Dale Olson dies at 78; publicity agent for Rock Hudson, other stars

Dale Olson, an elder statesman of the Hollywood publicity corps whose assignments over a four-decade career included representing Rock Hudson during the last months of the actor's struggle with AIDS, died Thursday of complications of liver cancer. He was 78.

Olson, who lived in the Hollywood Hills, died at a nursing facility in Burbank, said his spouse, Eugene Harbin.


A savvy promoter of Oscar-worthy movies, Olson helped craft campaigns for stars such as Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies" (1983).

During 18 years at Rogers and Cowan, he rose to head the agency's motion pictures division, leaving to run his own Beverly Hills publicity firm, Dale C. Olson & Associates, in 1985.

That year, Olson found himself in the middle of a media storm when reporters began raising questions about Hudson's health after the actor appeared shockingly gaunt at a public appearance with his former leading lady, Doris Day.

Initially, Hudson said he had liver cancer. The actor, who became a matinee idol in the 1950s with a boy-next-door image, feared the damage to his reputation if the public knew he had AIDS, which was then spreading through the gay community.

So when Olson, as Hudson's spokesman, was asked about the star's condition, "I had to alter the truth or try to change it sometimes," Olson recalled in a 2001 interview with radio host Larry King.

When Hudson finally acknowledged that he had AIDS, Olson helped persuade him to turn his misfortune into an opportunity to educate the public about the disease.

"I spoke to him and said, 'You have a terminal disease. This is going to affect a lot of people. And you can be the person who can make people aware of it,' " Olson said.

Hudson became the face of the dreaded malady. His message, written by Olson, stirred the audience at a 1985 Hollywood benefit for AIDS organized by actress Elizabeth Taylor.

In the letter read by fellow actor Burt Lancaster, Hudson said: "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."

He died a few weeks later.

Olson was born Feb. 20, 1934, in Fargo, N.D. As a teenager in Portland, Ore., he worked for a newspaper chain and snared an interview with screen legend Mae West.

In 1951 he moved to Hollywood and joined the Mattachine Society, one of the country's first gay-rights organizations, and served as its first national secretary. He wrote for Boxoffice magazine and Daily Variety before joining the Mirisch film production company as publicity director. His first major campaign was for the 1967 movie "In the Heat of the Night," starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier; it won five Oscars.

In the 1970s he launched the publicity for a number of popular film franchises, including "Rocky,""Superman" and "Halloween." He raised money for several charities, including the Actors Fund of America, of which he was a longtime trustee.

In 2008, he married Harbin. He has no other survivors.


Olson was known for his old Hollywood style. When he found out he had wrongfully suspected a colleague of feeding a story about a client to the National Enquirer, he apologized by buying the colleague a custom three-piece Italian suit.

He was also known for his parties, such as one he hosted in 1987 for the independent movie "Anna."

The film, which starred his client Sally Kirkland, had disappeared from theaters after its distributor went out of business. There was no money for publicity, but Olson believed Kirkland's performance was worthy of notice.

Although he risked breaking fairness rules governing the conduct of Oscar campaigns, he made 50 copies of the film and handed them out at a party at his home for a select group of entertainment journalists and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, who included Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, Elliott Gould and Robert De Niro. Olson cooked the food himself — chicken cordon bleu.

The strategy worked. Kirkland received enthusiastic write-ups and was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Cher in "Moonstruck").

Olson's underdog campaign also garnered coverage, with an "Entertainment Tonight" crew "covering Dale promoting me," Kirkland recalled in a recent interview.

She said the veteran publicist didn't view his job as "just a gig to get someone an award. He really cared about actors and about the work."

A memorial service will be announced later.