In 1985, the rapid AIDS-related decline of Hollywood icon Rock Hudson changed popular opinion about the AIDS epidemic. Thirty years later, it’s hard to say whether Hollywood has really changed when it comes to the disease: it’s rarely spoken of, it’s all but impossible to name a working actor or director with HIV, and all the red carpet celebs put away their red ribbons ages ago. But even still, Hudson had an undeniable effect on the national conversation.
In the summer of 1985, the world was shaken unexpectedly by the premiere of a TV show that made national headlines. Christian cable network CBN debuted Doris Day’s Best Friends, a family-friendly talk show about celebrities and their pets, and the very first guest was Day’s old friend and co-star, 1950s heartthrob Rock Hudson.
It became immediately clear to viewers that Hudson was in bad decline. At the age of 59, the formerly strapping, 6’5” actor was visibly ill. Although he didn’t say it, he was dying of AIDS, and middle-America suddenly realized that the butch movie hero with the sexy baritone voice was actually gay all along.
Let’s back up a few decades. Hudson got discovered in the early fifties by well-known gay talent agent Henry Willson, a man renowned for cruising gay clubs and, according to Anne Helen Petersen at The Hairpin, for “picking up the most handsome, square-jawed, Captain America-type specimens for uses both personal and professional.”
The men Willson found were given new backstories and new names, ones which didn’t sound all that different from those bestowed upon today’s gay porn performers: Chad Everett, Rand Saxon, Chance Gentry and Clint Walker, just to name a few. Willson also discovered Troy Donaghue, Tab Hunter and Guy Madison, all of whom were all-American, young, healthy, handsome… and totally gay.
Hudson starred in some of the decade’s biggest films, including the two biggest Texas oil dramas of 1956: the campy, wonderful Written On The Wind and the big-budget epic Giant, where he shared the screen with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Later in the decade, he’d reinvent himself as the debonair star of romantic comedies. Women were just crazy about him.
In 1959, Life magazine declared him Hollywood’s Most Handsome Bachelor, although even then rumors were circulating about his sexuality. Willson actually sold out Tab Hunter to the tabloids in exchange for keeping Hudson’s secret under wraps. Shortly after Hudson became the first big-name public figure to admit having AIDS, Life ran a cover story with the headline “Now No One Is Safe.”
In 1985 there were all kinds of terrible ideas being thrown around to solve the AIDS epidemic, from tattooing HIV-positive people to quarantining everyone with AIDS. Hudson’s old Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor became an active supporter of AIDS charities, channeling time (and lots of money) into research for a cure. Hudson died a few months after that appearance on Doris Day’s Best Friends, just shy of his sixtieth birthday.
That was 30 years ago.
A number of celebrities acknowledged their AIDS diagnoses after Hudson. Basketball player Magic Johnson and tennis star Arthur Ashe both admitted having the disease, although neither of them was gay. Years later, the family of science writer Isaac Asimov would reveal that he too died of AIDS-related kidney failure, but again he was a straight man that got the HIV virus from an infected blood transfusion.
Since the mid-nineties, many people have been able to lead normal healthy lives with HIV. Charlie Sheen revealed his HIV-positive status recently, as did former child star Danny Pintauro, but they’re anomalies. Today, most celebrities with the virus may never feel compelled to disclose that they have it. That’s their personal business, but it also means Hollywood can go on as it always used to, pretending that HIV doesn’t exist.