In 1985, the rapid HIV-related decline of Hollywood icon Rock Hudson changed popular opinion about the epidemic. Thirty years later, it’s hard to say whether Hollywood has really changed when it comes to the disease: It’s rarely spoken of, it’s all but impossible to name a working actor or director with HIV and all the red carpet celebs seem to have put away their red ribbons ages ago.
But even still, Rock Hudson had an undeniable effect on the national conversation surrounding HIV.
In the summer of 1985, the world was shaken unexpectedly by the premiere of a TV show that made national headlines. Christian cable network CBN debuted Doris Day’s Best Friends, a family-friendly talk show about celebrities and their pets, and the show’s very first guest was Day’s old friend and co-star, 1950s heartthrob Rock Hudson.
It became immediately clear to viewers that Hudson was in bad decline. At the age of 59, the formerly strapping, 6’5” actor was visibly ill. Although he didn’t say it, he was dying of AIDS, and middle-America suddenly realized their butch movie hero with the sexy baritone voice was a gay man all along.
Let’s back up a few decades. Rock Hudson got discovered in the early ’50s by well-known gay talent agent Henry Willson, a man renowned for cruising gay clubs and, according to Anne Helen Petersen at The Hairpin, for “picking up the most handsome, square-jawed, Captain America-type specimens for uses both personal and professional.”
The men Willson found were given new backstories and new names that didn’t sound all that different from those bestowed upon today’s gay adult film performers: Chad Everett, Rand Saxon, Chance Gentry and Clint Walker, just to name a few. Willson also discovered Troy Donaghue, Tab Hunter and Guy Madison, all of whom were all-American, young, handsome … and totally gay.
Rock Hudson starred in some of the decade’s biggest films, including the two biggest Texas oil dramas of 1956: the campy, wonderful Written on the Wind and the big-budget epic Giant, where he shared the screen with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Later in the decade, he’d reinvent himself as the debonair star of romantic comedies. Women were just crazy about him.
In 1959, Life magazine declared Rock Hudson “Hollywood’s Most Handsome Bachelor,” though even then rumors were circulating about his sexuality. Willson actually sold out Tab Hunter to the tabloids in exchange for keeping Hudson’s secret under wraps.
Shortly after Hudson became the first big-name public figure to admit to having HIV, Life ran a cover story with the headline “Now No One Is Safe.”
In 1985 there were all kinds of terrible ideas being thrown around to “solve” the epidemic, from tattooing HIV-positive people to quarantining everyone with the virus. Hudson’s former Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor became an active supporter of AIDS charities, channeling time and lots of money into research for a cure.
Hudson died a few months after his appearance on Doris Day’s Best Friends, just shy of his 60th birthday.
That was now 34 years ago.
A number of celebrities acknowledged their HIV diagnoses after Hudson. Basketball player Magic Johnson and tennis star Arthur Ashe both came out as HIV-positive, though neither of them was gay. Years later, the family of science writer Isaac Asimov would reveal that he too died of AIDS-related kidney failure, but again he was a straight man who got HIV from an infected blood transfusion.
Since the mid-’90s, many people have been able to lead normal, healthy lives with HIV. In 2015, Charlie Sheen revealed his HIV-positive status, as did former child star Danny Pintauro, but it seems they’re anomalies. Most celebrities with HIV may never feel compelled to disclose they have it. That’s their personal business, but it also reinforces the idea that Hollywood can go on as it once did, pretending that HIV doesn’t exist.
Can you believe it’s been 34 years since we lost Rock Hudson?
This story was previously published on Dec. 16, 2015