Rock Hudson was arguably the most famous man on the planet. According to his biographer Mark Griffin, he was everybody’s type. “Not only did women say Rock was the man they wanted to marry,” says Griffin. “Many men said he was the man they’d like to be.” The granite facade, the chiselled jawline, the inviting dimple in the chin: Rock Hudson was the very definition of heterosexual American masculinity.
On the outside. The inside story – as all the world now knows – was rather different.
Rock Hudson, aka Roy Fitzgerald, was a heavily closeted gay man who battled for decades to hide his true sexuality from an adoring public, abetted by the collusion of several film studios.
The reason was simple: if the truth had come out it would have been the end of his career.
As a new documentary, All That Heaven Allowed reveals, Roy had wanted to be an actor for as long as he could remember. “But I could never say that when I was growing up,” he said in an interview, “because that was cissy stuff”.
When he asked his stepfather if he could have drama lessons, he was asked why. “So I told him I wanted to be an actor and… crack! He hit me.”
But he was undeterred. After a spell in the navy he went to stay with a contact in Los Angeles.
When he met powerful agent Henry Willson at a party his fortunes suddenly took an upswing. Willson could see that the 6ft 4in hunk he renamed Rock Hudson would look good on screen and he was happy to help him.
He sent his protege to speech classes to lower his voice, and encouraged him to smoke. He was shown how to slick back his hair and what to wear. There was to be no trace of effeminacy. In short, this was an exercise in how to be heterosexual.
Away from the public gaze, Rock enjoyed a dizzying succession of young, male lovers at a time when his career initially consisted of cheap action movies. For his part, Rock was intent on bringing back some much-needed big screen glamour, something he finally achieved with Jane Wyman in the superior weepie Magnificent Obsession in 1954.
That was followed the next year by All That Heaven Allows, again opposite Wyman. The films were big hits but Rock was under pressure on another front. He was approaching his 30th birthday. Why, his fans wanted to know, wasn’t he yet married?
Svengali Willson had the solution – and she was sitting right there in his outer office. Phyllis Gates was Willson’s secretary, pretty enough in a homespun way, and happy enough to start romancing Rock at her boss’s behest. They married just eight days before Rock turned 30 in November 1955. Given she worked for Rock’s agent, her later claim that she didn’t know her husband was gay stretches credulity to breaking point.
The marriage lasted three years.
Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates on their wedding day
Indeed, Robert Hofler, author of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, wrote: “Those who knew Phyllis say she was a lesbian who had become addicted to being the wife of a star and didn’t want a divorce. In a way, she was just being pragmatic: she feared that Rock’s exposure would ruin his fame which was, in turn, her gravy train.”
This was something she disputed in a subsequent TV interview with Larry King.
But she never remarried, dying of lung cancer, aged 80, in 2006.
By 1959, the year after the divorce, Rock Hudson had become Hollywood’s most popular male star courtesy of films like Giant alongside Elizabeth Taylor (who became a life-long friend) and James Dean (also said to be a closet homosexual). Dean, who had a prickly relationship with Rock, died in a car accident before the movie was completed. Universal Studios, meanwhile, was slowly realising it had a much subtler actor on their hands than they’d guessed.
Here was someone who displayed his light comedy chops in the three films he made with Doris Day – 1959’s Pillow Talk perhaps being the most enduring. As to what view Doris held of Rock’s true sexuality, she was too naive – or more likely too clever – to ever let on.
“I knew absolutely nothing about his private life,” she says in the documentary, “and, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t discuss it. I can’t tell you one thing about him except that he was a very nice man who became a very dear friend.”
But the scandal sheets were much more forthcoming with their innuendo and speculation. The doggedly devious Willson had no wish to sacrifice the goose that continued to lay golden eggs and needed a diversionary tactic to scotch an expose by Confidential magazine about Rock’s life away from the cameras. So, he took the decision to throw another of his gay clients – blond, blue-eyed Tab Hunter – under the bus with the revelation he’d been arrested at what was euphemistically called an “all-male pyjama party”.
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By the early 70s, Rock had a big TV hit on his hands with McMillan & Wife.
While shooting scenes in San Francisco, he met Armistead Maupin, an encounter the best-selling writer remembers well.
“Rock invited a bunch of us up to his hotel suite. At one point he stood up and announced he had a little reading he wanted to do.
“He then proceeded, none too steadily by this stage, to read the first chapter of my book, Tales Of The City. Marianne, the newcomer in town, was telling her mother she was going to live in San Francisco. Her mother tells her she can’t. She was watching McMillan & Wife last night, she says, and the place is crawling with serial killers. A surreal experience, to say the very least.”
Later, Armistead did offer Rock some advice.
“I told him he’d be much happier if he came out of the closet and that I’d help him with that.
“But Tom, his then boyfriend, said, ‘Not till my mother dies’. I remember thinking, if I was sleeping with Rock Hudson, I’d want my mother to know immediately.”
Hudson’s heavy drinking, heavy smoking lifestyle resulted in quintuple bypass surgery in 1981, around the time Aids was first identified in the gay community.
At a dinner party with the Reagans in 1984, photographs were taken. Nancy subsequently sent Rock a particular shot telling him he should have that pimple on his neck checked.
On June 5, a consultation with his doctor revealed that Rock had Aids.
He was being wooed, meanwhile, by the producers of glossy TV soap Dynasty to accept a role as Linda Evans’s adulterous lover in the fifth series. After initial hesitation, he agreed to appear in seven episodes for $700,000.
Linda was thrilled, but it didn’t quite go according to plan. “In 1975, we’d worked on McMillan & Wife. But, when I saw him again, he was so much thinner. He said he’d been travelling a lot and had lost some weight along the way.”
What he didn’t share with Linda was his medical diagnosis. So that when she was thrown by her horse in one scene and Rock rushed to her side, their resultant embrace was a pretty tepid affair with him pecking her cheek rather than kissing her full on the lips.
Rock was in moral torment over his deadly secret, confessing to sometime boyfriend Marc that it had been the worst day of his life.
“I know Rock was protecting me,” a tearful Linda later revealed, but some cast members wouldn’t even come into the make-up room if she was there for fear they might catch Aids.
By July, with his appearance clearly ravaged by the disease, Rock agreed to travel to Paris for further trials. But, by now, his life was ebbing away and the world knew the reason.
No commercial airline would fly the stricken star back to LA so a 747 was chartered for $250,000 to return him to his sprawling, hacienda-style house, known as The Castle, in Beverly Hills where he died on October 2, 1985, aged just 59, although by then looking 20 years older.
US government fundraising for Aids research increased by $70million in the year after he died.
By a cruel twist of fate, it was in death that Rock became the world’s most high-profile Aids activist, the poster boy for a global pandemic, and perhaps the greatest role he ever played.
- Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, available on digital platforms from tomorrow