What Happened to Rock Hudson, Featured In Netflix's 'Hollywood'?

Rock Hudson, portrayed by Jim Picking in Netflix and Ryan Murphy's 'Hollywood,' had to hide the fact he was gay for much of his life.

rock hudson movie photo, original caption a scene from the movie, this earth is mine, a powerful drama of a california wine dynasty, starring rock hudson, who plays a rugged, rebellious, illegitimate son of a welthy wine producing family undated photo circa 1959
(Image credit: Silver Screen Collection)

In case you missed it, Ryan Murphy's latest project for Netflix is Hollywood, a love letter to Tinseltown/an alternative history in which the race, sex, and gender biases inherent in the industry are tackled head-on instead of suppressed. One of the key figures in this historical retelling is Rock Hudson (played by Jim Picking, who'll also be in Top Gun: Maverick and is a dead ringer for the real-life Hudson). Hudson was a bonafide heartthrob, in the era during which films were based around star power. He was Oscar-nominated and celebrated, although not as lauded as a "serious" actor as much as other contemporaries. He was secretly gay and hid his sexuality for the majority of his life for fear that his career would be over if he admitted who he truly was. It's anticipated that Murphy will make Hudson's story an important part of the show—so here's the real life context behind the fictional story.

Hudson was a huge Hollywood star.

Born Roy Scherer Jr., then Roy Fitzgerald (taking his stepfather's name), Hudson was originally from Winnetka, Illinois and served in the Navy in the 1940s. He moved to Hollywood afterwards and became Rock Hudson when he met his agent Henry Willson—portrayed by Jim Parsons on the show. Willson was in the closet himself and reportedly abusive, trading "favors" for access; Presumably this will be something that's talked about on the show. Hudson had no formal acting training and required lessons from Warner Brothers.

Hudson got his big break as a lead in Magnificent Obsession (1954). He got to show off his acting chops in Giant (1956) with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean—Hudson received his Oscar nom for the role. He was a huge star through the 1960s thanks to Pillow Talk (1959), which gave him "heartthrob" status. After his movie career stalled, he starred in TV shows like Dynasty in the 1970s and 80s. In the latter role, fans began to notice how frail he was starting to look. 

rock hudson, another shot of the magnificent rock hudson smoking on the beach undated publicity photo

(Image credit: Bettmann)

Hudson was in the closet for most of his life.

Even though his homosexuality was a bit of an open secret in Hollywood, Hudson didn't speak publicly about it. He got married to aspiring actress and Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates in 1955, although the union only lasted three years—it was revealed to be a plot on Willson's part to divert attention to the rumors about Hudson's sexuality. (It wasn't clear whether Gates knew at the time whether he was gay or not.) Hudson had several male partners, but apparently remained fearful of discovery.

Hudson died in 1985 of AIDS after revealing the diagnosis, and his sexuality, earlier that year. Even in the clip below, the bias against HIV/AIDS at the time was pretty clear—the anchor phrases the late-stage illness as "something was wrong with him":

Hudson was the first major celebrity to die of AIDS, and he's credited with raising awareness about this disease and its impacts. It's now considered to be a Hollywood tragedy—both his life in secrecy and his illness. Perhaps in Hollywood he'll get more of a happy ending.

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Katherine J. Igoe

Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.