Rock Hudson, November 17, 1925 – October 2, 1985
Recording by Matt Bomer
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Photo (c. 1955) by Ray Jones
Hi, this is Matt Bomer, and I’m honored to celebrate the life of Rock Hudson.
On July 25, 1985, movie star Rock Hudson, one of the biggest celebrities in the world from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, was the most famous person ever to publicly announce he had AIDS. Just over a week before, he had appeared with frequent co-star Doris Day at a news conference promoting her new cable TV show. He looked gaunt and frail. He couldn’t eat a meal that Day had prepared for him. Ten weeks later, on October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson was dead at 59 years old.
An Oscar nominee and a four-time Golden Globe award winner, Rock Hudson never came out publicly as gay. The perceived risks to his career were apparently too great for him to do so. Rumors of Rock’s homosexuality led to a planned exposé in Confidential magazine in 1955, the same year Life magazine named him “Hollywood’s Most Handsome Bachelor.” But his agent Henry Willson (the one portrayed by Jim Parsons in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood) managed to convince them to bury the story in exchange for giving information on two other clients, Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter.
Soon thereafter, Hudson married Willson’s secretary. The marriage lasted three years. It has been reported that Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Susan Saint James, Carol Burnett, Angie Dickinson, Robert Stack, Julie Andrews, and others knew of his homosexuality, but he was such a friendly guy that even John Wayne is said to have remarked, “Who cares if he’s queer? He plays great chess.”
Rock’s first major hit, alongside co-star James Dean, was the 1956 George Stevens western Giant, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor, who would become a lifelong friend. Other hits include romantic comedy Pillow Talk with Doris Day; Come September with Gina Lollobrigida, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin; and the long-running TV series McMillan and Wife with Susan Saint James.
Rock’s last significant role was a five-month recurring role on the television series Dynasty from December 1984 to April 1985. Hudson was diagnosed with HIV on June 5, 1984, after a dermatologist did a biopsy of a mole on his neck at the suggestion of friend Nancy Reagan, who thought Rock looked too thin. But Rock kept the results a secret for over a year.
Despite their friendship, the Reagans refused to provide him with preferential treatment at a U.S. military hospital, ignoring the pleas of Rock’s publicist. Two days after his press conference with Doris Day, Rock traveled to Paris for treatments that were not approved in the United States, and collapsed at his hotel room at The Ritz. His American publicist announced that Hudson had inoperable liver cancer, but four days later his French publicist admitted that Hudson had AIDS.
Rock flew back to the United States, spent a month in the hospital at UCLA, but was then released to go into hospice care at home.
His AIDS diagnosis was front-page news for almost every major U.S. newspaper in the summer of 1985. Rock sent a telegram to an AIDS Project Los Angeles fundraising event in September 1985, saying, “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.”
People magazine reported that more than twice the amount of money was donated in support of AIDS research in the few months following Hudson’s death than had been donated in the entire year of 1984. Rock left $250,000 in his will in support of an AIDS research foundation created by friend Elizabeth Taylor and his physician, Dr. Michael Gottlieb. That foundation later merged with another AIDS organization to become the American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as amfAR.
President Reagan had never spoken publicly about AIDS until September 1985 following a month of widespread publicity about Hudson’s illness. A few days after Hudson’s death, Congress allocated $221 million toward finding a cure to AIDS.