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Doris Day helped America look at AIDS with empathy and love for Rock Hudson

Doris Day helped America look at AIDS with empathy and love for Rock Hudson
Doris Day and Rock Hudson are seen in 1985 in Carmel, a few months before Hudson's death. (Associated Press)

Doris Day and Rock Hudson became big stories starring in a series of romantic comedies in the 1950s and ’60s.

But perhaps their most influential joint appearance came decades later in 1985. Day was about to host a cable TV show about dogs, and she invited Hudson on as her first guest.

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By then, Hudson was sick with AIDS. There had been rumors about his health, but a news conference in Carmel Valley, Calif., where Day lived, would be the first time the public saw how sickly Hudson was.

That footage would become an essential part of America’s understanding of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It also began a long battle against discrimination and intolerance of the disease.

Day and Hudson are seen during their movie days.
Day and Hudson are seen during their movie days. (Associated Press)

Here is how that appearance came together, according to The Times’ obituary of Day, who died Monday.

The Christian Broadcasting Network approached Day about hosting a talk show called “Doris Day’s Best Friends” that would feature celebrity guests and animals. It aired for two years.

Hudson was a natural first guest, Day later said, because he loved dogs as much as she did. Yet when he came to Carmel in mid-July for filming and a news conference, Day and the press corps were shocked by his gaunt appearance.

Sick with AIDS, Hudson had yet to reveal his condition to Day or the public, but reporters immediately realized he was gravely ill. He would later reluctantly admit that he had AIDS, becoming one of the first major celebrities to acknowledge having the disease.

Despite needing rest, Hudson insisted on taping the show, which aired days after he died in October 1985. Day, her voice choked with emotion, taped an introduction that recalled how Hudson always told her, “The best time I’ve ever had was making comedies with you.” She said she felt the same way.

Day later told People magazine that Hudson had been so sick he could not eat lunch. She said that after the filming they had an emotional goodbye.

“We kissed goodbye and he gave me a big hug and he held on to me. I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him — but he’s in heaven now,” she told the magazine.

Their appearance together was replayed countless times as Hudson’s condition worsened and he announced he had AIDS. For many, it was a public turning point — when the ravages of the disease became impossible to ignore.

Times TV columnist Howard Rosenberg chastised the media for the way they covered Hudson’s health, including the repeated footage of Hudson and Day at that press conference:

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.

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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.

Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis raised awareness of the disease and sparked a movement in Hollywood to battle it. That fall, more than $1 million was raised at a gala fundraiser. Burt Lancaster read a message from an ailing Hudson.

“I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS,” the statement read. “But if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”

The gala was politically charged, with many in the audience angry at what they saw as the federal government’s feeble effort to help in the AIDS fight. As The Times reported:

A page-long statement from President Ronald Reagan, read by actor Burt Reynolds, said "remarkable progress" had been made in efforts to conquer the disease, but "there is still much to be done."

Scattered hissing broke out in the audience when Reynolds read a line that began: "The U.S. Public Health Service has made remarkable progress . . . "

Reynolds stopped reading and told the audience that "I don't care what your political persuasion is, if you don't want the telegram read, then go outside."

There was applause and Reynolds continued to read the statement.

Hudson died Oct. 2, 1985. His death shocked America but did not end the bigotry and ignorance that surrounded AIDS. Activists fought for the federal government to work toward a cure and to prevent discrimination.

“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.”

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Times staff writer Shelby Grad contributed to this report.

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