Rock Hudson: On Camera and Off


An American flag flies outside Luther and Lela Scherer’s isolated farmhouse near Olney, III. Inside, the TV has been bringing them images of a gaunt, ravaged figure whom they, like most Americans, barely recognize. Sadly, they do recognize him, not just as Rock Hudson, perhaps the last of the classic square-jawed leading men, but as their own nephew, whom they still call by his boyhood name, Roy. “When Luther saw him on television the way he looks now, he wouldn’t have known him as Roy, he looks so bad,” Lela says. “How could he go down so much in a year’s time?”

The answer to that plaintive question—acquired immune deficiency syndrome—was equally almost beyond their comprehension. “I hadn’t heard of AIDS really,” Lela admits. Like the millions of Hudson’s fans who were shaken by the news, they could not accept the idea of a clean-cut, virile star being felled by such an insidious disease. “It’s an awful thing,” says Hudson’s aunt. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about him. When you leave home, there are temptations. When you get out in the world you never know.” The death sentence that AIDS invariably imposes on its victims is also difficult for the elderly couple to contemplate. “He’s too young to die,” says Lela, who, like Luther, is 83. “But we may outlive him.”

When the announcement came on July 25 that Hudson was suffering from AIDS, confirming a rumor that had circulated in Hollywood for months, it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The stunning disclosure implied for Hudson’s public what for decades had been an open secret in Hollywood—his homosexuality. “Never would we think that he would be that,” Lela says. “He was just always such a good person.”

In some parts of Rock Hudson’s America it is still a fairly radical proposition that someone can be both good and gay. Recalls Torch Song Trilogy playwright Harvey Fierstein: “My mother was in love with Rock Hudson. So was I. When I told her he was gay, she cried for three days. But it shows that gays don’t have to be limp-wristed fags like me.” The new revelation made Hudson an instant role model for gays, but his emergence as the best-known victim of AIDS also made him a tragic trailblazer. President Reagan, who has never publicly mentioned the disease, called Hudson in his Paris hospital room, and Nancy Reagan telephoned French President Francois Mitterrand to insure that Hudson received the best possible care. Notes William Hoffman, author of As Is, a powerful Broadway play about AIDS: “If Rock Hudson can have it, nice people can have it. It’s just a disease, not a moral affliction.”

Ironically it was a public reunion with Doris Day, his frequent romantic co-star of the 1960s, that alerted Hollywood to Hudson’s deteriorating condition. He could easily have avoided the July 15 press conference promoting Day’s upcoming cable-TV show, and it was at first not apparent why he hadn’t. After all, Hudson had kept secret the nature of his illness since its diagnosis more than a year ago. After completing 10 episodes of Dynasty last season—”Rock hated the fact that everyone thought he looked so old on the show,” says a close friend—the actor had carefully maintained a low profile. But he made a commitment to Day. “Doris expects me to go,” he told friends, “and I’m going.” He had no idea how his withered appearance would shock those who saw him. “He didn’t know how bad he looked,” says an intimate. “He thought he looked better than he had in a long time.”

When Hudson next appeared in Los Angeles, he arrived in the dead of night on a chartered 747 jet from which he was removed on a stretcher. He had just returned from Paris, where he had collapsed and spent eight days in isolation at the American Hospital. Back in L.A., Hudson was taken by helicopter to the UCLA Medical Center. Hollywood, though apprehensive about his disease, welcomed Hudson home as warmly as it once protected him. “There is no doubt in my mind that Rock has taken a courageous stand,” says Angie Dickinson, a longtime friend. “I think it is pretty unfortunate that some people may not accept Rock because of his honesty.” Robert Stack, who worked with Hudson in Rock’s first movie, Fighter Squadron, in 1948, concurs. “He has always been a class act,” Stack says. “By openly disclosing his condition, he has shown that he is also quite selfless.”

But in the transformation from Roy Scherer Jr., truck driver, to Rock Hudson, screen idol, the actor had not always been able to live so openly. When he arrived in California in 1946 at age 21, he met Henry Willson, the legendary agent who turned Arthur Gelien into Tab Hunter and Francis McGowan into Rory Calhoun. According to Hollywood lore, Willson, with customary flair, named his latest discovery for the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River. The name and the image were synthetic, but the man was not.

From the start, Hudson projected one image in front of the camera and projected another away from it. “One thing I can tell you is that Rock has always been gay—at least as far as his adult life goes,” says one close associate. “Anybody who tells you different is lying.” Ambitious and alert to the temper of the times, Hudson did not discourage the charade. Behind the doors of Universal, where he was a contract player, “we all knew Rock was gay, but it never made any difference to us,” says actress Mamie Van Doren, who went on studio-arranged dates with Hudson. “Universal invested a lot of money in Rock, and it was important for his image to remain that of a lady-killer.” In essence Hudson was not merely a survivor of the studio system; he was a master of it. “Rock did what was expected of him,” says Van Doren. That included lending himself to such smoke screens as a 1955 LIFE cover story on “The Simple Life of a Busy Bachelor.”

As Hudson neared 30, a wedding was expected as well. In the mid-’50s the scandal sheet Confidential threatened to expose Hudson’s private life. Instead, the studio cut a deal that traded information on Rock for information about a lesser-known actor who was gay. On Nov. 9, 1955, in a hastily arranged ceremony, Hudson married his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. “She was not the love of his life. It was an arrangement,” says actress Arlene Dahl, who had also been encouraged to date Hudson after they appeared together in Bengal Brigade. Recalls Hudson’s lifetime friend Jim Matteoni, who was best man at the wedding: “We met Phyllis for the first time when he was going to marry her. Roy called up at two in the morning and said, ‘I’ve made arrangements for you to be on a 6 o’clock flight. Keep it secret.’ We went to a courthouse two or three minutes before it closed—so that the reporters had already left. Then we went to a hotel where a cottage suite had been taken. After the ceremony, we each had to call one of the columnists to let them all know at the same time.” The small party ended the evening at an appropriately named restaurant, Talk of the Town.

The marriage officially ended less than three years later. “We never did know precisely what was wrong,” says Matteoni. “He either felt it was hopeless or he didn’t want to talk about it.” According to Hudson’s friend Ken Maley, a San Francisco media consultant, “Rock said the studio set up the marriage and promoted the wedding and the honeymoon. He was very bitter about that.” So was Gates, now a Beverly Hills-based interior designer. According to Irina Kirk, an author whom she approached several years ago to ghostwrite her autobiography, Gates was frustrated by Hudson’s lack of interest during the marriage and even consulted a psychiatrist, who ill-advisedly suggested she try to seduce her husband with frilly underwear. The book, which Gates intended as an exposé, has never been completed.

Unlike some of his gay actor colleagues, Hudson did not suffer professionally. For the studio, he was both good box office and a good soldier. “Rock really knew how to turn on the steam,” says Angie Dickinson, who co-starred with Hudson in 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row. Since he adhered to the rules of the game, he didn’t flaunt his private life. Consequently, when the sexual revolution of the ’60s rendered coy pillow talk obsolete, Hudson successfully made the transition from romantic lead in the movies to romantic lead on TV with McMillan and Wife. Occasionally his sexual preferences even triggered good-natured gags by his colleagues. On closing night of Hudson’s run as King Arthur in the 1977 touring production of Came-lot, the crew sent one of his male companions on stage in drag for the finale. In effect, Hudson found an acceptance and compassion among the people he worked with that he feared he could not find among his fans.

Hudson knew firsthand that even innuendo could sink a career. In the early ’70s, an anonymous hoaxer played a cruel joke by sending gossip columnists invitations to the “wedding” of Hudson and Jim Nabors. The hoax sabotaged Nabors’ TV career, and his variety series was canceled in 1971 by CBS. “Rock used to explain the story at dinner parties,” says San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin, who met Hudson in 1976. “In point of fact, he and Nabors were just good friends. But the rumors made it impossible for them to be seen together, which is very sad.”

In San Francisco, however, Hudson apparently found a sanctuary that he could not enjoy in Los Angeles. Along with Maley, Maupin and others, he frequented gay discos unrecognized. Impressed by Hudson’s comfortable confidence about himself, Maupin encouraged him to go public about his sexuality. Hudson rejected Maupin’s proposal—for business as well as personal reasons. Observes screenwriter Barry (Making Love, Sandler: “Moviegoers don’t want to imagine that their leading man rides off into the sunset with another man.”

Avoiding Hollywood nightlife as much as possible, Hudson preferred to entertain friends at his 10-room house overlooking Beverly Hills, nicknamed the Castle. “He’s enormously hospitable,” says Maupin. “The image that immediately leaps to mind is him standing in his nightshirt in his kitchen cooking eggs for his houseguests, cracking jokes.” The interior of the house manifests Hudson’s masculine self-image. Decorated with mahogany furniture, Mexican shields, swords hanging on walls and bold tapestries, it reflects his interests as well as his travels. The house has a huge courtyard and a pool surrounded by strange sculptures of nude males. The statues are black and slightly abstract. One peeps over the fence gazing out into the drive, a humorous reversal of the circumstances surrounding the actor’s life. Another depicts a boy throwing a smaller boy into the pool.

Although his public had until recently remained largely uninformed about his sexual tastes, rumors about Hudson had begun filtering back to his hometown of Winnetka, III., where he was born in an apartment over a Walgreens drugstore in 1925. As an only child growing up in the Depression, Hudson enjoyed a typical Midwestern boyhood marred by family problems. After his father, an auto mechanic, left the family when Rock was a small child, the boy grew up with a mother he loved and a stepfather he did not. “When he was young, there was no doubt about his heterosexuality,” says high school classmate Bud Davis. Nor, apparently, was he remarkable in any other way. His striking good looks ripened late. At New Trier High School he was remembered mainly as a quiet, good-natured boy with a nice sense of humor. Although a hometown favorite, Hudson kept few ties to the town after he departed for the Navy and, later, Hollywood.

As times and attitudes have changed, so have Hudson’s priorities. In recent years, “most of Rock’s friends and acquaintances know he’s gay,” says a close companion. “He tries to fool no one. When we used to go out to eat or to the movies, he never said anything like, ‘Maybe I should go out with a woman sometimes.’ I lead more of a double life than he does. My parents still don’t know I’m gay.”

The ramifications of the dramatic announcement of Hudson’s illness have galvanized both the gay and medical communities, which have been battling AIDS for more than four years. “Rock will have real impact,” says Robert Eichberg, a Los Angeles psychologist. “It’s difficult to turn against someone you love, and the public has grown up with him.” Until now, even in Hollywood, apathy about AIDS has proven surprisingly widespread. Comedienne Joan Rivers, who, like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, owes her widespread popularity to early gay support, has lost several friends to the disease. “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn’t get one major star to turn out,” says Rivers. “It ended up being just me and a transvestite onstage. I received death threats and hate mail. Rock’s admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public, but by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage.”

Last week, as Hudson the inadvertent pioneer lay in a Los Angeles hospital, revisionist opinion about his career was already taking shape. Perhaps Hudson’s success at maintaining a 30-year public front demonstrated that he was a far better actor than he was ever given credit for. The irony was that, as a Hollywood star, Hudson could never acknowledge in his prime what has emerged because he is dying. Said Hudson’s spokesman Dale Olson: “It has been his desire that if he can do anything at all to help the rest of humanity by acknowledging that he has this disease, he will be happy to do that.” As ever, Rock Hudson could still break his audience’s heart.

Reported by Jeff Yarbrough and the Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Paris bureaus

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