Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rock Hudson (1925-1985)

Birth name: Roy Harold Scherer Jr
Birthdate: Tuesday, November 17th, 1925
Location: Illinois, USA

Died: Wednesday, October 2nd, 1985
Location: Beverly Hills, California, USA
Cause of death: AIDS

Best known for: All-American leading man whose most successful period was the 1950s and 60s in romantic comedies with Doris Day. His legacy is perhaps a little overshadowed by his high profile death from AIDS at a time when the disease was little understood, but his bravery in being open about his diagnosis helped pave the way for more reasoned discussion of how to tackle the disease. Rock was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for his part in the previous year's Giant (Yul Brynner won for The King and I). However, he did win four Henrietta Awards at the Golden Globes for Male World Film Favourite between 1959-63 (with a fifth nomination in 1966, losing to Paul Newman), and was voted America's biggest box office star in both 1957 and 1959.

In the 1970s Rock made a very successful transition into television, perhaps one of the most effective of all the attempts by legends of classic Hollywood to extend their careers this way. He'd secured the title role in the detective series McMillan & Wife between 1971-77, starred in the Hugo Award nominated mini-series The Martian Chronicles (1980) and found a second star vehicle in the series The Devlin Connection (1982).

Rock in The Devlin Connection,
soon after having a quintuple heart
bypass in 1981, aged 56
Rock's health was a constant issue to him in the 1980s. After years of smoking and drinking he suffered a heart attack in November 1981, aged just 56, and filming on The Devlin Connection had to be postponed for a year while he recovered from a quintuple heart bypass. But Rock was his own worst enemy. He recovered from the surgery but continued to smoke. He was well enough to return to acting in the winter of 1983, and flew to Israel to film the action drama The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn. He was unwell during the film's production and reportedly clashed with the heavy-drinking Mitchum several times on set.

On June 5th, 1984, Rock was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), an illness first recorded in 1981 which started out being called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), then 4H (after the four main victim groups of homosexuals, heroin users, haemophiliacs and Haitians), before officially settling on HIV in September 1982. Rock kept his diagnosis a secret for just over a year, and continued to work while travelling to various European countries in search of a cure or delaying treatment.

In The Vegas Strip War,
aged 58
In 1984, while filming the TV movie The Vegas Strip War co-starring a young Sharon Stone, Rock's health grew worse, and rumours began circulating that he had liver cancer because of his gaunt face and weight loss. By the time he'd secured his swansong role in late 1984 - that of Daniel Reece on blockbuster soap Dynasty - Rock was having trouble remembering his lines (he used cue cards) and his speech was becoming slurred. Rock made his final appearance in the episode Sammy Jo on April 3rd, 1985, the character being hastily written out of the series, dying off-screen, due to Rock's deteriorating appearance.

The path to Rock's demise is paved with sexual liaisons with a wealth of homosexual men. The list of rumoured sexual partners seems open-ended, and Rock's homosexuality was almost exposed in 1955 by Confidential magazine, until his agent managed to silence the publication in favour of outing to other, lesser, Hollywood stars on his books. A marriage to Phyllis Gates, Rock's agent's secretary, probably did little to convince those in the know of his true leanings, and indeed the marriage only lasted three years, with Gates citing "mental cruelty" in divorce proceedings uncontested by Rock. The men Rock is said to have had relationships with include author Armistead Maupin (of Tales of the City fame), Jack Coates, Tom Clark, Marc Christian, Lee Garlington and singer Jim Nabors.

Rock as he appeared in Doris
Day's Best Friends in July
1985, aged 59
On Tuesday, July 16th, 1985 Rock joined his old friend Doris Day at a press conference to launch her new TV show Doris Day's Best Friends. Rock looked so ill - gaunt and with incoherent speech - that the footage was all over the national news for days afterwards, and his health became a topic of public concern. On July 18th Rock flew to Paris, France for treatment with the anti-viral drug HPA-23 (then unavailable in the US), but on July 21st, he collapsed in his bedroom at the Ritz Hotel, forcing his publicist to announce that the actor was suffering from inoperable liver cancer. Any suggestion that Rock had AIDS was hotly denied.

But the denial did not last long. On Thursday, July 25th, it was announced that Rock did indeed have AIDS and that he'd been diagnosed over a year ago. In a press conference held in August 1985, Rock suggested he'd contracted the virus from various blood transfusions he'd had during his heart bypass in November 1981 - the year HIV was first identified.

Rock flew back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 30th, 1985, by private chartered jet carrying just him and his entourage and medical staff (incidentally, having to pay the airline $250,000 for the pleasure due to prejudice surrounding AIDS at the time). Too weak to walk himself, he was taken off the Air France flight by stretcher, and flown by helicopter to the UCLA Medical Centre, where he spent several weeks undergoing further treatment. He was released from hospital in late August 1985, to return home to Beverly Hills.

How the National Enquirer
reported Rock's AIDS diagnosis
Rock died in his sleep of AIDS-related complications on October 2nd, 1985, six weeks before his 60th birthday. He had requested that no funeral be held, and his body was cremated hours after his death. A memorial was later established at Forest Lawn cemetery in California.

Rock's diagnosis lifted the lid on AIDS and HIV and made it a talking point across the United States and the world. Within weeks of his death, $1.8m had been made in private contributions to AIDS research and treatment - that was more than double the amount raised in 1984. The US Congress set aside $221m to help develop a cure for AIDS, and shortly before his death, Rock himself had donated $225,000 to the cause. HIV specialist Dr Michael Gottlieb called Rock Hudson the "single most influential [AIDS] patient ever".

While all of this good came out of Rock's tragic death, there was still controversy, most memorably over a screen kiss he had with Dynasty co-star Linda Evans, screened in February 1985. At the time of filming Rock knew he had AIDS but did not tell Evans, and some believed he should have disclosed this information to her prior to filming. Although AIDS cannot be contracted through saliva, this wasn't an established fact in 1984, and ripples were sent through the acting industry. The Screen Actors' Guild made it a rule that all actors were informed in advance of any open-mouthed kissing in scripts, and there were stories of some scripts being rewritten to eliminate kissing scenes. Linda Evans herself never showed any anger or disappointment with Rock, however.

Rock with lover Marc Christian, who
later sued the actor's estate for
"intentional infliction of emotional
distress". He won $5.5m
But screen kisses were small fry compared to what the grieving Rock Hudson Estate had to face from the actor's former lover Marc Christian, who launched a lawsuit against them on the grounds of "intentional infliction of emotional distress". He claimed Rock had continued to have sexual intercourse with him until February 1985, in the full knowledge he had HIV. Christian repeatedly tested negative for HIV but claimed he was emotionally damaged. He also launched a $10m lawsuit against Rock's personal secretary for apparently lying to him about whether Rock had the virus. In 1989 Marc Christian was awarded $21.75m in damages - later much reduced to $5.5m. He died of heart problems caused by years of heavy smoking in 2009, after which Christian's partner Brent Beckwith took legal action claiming he had not received the expected share of his late lover's estate.

Here's an interview with Rock with the British chat show host Terry Wogan from September 1984, three months after his HIV diagnosis. Rock's a little prickly at times, though still charming, but there are moments where his memory is obviously failing him (in reference to 1953's Sea Devils), which he covers up with humour. Asked how he manages to remain anonymous when on his travels, he reveals he simply "walks quickly"...!

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