October 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Hunk. If ever a man deserved the epithet it was Rock Hudson. He stood 6’4″ and his muscles rippled like a wheat field in the wind. His voice purred, and six seconds of his megawatt smile could defrost Canada. The star of Magnificent Obsession, Giant and Pillow Talk was the straight arrow that transfixed millions of feminine hearts in the fuddy ’50s. Nothing, it seemed, could ever go wrong with Mr. Right. And then, on July 25, 1985, a grim-faced press agent stood in the foyer of a suburban Paris clinic and made a brutally brief announcement: “Mr. Rock Hudson has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”

That tacit admission of sexual identity seemed sure to shatter Hudson’s macho image. But it didn’t. Conditioned by the magic of the media to believe that what you see on the screen is what you get in real life, his fans loyally stood up for their idol, giving the gay community a small but signal victory in the long struggle to legitimize homosexuality. Similarly, it seemed impossible that one man’s fatal infection could transform the public image of AIDS from an alien four-letter word into a shared emergency. But it did.

AIDS had been spreading on an epidemic scale for several years, but because almost all the early cases were concentrated among Haitians and homosexual men, the problem had been shrugged off by society at large as a somewhat distasteful minority phenomenon. But in Hudson AIDS found its first famous victim: If Rock could catch it, people reasoned with more emotion than logic, anybody could catch it. Alarmed, the public demanded action, and over the last five years Congress has appropriated $8.2 billion for AIDS prevention programs, health care for the afflicted, and the arduous search for a cure.

Ironically, self-sacrifice for the common good was hardly what Hudson had in mind. A careerist obsessed with his romantic image, he came out of the closet only because the press forced him out, and last year a court decreed that by failing to tell his lover he carried the lethal syndrome he had callously risked the man’s life. (Marc Christian has not in fact developed AIDS, but an L.A. jury last year awarded him $21.7 million in damages, a judgment reduced on appeal to $5.5 million.) Ruthless and charming, Rock Hudson was one of the more ambiguous heroes of an ambiguous decade, but his tragedy speaks eloquently for the fate of thousands and occupies a heartrending and significant square in the vast quilt of suffering that AIDS has spread over the human race.

Rock discovered he had AIDS in June 1984. Over the course of a year a bleb on his neck had developed into an unsightly sore. “You’d better sit down,” his doctor told him. “It’s Kaposi’s sarcoma.” Rock was shattered. “Why me?” he later sobbed to a friend. “Why me?” But he seemed less afraid of death than of how his fans would react when they realized he was gay. “I hope I die of a heart attack before they find out!” he cried bitterly. From that day forward, Rock fought harder for his image than he did for his life.

Friends urged him to sign up for treatment with HPA 23, an experimental drug developed in France, but he dragged his feet for three months before hopping the Concorde to Paris. After four weeks, tests showed no trace of the virus. His specialist recommended three more months of therapy, but Rock waved him off and quit the clinic in euphoria. “I’ve licked it!” he crowed. Giddy with relief, he agreed to do six episodes of Dynasty, but soon he began to lose weight and feel exhausted. Then he faced a crisis: a scene that required him to kiss Linda Evans. Could the infection be carried in saliva? Specialists now say no, but at the time nobody knew for sure. “What the hell am I gonna do?” Rock asked a confidant. The choice was clear: Protect Linda or protect his career. He found a way to duck the decision. Before the scene, biographer Sara Davidson reports, “Rock used every gargle, mouthwash and spray he could lay his hands on” and then made sure the infamous kiss was just a tight-lipped peck on the cheek.

As Rock’s immune system collapsed, infections raged through his body. Friends begged him to fly back to Paris, but he refused—apparently preferring death to exposure. “I’m gonna eat worms,” he said self-mockingly. When at last he agreed to go, it was too late. He collapsed in his Paris hotel and was rushed to an AIDS clinic. The cat was out of the bag.

What happened next astounded him. Celebrities by the dozen fired off telegrams of support. President Reagan phoned encouragement. Flown back home, Rock found 30,000 heartfelt letters applauding his courage and wishing him well. In his honor Elizabeth Taylor mounted a massive benefit show that raised $1 million to fight AIDS. “You’re a hero around the world,” a friend told him. “The world loves you.” Rock wept.

With nothing more to hide, he waited peacefully for the end. On Oct. 2, 1985, Rock Hudson died with quiet dignity, a martyr in spite of himself.

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