Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson, abandoned by his Republican friends, passed away from AIDS-related complications 33 years ago today. He was the first major celebrity whose death was linked with the virus. And though he preferred to keep his personal life secret, Rock’s queerness remained a topic of controversy long after his death.
Rock Hudson was just a kid from Illinois, a shy singer as a teen who tried to act but could never remember his lines. After serving in World War II, his photo was glimpsed by a talent scout who changed Rock’s name from Roy Scherer.
Initially taking minor roles, it took a few years before he was cast as a leading man in genre pictures. His handsome face won attention and he made a name for himself in schlocky action-adventure movies, but through the 1950s he began to appear in more dramatic films. But it was in romantic comedies that he was the most memorable, acting opposite Doris Day.
Throughout this time, he kept his homosexuality secret — had it become public knowledge at the time, it could have ruined his career. As it was, the secrecy imposed by heterosexual society ruined his personal life. Though close friends like Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett knew the truth, Hudson’s management went to great lengths to stop the public from finding out.
At one point, his agent Henry Willson arranged for Hudson to marry his secretary Phyllis Gates, a move satirized decades later in the film Straight-Jacket. The marriage to Gates lasted three years, ending in charges of cruelty against Hudson. Biographer Bob Hofler later wrote that Gates was a lesbian who had blackmailed Hudson.
Through the 1970s, there were rumors that Hudson had married actor-singer Jim Nabors. It wasn’t true — not only was marriage not legal at the time, but there’s no evidence the two men were more than friends. In fact, after the rumors began to swirl out of control, Herman and Nabors stopped speaking to each other.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Rock Hudson was living with HIV. Those close to him denied it, claiming that his reported illnesses were cancer. At one point, Hudson collapsed in France and needed medical attention, and his publicist contacted the White House to request help. The Reagans were once friends of Hudson’s, and could have helped him gain access to a better hospital, but Nancy Reagan refused to intervene.
But public mourning turned into action. Hudson was one of the first high-profile figures to talk about living with HIV, and to have died. His sad passage spurred donations, activism and a gradual shift in the way Americans thought about queer people — though it didn’t happen right away, seeing the suffering of familiar faces helped to turn formerly homophobic hearts. It’s a bitter irony that the most good Hudson is remembered for is that which he strove to keep secret all his life.