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How Rock Hudson's Dying Wish Changed the World

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When Rock Hudson was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, he kept his disease a secret – but not for long.

In the year that followed, the closeted screen icon agreed to disclose his diagnosis with the hope of helping others. “He was well aware of the publicity,” his doctor, HIV specialist Dr. Michael Gottlieb, tells PEOPLE. “He expressed he was glad he had gone public, that it was having an impact.”

It was a marked change from their first meeting in early June 1984, when Gottlieb received a phone call from a Beverly Hills doctor who had a celebrity patient with AIDS.

“To avoid any kind of publicity, I was asked to come and evaluate,” recalls Gottlieb, now on the board of The Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. “I went to the office and there sat Rock Hudson on the exam table.”

After Hudson collapsed in Paris, he had to fly back to Los Angeles on a non-stop jet because he was too frail to change planes.

“The airlines wouldn’t take him because they were told he had a contagious disease,” recalls Hudson’s business manager Wallace Sheft. “The airline wanted $250,000 to charter a 747 to fly him back home, an enormous amount. They called me from the tarmac. They wanted me to make sure the funds were wired before they took off.”

Once back in Los Angeles, Gottlieb was advised to give a “bare bones” press conference to clarify Hudson’s diagnosis.

“I said, ‘The press wants information on your condition. Should I tell them you have AIDS?’ and he said, ‘Yes if you think it will do some good.’ He couldn’t have imagined how much good it actually did.”

By then, he says, “I don’t think Rock was afraid of it getting out. It was beginning to dawn on his fan base that he was gay. He had AIDS and was dying. People related to him on a human level.”

A week before he died at age 59 on Oct. 2, 1985, Sheft told him he was contributing money to a fund on his behalf for AIDS research.

“He was pleased,” recalls Sheft. “I was really pissed at the airline for charging $250,000 so when I saw Rock, I said ‘We are going to set up the Rock Hudson Memorial Fund for AIDS Research. I think the world wants to know what kind of guy you are and find a way to eliminate this disease.’ He said ‘Go ahead.’ It was $250,000, the same amount the goddamn airline had changed him.”

The money eventually became the seed money for amfAR, one of the first national foundations for AIDS research.

Thirty years later, Gottlieb still marvels at Hudson’s impact. “When I first met him I never could have imagined he would be the pivotal person in the history of the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “The single most influential patient ever. It’s the pivotal event in the country’s consciousness of the HIV epidemic.”

For more on Hudson, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now