Timeless: Rock Hudson

Our Timeless series about Hollywood hunks continues today.
Drink some timeless tequila at Bacchus for $5 every Thursday. Enjoy.

Imagine a man built like a tank: 6' 5" frame, barrel chest, square jaw. This man speaks with a low voice, sports a full set of hair, and tantalizes his fans with his persistent bachelorhood.

But this man is also skilled dancer, a masterful flirt, and the consummate gentleman. He plays sensitive characters who aren’t cry-babies but who feel so many emotions, and his outfits are always coordinated, whether they’re three-piece suits or a flannel work shirts and jeans.

This man was the perfect projection of what folks of the 1950s and ’60s thought they wanted when they fell asleep at night. And that projection — named “Rock Hudson” by a crafty agent — was a complete fabrication.

Rock Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. on November 17, 1925 in Winnetka, Illinois. Roy and his mother were abandoned by his father during the great depression, but his mother eventually remarried. Roy was legally adopted by his new father and became Roy Fitzgerald.

Roy had a predictable, unremarkable Illinois childhood. He sang in the glee club duh, but had no remarkable talent. He served as an auto mechanic in the Navy during World War II. He was stationed in the Philippines. Afterward, he got a job in the gift-wrapping department at Marshall-Fields in Chicago, then moved to Hollywood in 1946.

With his classic good looks and a soft, inviting smile, he thought he'd be an instant Hollywood success. But he could not act.

The handsome young Roy soon caught the eye of Hollywood Talent agent, Henry Willson. Willson was responsible for the “Beefcake” craze of the 1950’s and 60’s, he was notorious for “scouting talent” at gay bars all over Los Angeles. 

Willson quickly renamed him “Rock Hudson” and managed to finagle him a bit part in the Warner Brothers war drama Fighter Squadron, but Hudson famously took 38 takes in order to properly deliver a single line. So Henry Willson went to work turning Rock from a dolt into a star.

As a "manager," Willson had a pattern. He would take young hunks, usually have sex with them, strip them of their names, and rebuild them from the ground up. He gave them preposterous yet catchy stage names. There’s Rock Hudson, of course, but there’s also Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun, Guy Madison, Clint Walker, Chad Everett, Guy Williams, Grant Williams, Van Williams, Cal Bolder, Rad Fulton, Race Gentry, and, best star name of all time, Dack Rambo.

Willson knew that Rock was something special so he spent time grooming him. There were etiquette lessons given while showing him off at Hollywood's hottest restaurants. Willson taught Rock how to speak, had his teeth straightened and supported him. All the while, Rock enjoyed hanging with (and having sex with) the most handsome gay men in Hollywood.

The more popular Rock became, the more attention the gossip magazines began paying to his personal life. Hudson was set up on dates with attractive young actresses, then Willson tipped off the press where to find them.

Rumors persisted and word got around about the handsome "bachelors" that Rock was seen with around town. many were wondering if Rock Hudson were gay. The gossip magazines were wondering why Rock wasn't married and Confidential Magazine threatened to expose him as homosexual. The rumor was that one of Rock's tricks managed to take a few incriminating photos and sold them to the magazine. Warner Brothers went into overdrive.

In order to avoid any suspicions, Willson arranged for Rock to marry his secretary, Phyllis Gates. They "dated" publicly for several months.

Crisis averted, in 1954 Hudson landed a role in Magnificent Obsession, a four-hanky melodrama starring Jane Wyman, first wife of Ronald Reagan.

Hudson became more visible, so did his lack of a wife. Life declared him “Hollywood’s Most Eligible Bachelor,” but explained that “fans are urging 29-year-old Rock Hudson to get married — or explain why not.”

To shut them up and quell the rumors Willson planted stories of the whirlwind romance of Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates in fan magazines. The two wed in a ceremony entirely planned by Willson in 1955. The two would stay married for three years, but for those in the know the marriage was such a transparent sham as to be laughable.

Hudson’s authenticated heterosexuality helped win him the lead in Giant, released in 1956. Giant is, not surprisingly, a sprawling, three-and-a-half-hour, Texas-sized film. It has Liz Taylor AND James Dean, and it tells a very American story of the way that money earned from the land makes life complicated and turns families against each other. But it also portrays Hudson — playing the oil baron pater familias — as a profoundly decent, hard-working, and prosperous man who’s assailed by a sexually frustrated wife and a whiny James Dean.

There's a rumor that once production began on the set of Giant, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson had a bet as to who would be the first to bed James Dean. Hudson won the bet within 24 hours.

Dean and Hudson both earned Oscar nominations, and the film was a financial and critical success. But it also led to disaster, as Hudson, bolstered by its success, turned down roles in Sayonora, and Bridge on the River Kwai in order to appear in what should have been a prestige picture: David O. Selznick’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

The film was a flop and it led to a string of losers for the handsome Hudson. Around this time, he left Warner Brothers and signed a contract with Universal Studios.

MGM offered Universal $750,000 for Hudson to play the starring role in Ben-Hur, but the studio refused.

His career was revived in 1959 when he partnered with Doris Day in what would become his second defining role, co-starring in Pillow Talk and the two quasi-sequels that followed. In these films, Hudson and Doris Day play the most flirtatious asexuals in the world: They talk about around the fact of sex, meaning that they flirt but are never sexual. They dance, they kiss, it’s cute, but they’re never actually even close to hot.

This image of love sold — especially to women disillusioned with their suburban lives, slowly realizing that a dishwasher couldn’t make them happy — and made Hudson and Day the most bankable duo of the ‘60s.

He was Universal Studio's first choice to play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but was rejected as being too young at 36.

And as he was hitting his stride in the mid '60s, the handsome beefcake actors of the '50s were beginning to seem corny to a public that now clamored to actors like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Hudson hated them and referred to them as "little uglies." Gritty realism was in, Hollywood glamor was out.

In 1971 he got his own TV show called McMillan & Wife with Susan Saint James. The show was a big hit and stayed on the air for 7 years and kept Rock in the spotlight. 

Besides his show, Rock also made several memorable appearances on the “The Carol Burnett Show.” Rock and Carol were good friends and that closeness shines through in their work together.

Jim Nabors had been good friends with Rock Hudson for years when suddenly a rumor began spreading that they were lovers. It all started with a joke invitation to an annual gay party in Huntington Beach. The queens printed invitations to “witness the marriage of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors” with the punch line being that Hudson would be taking on the last name of Jim Nabor’s famous character, Gomer Pyle, thus becoming "Rock Pyle."  The joke went over the heads of a few guests and the story entered the rumor mill and became part of pop culture history. Sadly, it ended the friendship between Rock and Nabors.

Rock’s sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and even his mother knew. When interviewed about her book, “Rock Hudson, His Story” author Sara Davidson told a great story about Hudsons’ mother chatting with her friend in Newport Beach, “…she was playing bridge, and one of her partners had something on her mind, and finally blurted out, ‘ I heard that Rock was gay!’ His mother answered, ‘I know. And the hardest thing is, I can’t remember his boyfriends’ names. Three no trump.'" (amen!)

Sadly, Rock Hudson died on October 2nd 1985 at the age of 59. Rock was the first major U.S. celebrity to die of complications from AIDS and it raised public awareness of the epidemic in a way no one could have imagined. Before his death, the media rarely mentioned AIDS, since it was known only as a “gay plague.”  Just a few days after Rock died, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.

Hudson said: "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.” 

We drink a toast to Roy Shearer/Roy Fitzgerald/Rock Hudson. We remember him as he was and always will be: handsome, hunky and timeless.

Trivia tidbit: The Prudential Life Insurance Co. stopped using its slogan "Own A Piece Of The Rock" after Hudson died of AIDS and many jokes were made about him and the slogan.