He started out as a journalist in the 1930s. By the late 30s he became the guy who gave Lana Turner her name. In fact, Henry had a real flair for creating memorable (and unusual) names for up and coming actors and actresses. In addition to Lana he represented Joan Fontaine, Rhonda Fleming and Natalie Wood, but his main source of income derived from his ‘stable’ of beef cake actors.
Some of his charges were closeted gays. I refer to Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, just to name two, but Henry’s great ability lay in his creation of hyper-masculine stage names for a host of eager young studs. For example:
Roy Scherer became Rock Hudson
Orton Whipple Hungerford III became Ty Hardin
Robert Moseley became Guy Madison
Francis Durgin became Rory Calhoun
Merle Johnson Jr became Troy Donahue
Arthur Kelm became Tab Hunter
Norman Rambo became Dack Rambo
Willson dancing with Shirley Temple
Others in his ‘stable’ included Robert Wagner, John Saxon, James Darren and John Gavin. Henry was bisexual and is known to have slept with Rock, Tab and many others. He also pimped for producer David O Selznick on a regular basis, not only with hookers, but also by trawling the halls of Hollywood High School. While making the 1944 war film Since You Went Away Selznick, with Henry’s assistance behind the scenes, did his damndest to bed all three female stars, Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and even the teenaged Shirley Temple. Eventually, he married Miss Jones. Willson used actresses as ‘beards’ for his gay stars. Terry Moore, Debbie Reynolds, Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien all ‘dated’ Willson’s gay hunks, accompanying them to parties just so the likes of Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins or Roddy McDowall could sneak off later to enjoy each other’s company. Natalie and Margaret used to play a game of ‘trying to figure out which of their dates had slept with Henry.’
L to R Shirley Temple, Claudette Colbert & Jennifer
Jones in Since You Went Away (1944)
Jennifer Jones and her husband David O Selznick
One of Hollywood’s power brokers, Lew Wasserman, stated that ‘the word ‘agent’ was synonymous with ‘pimp’, and that Willson would often advise his clients to sleep with executives or influential directors as a means of advancing their careers. ‘It was amazing what some heterosexual men would do to get a career in Hollywood’, said one reporter. ‘Many thought nothing of sleeping with another man, if it got them a job.’ Hanging out at Willson’s parties and attracting the attention of muscleman Steve Reeves or crooner Johnnie Ray was another possible step up the ladder following a brief detour to their beds.
Henry regularly made it clear to young, ambitious wannabes that if they wanted to make it in the business they needed to do what Rock, Tab, Rory and Guy had already done – and that was sleep with him. He often spied on his charges too. One evening he caught Guy and Rory in flagrante delicto in a Jaguar. Henry’s long-time assistant Pat Colby said that ‘everyone wanted to sleep with Rock. No-one wanted to sleep with Henry.’ But they did. ‘Henry had his standards, but Rock would sleep with anybody.’
Guy Madison in Since You Went Away
It was rumored that Willson had mob connections, and that it was most unwise to cross him. He was a confidante of leg-breaker Fred Otash, as well as most of the studio fixers. When one of Rock’s lovers took some explicit photographs of their encounter and attempted a shakedown, Henry made a call and a private eye broke the man’s nose and ribs.
When Confidential Magazine prepared to expose Hudson as a homosexual, Willson did a deal with the editor. He gave up Rory Calhoun’s criminal past (including details of a stretch in San Quentin), and to sweeten the deal he told of Tab Hunter’s arrest at an all-male pajama party. Tab had just acquired another agent so he was suddenly fair game as far as Henry was concerned. It is still debated, however, whether Tab left Willson before or immediately after the betrayal. The ‘Hudson’ story was dropped in any case. So was the ‘lewd behavior’ charge against Tab. Calls were made, money undoubtedly changed hands, and it was reduced to a ‘disturbing the peace’ rap and a $50 fine.
Rock & Phyllis on their wedding day 1955
Henry Luce at Life Magazine published a gay-baiting story that concluded with the line: ‘Fans are urging 29 year-old Rock Hudson to get married – or explain why not.’ Willson became a little panicky and quickly arranged for his secretary Phyllis Gates to marry Rock in order to throw the hounds off the scent. And it worked. Phyllis has always maintained she had no idea Rock was gay, but close friends disagree. ‘Phyllis was too smart not to know what she was getting into’, said one.
The demise of the all-powerful studio system was the beginning of the end for Willson. Once Wasserman started to refine the process started by Charles Feldman and Myron Selznick, that of changing actors into ‘corporations’ to save on taxes, and then selling them (along with a director) as ‘package deals’ to producers, the studio system and its minions began to fall by the wayside. The advent of television was the final nail in the coffin.
Today, most movies evolve around ‘packages’, but in the fifties and sixties it was a novel idea. Jimmy Stewart, for instance, was the first actor to become a ‘corporation’ when he made Winchester 73 back in 1950. Corporation tax was far lower than personal tax, so he cleaned up. Soon others were doing it and studio contracts slowly ceased to exist. The studios went with them. As the agent for MCA (Music Corporation of America), Lew Wasserman amalgamated Universal Studios and Decca Records with MCA in 1962 and called the new company the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Now he had actors and musicians both under his banner. Ultimately, he would sell MPAA to Matsushita Electric in 1990, pocketing a cool $350 million on the deal.
One of Hudson’s friends convinced him to ditch Henry as his agent and others soon followed suit. It mistakenly became ‘common knowledge’ that any actor signed to his ‘stable’ was gay, so Willson’s heterosexual clients jumped ship. Straight star Robert Wagner, for instance, has since denied he was ever signed to Willson. By 1972 Henry was washed up. He was flat broke, his solitary employee (a house-keeper) was compelled to accept valuable antiques and silverware as remuneration for her services. John Saxon, Lucille Ball and even Rock lent him money, but he still lost his house and ended up in the Motion Picture Country Home as a charity case. He passed away there in 1978. Rory was a pallbearer at his funeral (which says much for him), Rock sent flowers, and Tab was a notable absentee.