It began like a cheap melodrama.

Rock Hudson had inoperable liver cancer; Rock Hudson didn't have inoperable liver cancer. He was near death; he wasn't near death. He had AIDS; he didn't have AIDS.

Film at 11.

The news media spent days last week speculating about the health of one of Hollywood's top leading men, a longtime sex symbol with 62 movies and several TV series and miniseries under his belt.

TV tooted. Papers portended. Newscasts and headlines were full of the Rock, reporting his trip to Paris for medical treatment for an ominous malady and pondering the implications.

Hit those cymbals. President Reagan's recent colon cancer got only a little more coverage than Rock Hudson's reported liver cancer/AIDS and what have you.

Hudson the lead story on local newscasts? Regular TV reports from Paris to confusingly report the condition of the former star of "McMillan and Wife" and "Magnificent Obsession"? Repeated footage of his recent appearance in Carmel, Calif., to promote a Doris Day cable show, where he appeared gaunt and shrunken?

In a matter of weeks, TV had hopscotched from hostage crisis to Rock crisis.

There was a faint sniggering undertone to some of the coverage when it came to speculation about Hudson suffering from the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a mysterious illness whose primary victims in the United States are gay males.

A Hollywood institution like Hudson is always news. Yet it is hard to imagine that the media would have gotten so lathered if the story had been solely about Hudson having terminal cancer. A tragedy, yes. Sensational, no. But terminal AIDS? Well!

If Hudson--a movie and TV he-man who always got the beautiful girl--had AIDS . . . well, it didn't take a sleaze from the National Enquirer to fill in the blanks.

Then on Thursday, sliced into the network morning shows, came "this late word from Paris." Hudson's "spokeswoman" at the American Hospital in Paris was announcing that he had been diagnosed as having AIDS a year ago but was cured.

That was remarkable, because there are no known cases of AIDS recoveries.

Onward, though. Cable News Network continued to cover the story with gusto Thursday, and finally arrived at the nitty-gritty, the tabloid-tickle that inquiring minds wanted to learn.

Anchorman Reid Collins in Atlanta seemed to squirm mentally a bit as he asked reporter Sandy Kenyon in Hollywood if Hudson was thought a "likely candidate"--uh oh--to get AIDS.

Kenyon reported the frequent rumor about Hudson. "For many years it was widely assumed Rock Hudson was gay," Kenyon said. "Anyone in the know, when asked by this reporter, 'Who is gay?' said Rock Hudson was No. 1 or No. 2."

The message here is not that the heavy-breathing media knows how to titillatingly overcover a juicy story when it sniffs one. That's old news. The message is that good results can come from bad beginnings.

Hudson deserves the same sympathy accorded other AIDS victims, and everyone wishes him the best.

In a broader sense, though, he inadvertently has become an important symbol now, a new and highly visible weapon in the uphill battle for research funds to combat AIDS. Media exploitation of Hudson's misfortune--and that's exactly what much of the coverage has been--ironically has helped spotlight the larger problem of AIDS, drawing attention to its increasing danger to society.

And not only to gays. A distraught woman called the other day to talk about her own plight. She had just discovered that her former husband--with whom she had continued to have sex since their divorce--was suffering from AIDS. She feared that she would get AIDS, too, or that she already had passed it on to her other lover, a heterosexual.

"I'm heterosexual," she said, "but, ironically, the only people who understand what I'm going through are gays."

Not now. Repeated footage of a ghastly looking Hudson with Doris Day in Carmel was just what AIDS researchers might have wished for: a living TV picture of a terrible illness. And several newscasts, graphically illustrating the ravages of AIDS, paired the recent photo with one of an earlier, healthier Rock. The contrast was shocking.

The Hudson revelation has produced an epidemic of publicity about AIDS, which has been covered by the media in the past, but never with such concentrated fervor and purpose.

While the long-term interest remains to be seen, TV news everywhere has been using Hudson as a hook to report with as much depth as possible to better inform the general public about AIDS. That effort included an extremely valuable call-in show on CNN, a superb explanation of AIDS and its ramifications read by Christine Lund on KABC-TV Channel 7 and a "Nightline" segment on which Dr. Timothy Johnson urged the kind of "war on AIDS" that the Reagan Administration has been reluctant to undertake.

Hudson's sexuality may have been the media catalyst, but it is not the issue.

In a sense, he is unknowingly following in the path of other celebrities who have been enlisted in causes because of their fame, just as Jane Fonda was recruited to testify before Congress recently about the miseries of the farmer because she had played a suffering farmer's wife in ABC's "The Dollmaker." Hudson is offering grim, living testimony on behalf of funds for AIDS research.

It's almost as if someone had put in a call to central casting. And now Rock Hudson--hero of "Giant," star of "Pillow Talk" and late-comer to "Dynasty" last season--is playing the most critical role of his life.

Break a leg.

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