Rock Hudson Dies at 59 After Fighting AIDS

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Actor Rock Hudson lost his yearlong struggle against AIDS Wednesday, dying of complications arising from the incurable disease he had helped bring to worldwide attention.

Hudson, 59, a longtime Hollywood star who stunned the world three months ago when he revealed that he was suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, died quietly in his sleep at his Beverly Hills home.

His publicist, Dale Olson, said only members of Hudson's personal staff were present.

Hudson had no close family and memorial arrangements were pending. A spokesman for Pierce-Hamrock Mortuary said the actor's remains were cremated soon after his death.

Learned of Disease in '84

Friends said Hudson had discovered that he had the disease in mid-1984, but chose to continue his acting career while secretly undergoing treatment. He appeared in 10 episodes of television's prime-time soap opera "Dynasty" last season, and was to have continued in the role.

By midsummer of this year, however, ravages of the ailment were plainly apparent. He flew to Paris, where he entered the American Hospital seeking experimental therapy, but stayed just one week before chartering a 747 to return home for treatment at UCLA Medical Center.

It was at this time that he decided to reveal that he was suffering from AIDS--a little-understood and always-fatal ailment that strikes primarily at male homosexuals, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs.

The reaction from Hudson's friends--and fans--was immediate and heartwarming.

Cards and letters expressing good wishes, sympathy and admiration arrived by the bagful and were still coming in at the time of his death, while his movie colleagues rallied for a star-studded benefit that raised more than $1 million in his name for AIDS research, including $250,000 from Hudson himself.

Help to Others

"I am not happy that I am sick," Hudson said in a message read at the gathering last month. "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."

The news of his death brought immediate expressions of grief--one of the earliest coming from President Reagan, who had cheered his former colleague with a telephone call during his stay at UCLA.

"Nancy and I are saddened by the news of Rock Hudson's death," the President said in a statement issued at the White House. "He will always be remembered for his dynamic impact on the film industry, and fans all over the world will certainly mourn his loss. He will be remembered for his humanity, his sympathetic spirit and well-deserved reputation for kindness. May God rest his soul."

Elizabeth Taylor, who is national chairwoman of the AIDS foundation named for Hudson, said, "I love him and he is tragically gone. Please, God, he has not died in vain."

Doris Day Remembers

Doris Day, his former co-star in light comedies such as "Pillow Talk" and "Lover, Come Back," burst into tears.

"Oh, my God, what can I say?" she sobbed. "This is when our faith is really tested. . . . All those years of working with him I saw him as big, healthy and indestructible. . . . Life is eternal. I hope we will meet again."

Bruce Decker, chairman of the California AIDS Advisory Committee, also praised Hudson.

"We should honor Rock Hudson for his courage and candor by redoubling our commitment to set aside fear and bigotry, and as Americans have done so many times before, unite and find a cure and vaccine for the challenge called AIDS," Decker said.

Romantic Hero

A traditionally handsome romantic hero in an era when such types were becoming rare, Hudson was a carry-over from the old Hollywood studio system that took attractive non-actors with a special "look" or "presence" and molded them into stars. He was a box-office property long before he became an actor.

And yet he was--or became--more than a mere product.

"The image may be synthetic," George Stevens said after directing Hudson in the role for which he received his only Oscar nomination, "but the man is real. There is an inner core of warmth and decency there that can't be counterfeited--and it plays on screen. . . ."

It was this quality that seemed to sustain his career from the formula flicks of the early years, through Westerns, heavy drama, farce comedy, war epics, series television and into the glitz of his most recent appearances in "Dynasty." It was a reliability and solidity befitting his Hollywood-manufactured name.

'I'm Still Around'

"People keep saying that my career peaked with 'Giant' and 'Pillow Talk'--sometime in the late '50s," he told a recent interviewer. "But that was a quarter of a century ago and I'm still around, still working about as much as I want to work, still doing the thing I wanted to do way back there in Winnetka. . . ."

That was the little Chicago suburb where Roy Harold Scherer Jr. was born on Nov. 17, 1925.

His father, an auto mechanic, went to California in search of work when the boy was just 4 years old, and his mother remarried a few years later. Roy took the stepfather's name, and it is as Roy Fitzgerald that he is remembered in the town where he delivered newspapers, ran errands, and worked part time as a golf caddy, grocery clerk, freight handler, substitute mail carrier and furniture mover to earn extra money while he was growing up.

"We weren't exactly poor," he said. "Even if we had been, we wouldn't have starved--too many relatives in town. But we did need every extra dollar, so I took what jobs I could get, and by the time I was in my teens those were men's jobs--at 14, I was six feet tall and still growing."

By that time, though, he had already decided what he wanted to do with his life.

"It was a late-'30s movie called 'The Hurricane' that did it," he recalled. "I saw that picture 25 times just to watch Jon Hall dive into the ocean from the mast of a schooner. I watched him, and I said, 'That's what I'm gonna be--a movie star who does exciting things like that!' Kid stuff, right? So--why haven't I forgotten it after all this time. . . ?"

Before he could embark on a mast-diving career, however, there were a few formalities to be disposed of--such as high school and World War II.

Roy Fitzgerald's years at New Trier High School were something less than spectacular.

"My grade average was under a B-plus," he said. "I sang soprano in the glee club because my voice refused to change, I tried out for school plays but couldn't seem to remember lines, and I looked like a pencil--6-feet, 4-inches tall and only 150 pounds.

"You know, I was in the same class at New Trier as Hugh O'Brien, and just a year behind Charlton Heston. But neither one of them really remembers me from high school, and I don't blame them a bit. There was nothing to remember."

His World War II Navy stint was also unimpressive.

Drafted in 1943, trained as an airplane mechanic and assigned to the Philippines, he was reclassified and spent his last few months in uniform as a laundryman second-class.

Back in civilian clothes again, the gangling youth spent a few weeks in Winnetka and then followed his heart to Los Angeles.

Press Agentry

Subsequent studio biographies all agreed that the movie-star-to-be tried to get himself "discovered" by parking his truck across from the front gates of various studios and standing beside it in what he hoped was a dramatic pose. But Hudson shook his head.

"Lies," he said. "All lies. Press agents love to try for a reprise of that old Lana-Turner-was-discovered-at-a-soda-fountain legend. But if I stood across from the gates of any studios, it was strictly a matter of star-worship. When it came to trying to get into movies, though, I did what any sane person would do in those days: I had some pictures taken, wrote an (mostly fictional) account of my qualifications, and mailed it to everyone I could think of.

"I got exactly one reply. . . ."

But that one was enough, because it came from Henry Willson--a talent scout for David O. Selznick who asked the young hopeful to come to his office for a meeting.

Willson talked to Roy Fitzgerald for a few minutes, explained that he was leaving the studio to set up his own talent agency, signed the young man as a client, and forthwith enrolled him in night courses in diction and drama.

He also decreed that "Roy Fitzgerald" would cease to exist.

Willson (who turned Arthur Gelien into Tab Hunter, Robert Moseley into Guy Madison, Rosetta Jacobs into Piper Laurie and Merle Johnson Jr. into Troy Donahue) said he had always wanted to name someone after Hudson's Bay, and liked the name "Rock" because it suggested strength.

"I never knew what hit me," Hudson sighed.

Wins Screen Test

Counting on his client's striking appearance to win a spot in films, Willson wangled a screen test at 20th Century-Fox (for years the firm used it to show young players what not to do), an interview with Louis B. Mayer (it was in a barbershop and the MGM rajah's face was covered by a steaming towel) and finally took him over to Warner Bros. to talk to director Raoul Walsh.

Acting (he told a later interviewer) more on instinct than on any tangible factor, Walsh signed "Rock Hudson" to a personal contract that provided living expenses and acting lessons, and gave him a small part in a film called "Fighter Squadron."

He had just one line ("Pretty soon you're going to have to write smaller numbers") and he muffed it 34 times before he got it right.

"I was a disaster," Hudson recalled. "And for a year after that I didn't appear in a picture. But I kept studying and finally Willson decided I would be better off in one of the studios' player training programs--so he got Universal to buy my contract from Walsh."

Earning $125 a week, Hudson became part of a player pool that included Jeff Chandler, Tony Curtis, Julia Adams, Richard Long, Lori Nelson and Piper Laurie--all studying under Universal's drama and diction coach, Sophie Rosenstein.

His teeth were capped (they were crooked) and his posture was corrected ("I had to stand up straight or be fined") and his wardrobe expanded to include a tuxedo, gray plaid suit and blue serge suit.

Hudson made practically invisible contributions to such studio productions as "Undertow," "I Was a Shoplifter," "One Way Street" and "Winchester '73." But by 1950, someone at Universal seemed to think the tall youngster was ready for better things.

Fan Mail Begins

He got the juvenile lead (and his first film kiss) in "Peggy," with Diana Lynn and Charles Coburn--and brought studio executives to attention by receiving a few hundred fan letters for his trouble.

But the year closed inauspiciously with Hudson again almost invisible (this time because of heavy makeup) in the second lead of a sand-and-sandal epic called "The Desert Hawk."

Supporting roles in "Tomahawk," "Air Cadet," "The Fat Man" and "Iron Man" were followed (fan mail continued to trickle in) by more of the same in "Bright Victory," "Here Come the Nelsons," and "Bend of the River."

He received second billing to Yvonne de Carlo in "Scarlet Angel" and to Miss Laurie in "Has Anybody Seen My Gal," dropped back to third place in "Horizons West," and then found himself out front--playing his first top-billed role--as John Wesley Hardin in "The Lawless Breed."

"Didn't set any box office records or win any awards," Hudson said. "But they didn't have to fumigate the theaters where it played, and by the end of the year (1952) the fan mail had reached 4,000 letters a month. I figured I was ready for bigger and better things."

$3,000 a Week

Unhappily, the studio did not seem to agree. Hudson found himself walking through a series of offerings such as "The Golden Blade," "Back to God's Country," and "Taza, Son of Cochise," which kept the letters coming and the paychecks regular (his contract had been renegotiated to a respectable $3,000 per week) while doing nothing for a developing actor's ego.

And then came "Magnificent Obsession."

Hudson had to undergo two days of special testing--and get an OK from Oscar-winning co-star Jane Wyman--to obtain the role of playboy physician Robert Merrick in the remake of Lloyd Douglas' classic. But in the end the part was his, and the picture's release marked Hudson's real emergence as a star.

Universal promptly star-dumped him into money-making films like "Bengal Brigade," "Captain Lightfoot" and "One Desire," reunited him with his "Obsession" co-star for a forgettable effort called "All That Heaven Allows," followed with a sudser called "Never Say Goodbye," a top-grade melodrama, "Written on the Wind," a tear-jerking semi-biography, "Battle Hymn" and lent him to MGM for "Something of Value."

Before the latter two pictures were released, however, Hudson's career took a wild and sudden upward swing.

William Holden, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper had all vied for the plum role of Bick Benedict in George Stevens' high-budget film of Edna Ferber's sprawling novel "Giant," but when the cameras began to roll it was Hudson who stood beside Elizabeth Taylor, warding off stray cattle and James Dean through what turned out to be a 3-hour, 18-minute classic.

Critics suddenly began to pay attention.

"An actor of force, variety and wise understanding of character," said the New York World-Telegram; "Handsome, stubborn and perverse, but oddly humble," said the New York Times; "Real star status," declared Variety.

Hudson was nominated for the Academy Award (Yul Brynner won) and was named the top male box office star of 1957.

MGM wanted Hudson for its super-spectacle "Ben-Hur," but Universal balked and shoved him into a tawdry black-and-white rendering of William Faulkner's novel "Pylon," renamed "Tarnished Angels." That effort added to no one's reputation, and the studio followed by lending him to Selznick for the lead (opposite Jennifer Jones) in the remake of "A Farewell to Arms." He returned to Universal to head the cast of "Twilight for the Gods," and went on to star in a muddled version of Alice Tisdale Hobart's "The Cup and the Sword," retitled "This Earth Is Mine."

None of these was especially inspired or inspiring, and other parts of Hudson's life were going badly, too.

Brief Marriage

Hudson was married in 1955 to agent Willson's secretary, Phyllis Gates. In 1958 she filed for divorce, charging mental cruelty. He did not contest it and did not marry again.

"By 1959," he said, "I was ready for a change. Any change. . . ."

He said his first look at the script of something called "Pillow Talk" left him speechless.

"I've never done comedy before," he told director Michael Gordon. "I don't know how to be funny--not on purpose, anyway."

But the studio was adamant and Hudson said he discovered it was "the most fun I'd ever had in front of a camera. The crew laughed, we laughed, it was almost a shame to take the paychecks," he recalled.

The picture returned him and co-star Doris Day to the top of the box office heap, brought insistent demands for a reunion (granted in such reprises as "Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers") and even encouraged Hudson to make the (semi-successful) experiment of trying comedy with another co-star ("Come September," which teamed him with Gina Lolobrigida and Walter Slezak).

Other pictures were less fun--and less successful. "The Spiral Road," "A Gathering of Eagles," "The Last Sunset" and "Blindfold" made money, but not film history.

But there was surprising critical acclaim for "Seconds," a confused and confusing filming of a semi-science fiction novel by Ron Ely, and considerable studio-generated hoopla for the big-screen, big-budget "Ice Station Zebra."

Hudson admitted reservations about "The Undefeated," a post-Civil War epic that teamed him with John Wayne. "But it was a pleasant experience," he said later. "Duke was a wonderful person and a pleasure to work with."

He had nothing--at all--to say, however, about "Darling Lili," the supposed comedy he did with Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews. And he said he did not even like to think about "Pretty Maids All in a Row," the "mystery-comedy" he did the next year, 1970.

Yet that was also the year he joined Susan St. James in making a television movie pilot called "Once Upon a Dead Man."

Didn't Want TV Part

"I'd promised myself I would never do a television series," he said. "But this was sold to me as a movie. I never dreamed it would work out the way it did. It wasn't series, really--we did a television movie every three or four weeks--but it was fun and the characters of 'McMillan and Wife,' who were modeled after Nick and Nora Charles of 'The Thin Man,' seemed to be people the public enjoyed."

Indeed, when St. James left in 1976, he continued for another season with the show renamed "McMillan."

There were other developments at about that time:

San Francisco author Armistead Maupin, who is openly gay, said he had met Hudson in 1976 and urged him to make his sexual preference public.

"I felt that he was a true American success story and that his visibility as a gay person would mean a lot toward clearing up misconceptions the American public has about homosexuality," Maupin said in a recent newspaper interview. "He seemed kind of fascinated and horrified at the same time. I wanted him to do it because he was a big hero to me and I thought that he would be a big hero to a lot of other people."

Hudson's longstanding fear of working before a "live" audience evaporated in the mid-1970s when he appeared--to favorable reviews--with old friend Carol Burnett in a revival of the musical "I Do! I Do!" And a 20-week tour in "John Brown's Body" with Claire Trevor and Lief Erickson was also favorably received.

Other Roles

He also continued to make theatrical films ("Embryo," "Avalanche," "The Mirror Crack'd," "The Ambassador"), appeared in a television movie ("World War III"), two television miniseries ("The Martian Chronicles" and "The Star Maker") and the brief, ill-considered "Devlin Connection" series before accepting a running role in "Dynasty."

Through it all, he remained himself--the man George Stevens had liked and encouraged.

"Regrets?" he asked in an interview not long before his death. "Oh, I have a few. I wanted to sail around the world in a big ketch I owned, but I was always too busy. I wanted to direct a movie, but I never got the chance.

"But I had a lot of fun along the way.

"I found a few friends.

"And I got to be the star who dives off the mast into the ocean. That ought to be worth something, shouldn't it. . . ?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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