By Eliot Rifkin
This week for the first time, a US health experts’ panel recommended approval of the daily pill (Truvada) as the first drug to help prevent HIV Negative people from becoming infected with HIV. It’s not quite an AIDS vaccine, but is certainly a major advance in the 30-year campaign against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
This got me thinking about Rock Hudson, one of the first reluctant faces humanising the AIDS virus. Rock was a 1.96 m (6’5″) tall Hollywood leading man during the 50s and 60s, as well as 70s and 80s television. He starred in the popular TV series McMillan & Wife, had a role in the hugely popular gay iconic series Dynasty and was even animated in the Flintstones. He was one of the most popular and well-known movie stars of his time. It all ended though in 1985 when he became the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness.
Rock secretly pursued a gay lifestyle while portraying an image of a virile strapping heterosexual stud. While Hudson’s career was developing, he and his gay talent agent Henry Willson kept his personal life out of the headlines. Willson played a large role in popularising the 1950s beefcake craze. Hmmm, if only his casting couch had a mouth (more on that part of the story in a moment) Let’s get back to ‘who’ Rock Hudson was for the younger readers.
Well, Hudson’s film debut wasn’t auspicious… in 1948, he landed one line of dialogue in Warner Brother, “Fighter Squadron” which required 38 takes to successfully deliver it. Yet, he began to be featured in film magazines where he was promoted, possibly based on his good looks. Six years later, he received rave reviews as a bad boy in “Magnificent Obsession”. In 1956, Hudson’s popularity soared co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in “Giant”, where both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Oscars in the ‘Best Actor’ category. He found his stride in the 1960s on a wave of romantic comedies with Doris Day. Followed by “McMillan & Wife” in the 70s.
During 1984, Hudson’s health turned, prompting rumours that he was suffering from liver cancer as explanation for his increasingly gaunt face and build. During December 1984 through April 1985, Hudson had a recurring role on the prime-time soap opera “Dynasty” as Krystle Carrington’s love interest (played by Linda Evans). That’s when the ‘kiss’ heard around the world happened.
Early July 1985, Hudson joined his old friend Doris Day to launch her new TV cable show, “Doris Day’s Best Friends”. His gaunt appearance and incoherent speech were so shocking that it made international news and was broadcast over and over for weeks to come. Secretly, Hudson had been diagnosed with HIV a year earlier in June 1984. So… it was his publicity staff that spun the inoperable liver cancer story to cover up the signs of his encroaching illness. All the while Hudson continued to work and at the same time travel to France and other countries seeking a cure, or at least treatment to slow the progress of his disease.
This incessant talk on his declining looks forced Rock’s hand, and on 25 July, 1985 while in Paris for treatment, he issued a press release announcing that he was dying of AIDS. He was the first celebrity to bring this disease mainstream. A profound shift, now anyone can get it, it’s not a gay subculture curse. “If Rock Hudson can have it, nice people can have it. It’s just a disease, not a moral affliction.”
A month later, Hudson publicly speculated he might have contracted HIV through blood transfusions during his heart bypass procedure back in November 1981. He still didn’t admit he was gay. Hudson’s homosexuality was a well-known secret in Hollywood throughout his career. However, if a reporter wrote a scoop on it, they’d never work in that town again. There are many closeted gay leading men who would blacklist them. (Some things never change). Former co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Saint James claimed they knew of his homosexual activity, as did Carol Burnett: they didn’t care.
A week later, he flew back to LA. This time, images again flashed across the news outlets. He was so physically weak that a stretcher took him off the Air France 747 he chartered as the only passenger. He was then flown by helicopter to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he was told there was no hope of saving his life. He remained in seclusion until his death on 2 October, 1985.
So now, the ‘Kiss’ he shared with actress Linda Evans in Dynasty became public fodder. When filming the scene, Hudson was aware, that he had AIDS, but didn’t inform her. Some felt that he should’ve disclosed his condition to her beforehand. At the time, it was known that the virus was present in low quantities in saliva and tears, there were fears of transmission by kissing, although none reported. Hudson’s revelation caused “panic” within the film and television industry. Scripts were being rewritten to eliminate kissing scenes. Linda Evans herself appears not to have been angry at Hudson.
However, Rock was no stranger to gay rumours and controversy. Thirty years earlier in 1955, ‘Confidential’ magazine threatened to publish an exposé about Hudson’s secret homosexual life. His then agent Henry Willson forestalled this by throwing two of his other clients under the bus, Rory Calhoun’s prison years and Tab Hunter’s arrest at a gay party in exchange for the tabloid not printing the Hudson story. Remember I mentioned Willson earlier, well he was known for his stable of young attractive men, besides Rock Hudson he represented Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Clint Walker, Doug McClure, Robert Wagner and others. It was said, “If a young, handsome actor had Henry Willson for an agent, ‘it was almost assumed he was gay, like it was written across his forehead.” After Rock dodged that bullet, at his agent’s urging, Hudson married Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates in order to maintain a macho image, but their marriage dissolved after three years. Phyllis Gates in later years admitted that she was a lesbian.
Following Hudson’s funeral, the controversies continued. Marc Christian, his latest lover sued the estate saying Rock didn’t disclose he had AIDS and continued having sex with him for eight months after he was diagnosed. Rock Hudson could not defend himself before the jurors because Christian waited until Rock died. The jury overlooked the possibility Christian may have been HIV-free simply because Hudson never had the relationship with him. He won his suit against the Hudson estate. Christian, died in 2006 at aged 56 having never contracted HIV.
All this sordid gossipy stuff aside, the disclosure that Rock Hudson had AIDS had an immediate impact on its visibility, as well as medical research funding. A few days after Hudson died, the American Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS. More importantly, the public perception of HIV/AIDS was dramatically changed forever.