Director Douglas Sirk saw something in Rock Hudson and cast him as the lead opposite Piper Laurie in his 1952 feature Has Anybody Seen My Gal? The director was impressed enough to offer Rock the title role two years later in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), although few would disagree that casting him as an Apache chieftain was surely one of the most bizarre pieces of casting in Hollywood history. Sirk was evidently a man of limitless imagination, for he saw enough in Rock’s Indian chieftain to envision him as a millionaire playboy/brain surgeon starring in his next venture, Magnificent Obsession, that same year. Hudson’s performance as Bob Merrick in this soap opera to end all soap operas turned him into a star as Magnificent Obsession proved to be one of the biggest box-office successes of 1954. It was very much a case of history repeating itself. Back in 1935, the first filmed version, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne, had turned Bob Taylor into a star overnight and was also a huge hit. Jane Wyman plays the Irene Dunne role as Helen Hudson in 1954.
Irene Dunne & Robert Taylor 1935 version
Rock’s character, Bob Merrick, is an egotistical, arrogant, spoilt playboy who has the bad manners to inadvertently kill Helen Hudson’s husband in a freak auto accident, one that also happens to leave Helen a sightless, scar-free beauty. Merrick takes one look at her and is smitten. He also undergoes a complete character transformation and is racked with guilt over what his dissipated lifestyle has caused. Ever the cynic, I find myself wondering if Merrick would have responded similarly if, instead of gorgeous Jane Wyman, Helen had been portrayed by Mary Wickes or Marjorie Main. But I digress.
Rock Hudson & Jane Wyman
There and then the brand new Bob Merrick makes a solemn vow to himself. He will resume his long-abandoned medical studies and become a surgeon, a specialist in performing miraculous sight-saving procedures, no less. When Helen finds herself in desperate need of a vital operation a decade or so later, Bob is poised and ready to operate on his love and miraculously restore her sight. Of course, she falls in love with him (her long-dead husband a distant, faded memory), and cinema audiences of the fifties can go home with satisfied smiles on their faces. Such rubbish made Rock Hudson a superstar overnight, yet he very nearly missed out on playing Mr. Merrick altogether.
Edward Muhl – Universal executive
Just one week before shooting began, Rock was at Laguna Beach swimming with two of his friends, his secretary Mark Miller and actor George Nader, when a wave sent him crashing into the rocks, breaking his collarbone. Fortunately for the greatly worried actor, and thanks to another of his boyfriends, Universal-International vice-president Edward Muhl, shooting was put back six weeks until his collarbone had mended well enough for him to stand before the cameras. Edward, a respectable family man and father of six, was genuinely in love with the strapping 6’4” actor, but Rock traded sex for opportunities as was often his way. Their affair was conducted as clandestinely as possible, usually in Ed’s executive suite at the studio. Nevertheless, it was scarcely a secret around the studio.
Rock’s agent, Henry Willson, enforced three strict rules regarding his stable of mostly male, gay stars. Number one was: ‘Don’t ever let a man park his car in your driveway overnight’. Rule # 2: ‘If you are going to dine with a man at a restaurant, be sure to have at least one lady present at the table.’ And # 3, (the most important rule of all): ‘Never‘, ever live with another man.’ Henry did not care what went on with the love lives of his female charges, but he knew that any hint of homosexuality would most likely end a male star’s career on the spot. He stressed this distinct possibility on a regular basis and most of his gay clients abided by his rules. In time, Rock would too. Eventually.
Rock & Liz Taylor in Giant
At the time Magnificent Obsession was about to be released, Rock was living with a Korean War veteran named Jack Navaar. Jack briefly entered Henry’s stable of stars and was promptly re-christened Rand Saxon, would you believe? The premiere of Magnificent Obsession took place on May 11, 1954. It was Rock’s big moment and Jack fully expected to be sitting alongside him in his moment of triumph. Not a chance. Henry saw to that, relegating him to a less conspicuous section of the theatre, seated alongside a female escort, one of Henry’s stable of starlets. Henry made sure he would be light years away from Rock that evening. At the end of the movie, however, an irate Jack (Rand) confronted Rock in the car park and a shouting match ensued. A few days later, Rock went off to Ireland to make Captain Lightfoot (1955). While he was there, he received reports that Jack was throwing all-night, wild parties at Rock’s home. Hollywood’s latest star was thoroughly embracing being a big Hollywood hotshot and was not about to let anyone ruin it for him. On his return from Ireland he immediately ended the relationship and Henry dropped Jack (Rand) from his stable of clients.
Meanwhile, the success of Magnificent Obsession meant that Edward Muhl could seriously entertain director George Stevens’ interest in having Rock star in his up-coming blockbuster Giant. William Holden had been ear-marked for the role of Bick Benedict Jr, but George now felt that Rock would be better suited to it. Suddenly, Holden was out and Hudson was in. Universal saw this as an opportunity to snare their new star for an extension on his contract, so the proposition was put to him. He should take Giant at Warner Bros in exchange for giving Universal another four years. As Rock ruefully commented years later, ‘That was really a piece of putting the screw into you.’ Still, it was a no-brainer. Landing the lead in a big production like Giant put him in the A-grade bracket of Hollywood stars. It had all happened with the speed of light.