragic milestone in bringing the disease to a wider public consciousness.
Rock Hudson was cremated and his ashes buried at sea.