In the 1950s the number one heart-throb of women in America, indeed around the world, was a former mechanic known to the world of movies as Rock Hudson, a 6’5” (1.96m) slab of beefcake that every hot-blooded woman who attended the cinema wanted to take home with her. What they did not know; what most of Hollywood had known for years in fact, was that sexy, he-man Rock was as gay as a maypole. And it would be decades before they found out.
Hudson’s screen test for 20th Century Fox was so bad that it was used for years afterwards by the studio to show aspiring young actors what not to do in front of the camera. Nevertheless, the guy had star quality in spades. He was extremely handsome, very personable, possessed of a fine speaking voice and was built like a block of flats. He just couldn’t act that’s all, but in Hollywood that has never been seen as an insurmountable problem. Over several years he honed his craft in bit parts that gradually increased in size until his big break came in 1954 with the lead in Magnificent Obsession.
Accompanied by a friend, he sneaked into the preview theatre, watched for a few minutes and then quietly left. His friend found him hunched over the steering wheel of his car sobbing. It had taken him 25 films to get there, but the audience reaction told Rock that he had at last made it. Over the next three years he would make another eleven feature films, among them, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Giant. In the sixties he and Doris Day would become household names as they co-starred in a trilogy of enormously popular romantic comedies: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers.
Doris, like most of Hollywood, was aware of his homosexuality. ‘I call him Ernie’, she quipped, ‘because he is certainly no Rock’. Hudson himself was philosophical about the name his agent had lumbered him with. ‘It’s better than Crash or Brick, which were the other two suggestions’, he commented. His adoring public was unaware that he usually whiled away the hours on the set between shots doing needlework. In fact, he became quite an aficionado.
His greatest fear, indeed the fear of all gay actors in that town, was that he would be ‘outed’ and his career would die an instantaneous death. When, in 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to run a story exposing him, Henry Willson, agent for both Hudson and the up and coming Rory Calhoun, did a deal. He gave the editor details of Rory’s time in San Quentin in exchange for dropping the Hudson story. When Confidential persisted with its threat to run the story, pressure was also brought to bear from Universal Studio. Rock was a very hot property, an investment that needed protecting at any price. In all probability money changed hands – lots of it. Willson also knew of Rory’s one-night stand with Errol Flynn and, just to cover all the bases, may have blackmailed him into accepting the lesser jailbird rap.
As a kind of added insurance Universal ordered the terrified Rock to quickly and very publicly marry his secretary, Phyllis Gates. Fans were fed a tale of ‘love at first sight’ which they lapped up with a spoon. The bride was not told of her husband’s sexual preferences. After two years of anything but wedded bliss (not to mention a few beatings along the way), she learned the truth. To pave the way for a divorce, Rock and his cronies spread the rumour that Phyllis was bisexual and had been caught in lesbian situations. Consequently, when the couple parted for good the public was well and truly in the ‘shattered’ ex-husband’s corner.
Today, we really don’t appreciate the homophobia that gripped fifties Hollywood. There has always been a large number of gays working in Tinsel Town in pretty much every field of endeavour, but to be branded as such back then meant only one thing – career over. Consequently, out of sheer fear of being caught out, Hudson and other gay actors, such as George Nader (another beefcake adored by female cinema-goers and pictured below), always conversed over the phone in a code that only other gays understood.
There was a general sigh of relief when Confidential closed its doors for the final time in 1957. Its editor Howard Rushmore had terrorized the movie fraternity for five long years, using all kinds of underhanded ploys to get scoops on actors, directors and executives. He bribed, threatened, blackmailed and cajoled, using wiretaps, hidden microphones and hookers to dig up dirt for his magazine. Then, one day on Manhattan’s East Side it all suddenly ended. Horrible Howard climbed into a cab, shot his wife through the head, then put the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Few grieved him.
Even with the magazine gone there was still the occasional scare, of course. Like the time some wag sent out invitations to a bogus wedding between Rock and the equally gay Jim Nabors; likeable star of the hit TV series Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Even though it was untrue, the ensuing publicity ruined poor Nabors’ career. He was a very fine singer, by the way, who had only just got his own variety series. It was immediately cancelled. For some reason the public believed Jim was gay, but did not believe Rock was.
By the early 1970s, Rock had become an established TV star with his own highly successful series McMillan & Wife. Having gone to great lengths for a couple of decades to conceal his homosexuality, he now felt reasonably secure in the knowledge that most of Hollywood knew about him, yet protected his image. So, he began to indulge in orgies at his home where up to fifty gay young men were known to actively participate at any given time.
Years later, in 1984, he discovered he had contracted the AIDS virus. In those days it was widely believed that the transfer of saliva could spread the disease. While shooting an episode of Dynasty, just after learning he was infected, he was required to kiss actress Linda Evans. He went ahead with the scene regardless, fearing a refusal on his part might lead to some difficult questions from the media. Miss Evans had serious concerns over the scene and even gargled antiseptics afterwards. When asked why she took such a risk, she ingenuously replied, ‘I didn’t want to hurt his feelings’.
Hudson passed away in 1985 at the age of 59. Marc Christian, had been his companion through the final years, completely unaware his lover had AIDS. Even at the end Rock Hudson kept his secrets. Christian sued the actor’s estate and won a settlement for over 20 million dollars that was later reduced, on appeal, to about 5 million. Today, Rock’s pictures are still very watchable, especially those made with Doris Day. Back in 1969 he made a western with ‘the Duke’ called The Undefeated. In an interview he had this to say: ‘I did a movie with Duke Wayne and was very surprised to find out he had small feet, wore lifts, and a corset. Hollywood is seldom what it seems’. You can say that again.
Hudson & Marc Christian