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Rock Hudson’s Courage Paved the Way for Stars Suffering with HIV

When Rock Hudson, who would have been 90 Tuesday, acknowledged in 1985 that he was suffering from AIDS, his publicist Dale Olson told the press that “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.”

He did. His confirmation, following a report by Variety‘s Army Archerd, helped elevate the urgency of the epidemic, even if it didn’t immediately end some of the hysteria and stigma surrounding AIDS. What it did do is usher in a greater focus on fundraising for AIDS charities and government funding for research.

And on Tuesday, right on Hudson’s would-be birthday, Charlie Sheen revealed in an interview with “Today” that he is HIV positive.

People magazine said in August 1985: “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. ‘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.'”

Three decades after his death, Hudson’s revelation shouldn’t overshadow a career that made him a film icon.

Roy Harold Scherer Jr. always hated the name Rock Hudson, given to him by talent scout Henry Willson.

Roy’s mother was a telephone operator, and his auto mechanic father abandoned the family during the Depression. His stepfather adopted him and changed his surname to Fitzgerald. Roy Fitzgerald was an aircraft mechanic during WWII, immediately after which he moved to L.A. in an attempt to get an acting career going. He was a truck driver for quite a while. Poor grades kept him out of USC’s dramatics program, and on his first film, 1948’s “Fighter Squadron,” it took him 38 takes before he was able to deliver a line correctly.

Flash forward just exactly a decade: In the Golden Laurels, awards voted on by American and Canadian film buyers, the actor was named the top male star in 1958 — and then again in 1959 1960, 1962 and 1963.

The actor had appeared in supporting roles, mostly in Westerns, until Douglas Sirk chose him to star in what would become the director’s classic 1954 melodrama “Magnificent Obsession” opposite Jane Wyman. He played a playboy who undergoes a spiritual experience in which he learns of the need for charitable endeavors, becomes a brain surgeon and restores the eyesight of the woman he indirectly blinded (played by Wyman). According to an essay for the Criterion Collection by Geoffrey O’Brien, the film “firmly certified Rock Hudson as the resident dreamboat of the American cinema,” and “The ease and sincerity of Hudson’s performance help greatly in anchoring the proceedings in some kind of almost-real world.”

Hudson worked with Sirk — and Wyman — again the next year in “All That Heaven Allows” (essentially remade by Todd Haynes as “Far From Heaven” in 2002), and 1956 brought director George Stevens’ epic “Giant,” in which Hudson starred as a stubborn Texas cattle baron who’s married to Elizabeth Taylor while James Dean is drilling for oil. No one could even try to make the argument that Hudson was just a pretty face anymore — he carried a picture that was more than three hours long and picked up an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

In coming years he would begin an on-screen partnership with Doris Day, with whom he made a series of romantic comedies in the early 1960s. It was video of the actor visiting Day at her ranch in Carmel, Calif., to tape an episode of a talk show she was hosting, in July 1985 that kicked off speculation over whether he was ill.

Of course, even in the best years of his career, in the late 1950s, Hudson had to fear exposure as a homosexual, and while much has changed thanks in part to him, and many celebrities have come out, one thing hasn’t changed: Romantic leads, like Hudson once was, still fear for their career if they come out. It may take several more Rock Hudsons — romantic leads willing to risk it all by coming out — before that can finally change.

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