The Tragic and Fatal Secret of Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson in his Hollywood heyday and as he appeared ravaged by AIDS just before his death. Photo: AP
Rock Hudson in his Hollywood heyday and as he appeared ravaged by AIDS just before his death. Photo: AP

by Ray Setterfield

October 2, 1985 — Hollywood heart-throb and leading man Rock Hudson died at his Beverly Hills mansion on this day – eleven weeks after the actor had shocked movie fans across the world by revealing that he was dying of AIDS.

He was the first major movie star seen to succumb to what was then a deadly disease.

Considered by the public to be an all-American boy, a hunk, and an object of desire for most women, Hudson’s public image bore no resemblance to reality and he nurtured a lifelong fear about coming out as a gay man, according to author Mark Griffin in his biography of the actor.

Born as Roy Harold Scherer in 1925, Hudson became a star in films such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Giant (1956), in which he co-starred with James Dean and for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

He appeared in nearly 70 films, then became a successful television star in productions such as Dynasty and McMillan & Wife.

Darwin Porter, co-author of Rock Hudson: Erotic Fire, wrote that he was 58 when in 1984 doctors delivered what was then a death sentence: "You have AIDS and there's no cure." He had barely a year left.

“Rock considered dying with grace to be his finest performance,” Porter wrote. “When he could no longer hide it he admitted that he had AIDS and put a beloved face to what was then a terrifying plague.

"He spent his final days looking out across his beautiful garden, facing his demise with courage. His death united Hollywood against the disease that killed him, a legacy he could be proud of."

Hudson changed global perceptions about the AIDS epidemic by revealing his own diagnosis in July 1985. It is said that his disclosure pushed his former Hollywood friend, President Ronald Reagan, into finally mentioning AIDS publicly for the first time in September 1985.

Reagan had faced criticism from the gay community and medical experts for being slow to respond to the epidemic that had resulted in 15,527 AIDS cases and 12,529 deaths by the end of 1985.

But after Hudson’s demise, Congress allocated $221 million to find a cure for the disease, and donations to AIDS charities soared.

Rock Hudson’s most famous on-screen partnership came in the Sixties when he co-starred with Doris Day in three highly successful romantic comedies – Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers.

Day, who died aged 97 in May, 2019, gave an interview with People magazine four years earlier in which she told how she saw Hudson just before he went public with his diagnosis. Both she and the rest of the world were startled by his gaunt appearance at a news conference to announce their reunion for her variety show.

“I hardly knew him,” Day recalled to People. “He was very sick. But I just brushed that off and I came out and put my arms around him and said, ‘Am I glad to see you!'”

Day also said Hudson got very tired and couldn’t eat when she prepared him a meal: “I’d say, ‘What if I get a fork and feed you?’ but he said, ‘Doris, I can’t eat.'”

Day told People she last saw him just before he boarded a small plane to fly home. “We kissed goodbye and he gave me a big hug and he held on to me,” she said. “I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him – but he’s in heaven now.”

Published: August 23, 2019

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