TEN YEARS AGO, WHEN A PUBLICIST FOR ROCK Hudson disclosed that the 59-year-old actor had entered the American Hospital of Paris suffering from AIDS, the announcement shocked a nation still largely untutored in this new disease and its reach. Only 8,000 U.S. AIDS cases had been reported to that point, and most of those early victims were homosexual men, IV drug users and others on the banks of society’s mainstream. Hudson, despite his suddenly revealed gay lifestyle, was someone everyone felt they knew. And the handsome, soft-spoken veteran of more than 60 movies and TV’s McMillan and Wife finally gave a face to the growing body count.
Hudson’s death on Oct. 2, 1985, 10 weeks after his condition became public, “was the turning point in terms of national awareness of the impact of AIDS,” declares Dr. Mathilde Krim, cofounder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), which was established in 1985, partly with $250,000 from Hudson’s estate. Says Tom Viola, producing director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a fund-raising group: “Because of Rock’s celebrity…you could no longer deny that this was a problem, as you could with people who never touched your life.”
If Hudson’s death was a milestone, it was not universally effective as a warning. A quarter-million more Americans have died of AIDS since, and 40,000 new victims contract the HIV virus in the U.S. each year. For entertainers, whose jobs often depend on a fragile public image, candor about the disease is not much easier now than it was then.
Actress Amanda Blake, who starred as Miss Kitty on TV’s Gunsmoke for nearly 20 years, spent her last two years with AIDS in seclusion on the Gait, Calif., ranch owned by friend Pat Derby. Even in retirement “she was terrified of what would happen” if people found out, Derby recalls. Blake feared she would lose support for a retirement home for performing animals she had founded with Derby. When she died at 60 on Aug. 16, 1989, even hospital officials publicly blamed heart failure; not until November did a doctor cite AIDS as the underlying cause. (Blake suspected she had been infected by her fifth and last husband, Mark Spaeth, an Austin, Texas, city councilman who had died several years earlier.)
Some AIDS victims, of course, have bravely used their visibility to add to public understanding of the disease. Elizabeth Glaser, wife of actor-director Paul Michael Glaser, contracted HIV from a tainted blood transfusion in 1981 and unknowingly passed the virus to her two children during pregnancy and breast-feeding. She finally learned of her illness in 1986, two years before the death of her daughter Ariel, 7. (Her son Jake, now 11, remains asymptomatic.) Glaser founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation a month after Ariel’s death to raise money for research, and she remained the charity’s most active booster until her death last year at 47.
Although such a foundation would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, AIDS is understood these days as a plague that knows no limits of race, gender or age. With an estimated 1 million people in the U.S. now living with the virus, there are few among us who have not been touched by the disease in one way or another. In the pages that follow, we remember some of the best-known men and women who have died in the years since Rock Hudson’s illness was given a name.