Why I had to out Rock Hudson as gay

Rock Hudson with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the film Giant in 1956
Rock Hudson with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the film Giant in 1956 - Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
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Thirty-eight years ago, Rock Hudson announced to the world that he had Aids, becoming easily the most famous person (pre Freddie Mercury) to succumb and go public. Admitting his homosexuality was another matter, and one taken out of his hands before Hudson’s untimely death at 59. As the new documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed explains, the gay writer Armistead Maupin gave an interview to People magazine outing Hudson in the last weeks of his life, for reasons Maupin continues to defend to this day.

“I knew what I was doing,” the now 79-year-old author tells me over Zoom. “I was doing it for several reasons – one was to ease Rock’s pain and get him out of that terrible lying cycle. But also, I was aware of all of my friends who had died of Aids and not made a secret of it. They had been brave.”

While it shocked much of the world that this paragon of red-blooded masculinity had been secretly gay all along, it would be fair to say that no one in Hollywood – and almost no one gay in America – was taken aback. In the earliest days of his career, the man born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr was sculpted into Rock Hudson by the notorious publicity agent Henry Willson, who spearheaded the 1950s “beefcake” craze with many of the clients on his roster, including Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue and Robert Wagner.

Willson also took it upon himself to protect Hudson, his prize asset, from the prying speculation of glamour magazines and tabloids – but hardly in a way anyone would consider principled. In 1955 Life magazine dubbed Hudson “Hollywood’s most handsome bachelor”, reporting in the same piece that “fans are urging 29-year-old Hudson to get married… or explain why not”.

When Confidential threatened to publish a subsequent exposé, Willson fended them off, but only by throwing two other clients under a bus instead. A marriage was then hastily arranged with Phyllis Gates – Willson’s secretary – which lasted a mere three years. Extraordinarily, she claimed not to know Hudson was gay: evidence perhaps that his acting ability was even more underrated than we now tend to think.

Hudson with Phyllis Gates on their wedding day in 1955
Hudson with Phyllis Gates on their wedding day in 1955 - Bettmann

Hudson’s all-American looks made him a hugely valuable Hollywood commodity through the 1950s and 1960s. He was unpretentious enough – or relaxed enough, perhaps – to take on romantic melodramas that many of his Method-obsessed peers would have thumbed their noses at.

The nine such films he would make with Douglas Sirk, including the back-to-back Jane Wyman pairings Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), did rely quite cannily at times on a certain shadow of unease beneath his squeaky-clean image. Not so the three romcoms he would make with Doris Day, which cashed in more boisterously on his rugged charm.

Maupin, a celebrated chronicler of San Francisco’s gay scene, was 32 when he met Hudson, after being taken by a friend to see him on stage in San Bernardino. “We were all lined up outside his dressing room, waiting to go in,” he tells me. “When we finally did, I shook his hand, and the lights went out. And I said, ‘well, this is certainly the opportunity of a lifetime!’.”

Rock Hudson and Doris Day relax on set of the film Pillow Talk, 1959
Rock Hudson and Doris Day on the set of the film Pillow Talk, 1959 - Universal/Getty Images

Hudson invited this throng back to his hotel, and it transpired that he had obtained a copy of Maupin’s first column in the San Francisco Chronicle – later to be compiled into his Tales of the City series. “He got up and did this reading, slightly drunk, but in front of a lot of my friends. It was not very good, but it was intended to charm the pants off me. And it sort of did, that night. I was invited back to his suite.”

Stephen Kijak’s documentary relates how Maupin’s performance anxiety (“I felt like Doris Day!”) put paid to anything being consummated that night, but the two did stay in touch. “I think he was kind of intrigued by me,” Maupin explains, “because I was openly gay, at a time when nobody was, including him. He sort of flirted, not so much with me, but with the idea of someone who was out of the closet and happy about it.”

Over dinner one night with Hudson’s then partner Tom Clark – whom Maupin describes as “a horrible man!” and “raging bitch!” – the subject of coming out came up. “I asked Rock if he had ever thought about writing a book, and telling his version of his life. And he was fascinated by the idea – but his partner stepped in and said, ‘not until my mother dies’. It was clear to me that Tom controlled everything, and didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

By Maupin’s own admission, he would never have imagined being the literal conduit of Hudson’s sexuality being revealed to the world a decade later. There was the danger of this news being negatively sensationalised in the press, “but People was very cool about it. It was the first civilised thing they ever wrote about a gay actor.” Even so, the whistleblowing writer was accused at the time of being a traitor, and found himself subject to clucking tongues in the Castro, and a tearful phone call from Hudson’s ex-lover Jack Coates, who had first introduced them.

Outing Hudson “was the only thing that could be done at that point,” Maupin levels. “He had Aids. Was I supposed to say he wasn’t gay, that he got it from a toilet seat?! It was hard on me, and briefly, hard on Rock. But when 35,000 letters showed up at the hospital, he got a notion for the very first time of how people loved him – not the fake Hollywood dreamboat, but the real guy.”

While Maupin accepts that there has been “dramatic” progress in Hollywood’s comfort levels with homosexuality, and that he’s “heartened by how far we’ve come as a culture”, his attitude isn’t free of cynicism. “There are forms of deceit still, mostly having to do with marriage. Having a wife. Some people have had the lie going on so long, with their wives participating in the deceit, that they can’t come out now. Mostly I’m annoyed that the system still goes on like this, and the American public is treated by Hollywood like children that need to be fooled.”

Writer Armistead Maupin gave an interview to People magazine outing Hudson in the last weeks of his life
Writer Armistead Maupin gave an interview to People magazine outing Hudson in the last weeks of his life - San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

A few months before Hudson’s Aids diagnosis, the actor had shot his last ever role, as a special guest for nine episodes on Dynasty. His co-star on the legendary high-gloss soap was Linda Evans – the shoulder-padded Krystle Carrington herself. They knew each other from a decade earlier, because Evans had guested for one episode on Hudson’s long-running cop drama McMillan and Wife. The man she met on that set was an ingratiating prankster: he cracked up the crew one day by pre-arranging with Evans to throw her down on a bed and passionately kiss her when everyone walked in.

This made it all the more confusing for Evans when their big kiss on Dynasty, signalling the start of an affair between their characters, turned out to be such a prudish, closed-mouth affair when they came to shoot it. Hudson was already wasting away at this point – indeed, he knew he had Aids – and in his terror of passing on the disease, he took such precautions with the scene that it convinced no one these two people were in love.

Evans, now 80, makes a vivid contribution to the documentary by explaining all the fuss and hysteria that this kiss – even the sanitised one Hudson gave her – wound up attracting by the time the episode aired.

Rock Hudson and Linda Evans in Dynasty episode 'That Holiday Spirit', which aired in December 1984
Rock Hudson and Linda Evans in Dynasty episode 'That Holiday Spirit', which aired in December 1984 - ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

She elaborates with me by phone from the US. “I wondered, of course, because it was so key to the show, why he made that choice to kiss me that way. I think he was on set with someone, looking back, and I wondered if he was in a relationship with that person – I didn’t know what to do with any of it.”

“He mentioned that he had done some travelling, and he had gotten sick, and was thin from something that he’d got – and that he was doing much better. And then I wondered if he was worried I’d catch whatever he had – never thinking it was Aids. Some virus from Mexico, or something. So I didn’t think much of it. I just wanted him to be comfortable.”

The producers were so dissatisfied by the scene that they went to the unusual expense of reshooting it about a week later.

“Of course,” Evans adds, “the pressure on him was tremendous, to now give me this passionate kiss, and when he did it the exact same way, my heart hurt for him. Because I didn’t understand why – I knew he could do it. Anyone who ever saw him in a movie knew he could do it!”

“When I read what he wrote in his diary about all the mouthwashes he used that day… oh my God.”

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is released on Oct 23 via HBO Max
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is released on Oct 23 via HBO Max - NBC Universal

After Hudson revealed the nature of his illness to the world, Evans was shocked to find that some of the cast and crew on Dynasty refused to be on set with her. “Those people were so cold, so thoughtless. Of course, they tested me, and tested me, and I never had a problem. Because of how caring he was. I was never worried that I had Aids, ever.” Hudson was even accused of being cavalier about her health, of trying to kill her. “It just made me so angry. Because I saw how hard he tried to protect me!”

Hudson was very difficult to contact in his final months, meaning Evans never got the chance to say goodbye. “I certainly wasn’t in his life in such a way that I should have talked to him at that moment, but my heart went out to him. What a hard end of life.”

“He was a beautiful man,” she reflects. “Funny and deep and kind and charming. Every time I saw him I laughed, I felt good. It was just a joy to be with him, and around him – he made people laugh and have fun. The crew totally adored him.”

“He was a delightful human being. And he was light-hearted. When I was with him, it seemed like he was very happy with his life, and living it well.”

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is released digitally on October 23

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