PHOTOS: Today In 1985, Screen Legend Rock Hudson Died From AIDS

 October is LGBT History Month and to celebrate, Queerty’s gaying up each day with our 31 Days of Queerstory.

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.”

Get Queerty Daily

Subscribe to Queerty for a daily dose of #31daysofqueerstory #aids #hiv stories and more


  • Ann Mason

    One of the most important things we should remember about Rock Hudson’s illness and death is that he was a private person who did not freely make the choice to out himself.

    At the time, some people criticized Mr. Hudson for his attempt to keep his personal life and health problems confidential. That was a mistake. Although the announcement that he was ill with AIDS helped to remove some of the stigma of the illness, there was a predator mentality involved in pressuring him to go public with it. The predator in question wasn’t an individual person, but public curiosity and at least a few persons who stood to benefit in some way.

    People who understood how important it was to get the general public — and President Reagan — talking about AIDS overlooked the way boundaries were ignored with Mr. Hudson. The so-called authorized biography aired dirty laundry and became a bestselling trashy read while raising money for AIDS research. People who were identified as longtime friends were quoted as giving the author very unflattering details of Mr. Hudson’s alcoholism, all for a “higher purpose”.

    I heard very little debate on the ethics involved in the way this celebrity outing was handled. The biography quoted someone as saying Mr. Hudson lacked the mental capacity to make changes in his will when his condition was made public. In an over-the-top contradiction, the author, Sara Davidson, included an assurance that Mr. Hudson did indeed have the cognitive skills to authorize a book about his life — during that same time period.

    We can have pleasant memories of the way Rock Hudson’s fate helped the effort to deal with an epidemic, but if we have real empathy we should also acknowledge this was all at the expense of one person who valued privacy.

  • Katbox

    No one should be outed unless they make anti-gay statements.

  • kevininbuffalo

    I remember that well before Hudson was outed people made Gay jokes about him. It may have been the worse kept secret in Hollywood.

  • scotshot

    @Ann Mason: Hudson may well have been the (reluctant) face of AIDS, but Elizabeth Taylor was the voice of AIDS. She brought the disease into the mainstream and made it acceptable for anyone in the Hollywood community and the rest of the world to be involved in fundraising and to work with people who had AIDS. She worked tirelessly the rest of her life through the founding of AMFAR and the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. The amount of support she marshalled is breathtaking.

    There are thousands who also deserve kudos for their effort, of course. My intent is not to ignore them.

  • Ann Mason

    @scotshot: I agree that Elizabeth Taylor’s work was admirable. She also behaved graciously when speaking about Mr. Hudson. She proved to be a loyal friend as well as a responsible advocate for AIDS research. If enough people had been as sincere as Ms. Taylor, Mr. Hudson’s crisis might have been handled better.

    In interviews, Elizabeth Taylor spoke about how she worked to achieve a sense of balance as part of her addiction rehab effort. She talked about moderation and introspection. It’s likely that worked to her advantage when she had to make delicate judgment calls with AIDS activism.

    Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor’s reputation was trashed for years because the Hollywood gossip media were quick to feed on her personal problems. It made money for writers like Kitty Kelly, who pandered to the public’s voyeurism.

    When Ms. Taylor developed perspective on her personal and public issues, her past experience may have served her well. I have no memory of her saying anything which contributed to the hateful media circus which surrounded Rock Hudson’s illness and death.

  • Ann Mason

    @kevininbuffalo: The same could be said of Liberace. Although the media mess surrounding Liberace’s death wasn’t identical to what happened to Rock Hudson, the same human elements were at it again.

    If Shirley Jackson had still been alive, she could have written a classic horror story about the human ugliness behind the public reaction and media coverage of those tragedies. On second thought, maybe she wouldn’t have to. Her story titled “The Lottery” said it all.

  • Bob LaBlah

    I remember all too well where I was when the announcement of his death aired (in a bathhouse in downtown L.A.). When I think back to all the friends who were talking about his death in the West Hollywood bars and bathhouses who are no longer here it makes me teary eyed. No one wanted to believe it could happen to them until they went to the funeral of someone they loved whom they knew were no longer coming back.

    RIP Rock. You were a pioneer for all who didn’t believe there really was a plague in the community that was not being taken serious.

  • LadyL

    @Ann Mason: Really? So public fascination with Rock Hudson’s life and curiousity about his illness (not to mention those mean LGBT activists agitating for queer celebs to come out) are the bad guys here? That’s your takeaway from the tragedy of Hudson’s AIDS illness and early death–that everybody found out their idol was gay??
    It’s worth remembering, Ann, that the very same public scrutiny that became such a trial for Mr. Hudson (and Liberace, et al) when he fell ill also gave him his stardom and wealth in the first place. And furthermore he knew it. Even with his open secret, Rock Hudson knew that when you’re famous, you don’t get to turn press and public scrutiny on and off like a faucet as it suits you. Celebrity is a double-edged sword, the price of the ticket. That’s Fame 101.
    When Rock Hudson started to get sick, when AIDS really began to ravage him, it showed. He looked ghastly. He seemed frail. What was supposed to happen next? Was everyone really expected to keep up the charade, pretend not to notice and not ask any questions, all to protect Mr. Movie Star’s non-existent privacy (read: his Big Secret)?
    Everyone was scared. Okay? I don’t know how old you are, but I am old enough to remember–people were dying. In increasingly frightening numbers. And were being ALLOWED to die, shunned and discarded by family, employers, landlords. The funerals of friends were actually becoming regular events.
    Meanwhile our government leaders were either pointedly ignoring what was happening, refusing to acknowledge the crisis–or demonizing those who got sick. Some of those leaders were doing this to protect their own closets, despicable behavior that continues to this day.
    Violence against LGBT people, particularly gay men, began to ramp up as ignorant homophobes–a disturbing number of them conflicted closet cases projecting their own self-hatred–began to get the message that queers were disposable, disease-spreading perverts who deserved whatever bad things happened to them.
    Yes, people got angry. In the face of this growing disaster people began to get very angry and very loud, and things started to get rough for the closeted famous long used to being protected and shielded from unpleasantness. The culture had changed because so many people–the vast majority of them ordinary people who had no publicists and bodyguards to protect them–were dying.
    It was starting to be understood that maybe it was time for some of those celebrity gays, including the ones who were getting sick, especially the ones who were getting sick, to stop hiding and stand up to be counted. Those angry activists were realizing that more than anything else, VISIBILITY would change the conversation about LGBT people and those stricken with AIDS, force governments finally to act, and perhaps save lives, including the lives of young suicides whose tormentors apparently didn’t know that popular and famous people like Rock Hudson were also gay.
    I’m sorry Rock Hudson got sick and his life was cut cruelly short by AIDS. But I have little respect for these “boundaries” that seem so important to you. It was that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell mentality, and the years of ignorance, hatred and self-loathing it spawned, that victimized people like Rock Hudson to begin with.

  • Ann Mason

    @LadyL: Until now, the comments in this thread were respectful of others’ views.

    We can disagree, but there’s no need for accusations. I lost many people I cared about from the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I also lost a relative. The way scandal was stirred up over Rock Hudson’s illness was upsetting to me partly because it was driven by a cheap media goal of treating gay men as freaks. Although in the end Mr. Hudson’s illness increased AIDS awareness, that wasn’t the priority among many of the media outlets. Their priority was to entertain readers/viewers with sensational gossip. The sensational gossip was concentrated in a biography which made the dubious claim of being authorized.

    The fact that a person is famous is no excuse to be irresponsible with that person. Many people who called themselves journalists behaved irresponsibly with Rock Hudson, and it could have been as disastrous for the fight against AIDS as it was for Mr. Hudson’s reputation.

  • breslowilario

    my buddy’s ex-wife makes *67 hourly on the laptop. She has been without work for five months but last month her pay was *13537 just working on the laptop for a few hours. More about the author…….

  • Hal-James Pederson

    We were 36 years old , and watching our friends die. You can’t imagine what it was like. 9/11 was fast. This moved so terribly slowly, and there was no stopping it. Washington loved it, including Reagan.

  • John Malin

    He was a true legend! RIP Rock, hugs!!!

  • Steven Shelton

    I got to see Rock Hudson in a bar i was working at, not to long after that he was gone

  • Nick Marriott

    He could have rested his balls on my chin,any day!!

  • Will Glitzern

    I was 19 when he died. I just remember how surprising it was that he was gay, and how his death really helped change things. At least we can still see him anytime we want to.

  • Douglas Schlitz

    Wow 30 years, unbelievable how time passes so fast!

  • Alex Ayala

    I was just thinking about him today.

Comments are closed.