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Hollywood icon Rock Hudson was one of the premier leading men in the 50s and early 60s, though he is perhaps most notable for being the first major U.S. celebrity to die of complications from AIDS.
Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. from Winnetka, Illinois became Rock Hudson in 1947 after sending a picture of himself to talent scout Henry Wilson, who gave the 6-ft, 5-in former truck driver his new screen idol-worthy name. A year later he made his big screen debut, but muddled around in bit parts for years — secured by his good looks — until 1955′s Magnificent Obsession. The following year’s Giant, co-starring fellow queer film icons Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, proved Hudson to be a strong dramatic actor (and earned him an Oscar nomination) while he found even more success in a series of romantic comedies with Doris Day, starting with 1959′s Pillow Talk.
While Hudson was enjoying being the nation’s top box office draw, he and Wilson were busy covering up Hudson’s homosexuality. Though Liz Taylor and other female stars claimed to know that Hudson was gay, it was a well-kept secret in Hollywood, resulting in a sham marriage to Wilson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. Hudson’s dependence on alcohol and smoking worsened, perhaps due to the stress of remaining closeted, and he had a heart attack in 1981, resulting in surgery and five bypasses.
His health continued to decline with his diagnosis of HIV on June 5, 1984. Then, on July 25, 1985, Hudson became the first major public figure to announce he had AIDS. September 19 of that year, Hudson, too sick to attend a special AIDS fundraiser, sent the following telegram:
“I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
Hudson died in his sleep on October 2, 1985. He was 59. Remarking on the late screen idol, Morgan Fairchild said “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.”