Hudson, Rock (1925-1985)

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Hudson, Rock (1925-1985)

Actor Rock Hudson's unmistakable masculinity made him a screen idol of the 1950s and 1960s. Hudson was a traditionally handsome figure and a romantic hero when such types were becoming rare. He was brought into film as the heir to Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. His broad shouldered, six-foot frame and dark brooding eyes gave him an enormous screen presence. He was twice voted the nation's top box office draw and was the recipient of numerous national and international awards. He also earned the respect of critics, in particular for his fine performances in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Giant (1956).

Born Roy Scherer, Jr., on November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois, Hudson was a member of a blue-collar family. His father was an automobile mechanic and his mother a telephone operator. Hudson's years at New Trier High School were ordinary: he sang in the school's glee club, and residents of the city remember him as a shy boy who delivered newspapers, ran errands, and worked as a golf caddy. The 1937 movie The Hurricane captivated and inspired Hudson to an acting career.

In 1943 Hudson was drafted into the Navy. After a military discharge in 1946, he briefly returned to Winnetka and worked as a piano mover. After doing poorly as a salesman in his father's appliance shop he took on a job as a truck driver with a food company. 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. Pursuing his dream of becoming a film star, Hudson sent out numerous resumes and photographs to movie studios. He received only one response, from talent scout Henry Wilson, a representative for David O. Selznick.

Wilson renamed the ruggedly handsome young man "Rock Hudson"—Rock for the Rock of Gibraltar, and Hudson for the famous New York river. Hudson was introduced to the Hollywood studios, but did not make a lasting impression due to his shyness. His screen test for Twentieth Century-Fox studios was so bad that it was shown to beginning classes as a classic example of poor acting.

Hudson landed his first acting job in a one-line bit part in Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron (1948). According to Hollywood legend, Hudson needed 38 takes to get his line ("Pretty soon you're going to have to write smaller numbers") correct. But Hudson learned to act on the job, and within six years he had appeared in 28 pictures. The roles were primarily characters lacking depth.

Hudson soon came under the wing of Universal Studios tutor Sophie Rosenstein, who helped him in his bit parts and supporting roles. During the 1950s he was cast in longer parts in a series of adventure and "B" pictures. After the release of Magnificent Obsession, Hudson's career took off. In 1954 Modern Screen magazine cited Hudson as the most popular actor of the year, and in 1955 Look magazine named him as the top male movie star. He was wed to Phyllis Gates in 1955; the marriage lasted three years, and Hudson did not remarry.

Hudson's acting career proceeded in a new direction as a sustaining figure in women's pictures. Under the professional direction of George Stevens, Hudson was able to give real depth to the characterization of Texas rancher Bick Benedict in Giant (1956). After Richard Brooks's notable Something of Value, and a moving performance in A Farewell to Arms (1957), the actor moved into comedy roles, usually paired with Doris Day. While the films varied in quality, they allowed Hudson the opportunity to explore his comedic talents. Utilizing innuendo, the films bridged the gap between humor and permissiveness. From 1959 to 1965 he portrayed humorous characters in Pillow Talk (1959); Come September (1961); Lover Come Back (1961); Send Me No Flowers (1964); Man's Favorite Sport (1964); and Strange Bedfellows (1964). Hudson afterward appeared in a number of unsuccessful and mediocre films.

By age 55 Hudson was faced with a dilemma: whether to pursue a fading film career or take roles in television. Initially Hudson was not interested in a small-screen career, but the series McMillan and Wife (1971), in which he starred as the police commissioner of San Francisco, proved to be a hit. He made few worthwhile films afterward, and he appeared in two television miniseries, The Martian Chronicles (1980) and The Star Maker (1981). He also was cast in the poorly conceived Devlin Connection (1982). His last recurring television role was in Dynasty (beginning in 1981).

Hudson made his final screen appearance in the 1984 television film The Las Vegas Strip Wars. The following year, while in Paris seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness, Hudson collapsed. The news broke that Hudson had been diagnosed with AIDS. Friends stated he had discovered that he had the disease in mid-1984, but chose to continue acting on Dynasty while secretly undergoing treatment. For years Hudson, his managers, and the studios had avoided the issue of his homosexuality. His illness, however, brought it into the open. Author Armistead Maupin stated he met with Hudson in 1976 and urged him to reveal his homosexuality. Acquaintances often described Hudson as gay, but he refused to publicly comment on or acknowledge the reports. Rock Hudson became the first major public figure to declare he had AIDS.

His last appearance at a benefit hosted by former leading lady Doris Day revealed the horrifying truth of AIDS in vivid and unflinching detail. 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." Rock Hudson passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California, on October 2, 1985.

—Michael A. Lutes

Further Reading:

Bego, Mark. Rock Hudson: Public and Private: An Unauthorized Biography. New York, New American Library, 1986.

Clark, Tom, and Dick Kleiner. Rock Hudson: Friend of Mine. New York, Pharos Books, 1989.

Gates, Phyllis, and Bob Thomas. My Husband Rock Hudson: The Real Story of Rock Hudson's Marriage to Phyllis Gates. New York, Doubleday Books, 1987.

Oppenheimer, Jerry, and Jack Vitek. Idol, Rock Hudson: The True Story of an American Film Hero. New York, Villard Books, 1986.

Royce, Brenda Scott. Rock Hudson: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995.