When Rock Hudson died in his sleep at his Beverly Hills home last week, he left a legacy of compassion that may outlast his achievements as an actor. The first celebrity known to have succumbed to AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the Hollywood star became a symbol of courage for those fighting the deadly disease, which has claimed about 7,000 lives in the United States and 160 in Canada. When an emaciated Hudson disclosed his condition while seeking treatment in Paris last July, he enlightened public attitudes toward AIDS. And last month he inspired a group of Hollywood actors led by Elizabeth Taylor to stage a benefit dinner which raised $1 million for AIDS research. Although Hudson was too sick to attend, he prepared a message: “I can at least know that my misfortune has had some positive worth.” Minutes after the 59-yearold actor died last week, Taylor said: “I love him, and he’s tragically gone. Please God he has not died in vain.” Hudson, who epitomized the clean-cut American male, was stricken by an illness that ravaged his handsome features and shattered his popular image. And with the reports of his illness came the inevitable public exposure of his homosexuality. Still, despite a storm of ensuing gossip, Hudson emerged as a heroic figure during his final days by making himself a rallying point in the battle against AIDS. He set up the Rock Hudson Foundation to attract funds for research into the fatal illness and donated $250,000 to the cause. Said actress Linda Evans, who costarred with him on television’s Dynasty: “As fine an actor as Rock Hudson was, I feel his greatest gift to the world was in his acknowledgment of his disease and his willingness to educate people and raise their consciousness.”
Hudson was one of the last male movie stars to be manufactured by the Hollywood studios. Born Roy Scherer Jr. in Winnetka, 111., he served as a navy airplane mechanic in the Second World War and later became a truck driver. Dreaming of stardom, he began lingering outside the gates of Hollywood studios hoping to be noticed. Eventually, an agent, Henry Willson,
discovered the young man and groomed him for the screen. Willson had him change his name and cap his teeth and put his six-foot, four-inch frame through a rigorous training program which included weightlifting, dancing, acting, singing, fencing and riding.
Hired for his looks, Hudson was not a natural actor. In his first movie, Fighter Squadron (1948), he required 38 takes to deliver a single line. But over the course of his career, which spanned 62 films, his talent matured. He became a full-fledged star during the 1950s, when director Douglas Sirk cast him in a series of brooding melodramas. In the first, Magnificent Obsession (1954), he starred oppo| site Jane Wyman as a o drunken playboy who
blinds a woman in a car accident and becomes a surgeon in order to restore her eyesight. Although Hudson rarely won critical praise for his acting, he received an Oscar nomination in 1956 for his role as a cattle rancher in Giant, whose cast included James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. That same year theatre owners voted him America’s favorite male movie star. U.S. film critic Richard Schickel described him as “an everyman who was also a nobody—a kind of generalized dream American.”
Hudson’s popularity peaked with his roles as Doris Day’s lover in a string of light comedies. Although the coy moralism of those movies—Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964)—now seems dated, Hudson’s comic timing was slippery-smooth. And as an onscreen couple, Day and Hudson became symbols of romantic innocence in a culture that was quickly coming of age. During the 1970s Hudson switched to television and starred for six seasons as a police commissioner with Susan St. James in McMillan and Wife. In 1980 he made his final feature film, The Mirror Crack’d, with Elizabeth Taylor, adapted from an Agatha Christie mystery.
By the time he appeared in 10 episodes of Dynasty last season, he already looked gaunt from the encroaching effects of AIDS. Hudson had always been obsessive about physical fitness. After his death Doris Day said: “I can’t believe it. All those years of working with him, I saw him as big, healthy and indestructible.”
Hudson was well-liked in Hollywood, but extremely private. His only marriage, to secretary Phyllis Gates, ended in divorce in 1958 after only three years. He lived alone in a Hollywood mansion that housed more than 4,000 books and a huge collection of antiques. Once asked if he would relive his life any differently, Hudson declared: “No, everything would stay the same. However, if I had not chosen acting, I would have become a gardener. I love to watch things grow and bloom.” Although the film industry had cultivated Hudson as a male sex symbol, he projected sensitivity rather than machismo. In the end, he handled his own fatal misfortune with a heroism surpassing anything that Hollywood could invent for him.
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