On this day in 1985, actor Rock Hudson becomes the first major U.S. celebrity to die of complications from AIDS. Hudson’s death raised public awareness of the epidemic, which until that time had been ignored by many in the mainstream as a “gay plague.”
Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois. During the Great Depression, his father, Roy Sr., lost his job as an auto mechanic and left the family. When Hudson was eight years old, his mother, Katherine Wood, remarried and the young Roy took the surname of his stepfather, Wallace Fitzgerald. Growing up, Roy did not excel academically but had a certain charisma that made him popular among classmates.
After brief service in the Navy at the end of WW2, Roy Fitzgerald moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting.He found work as a truck driver but spent his spare time idling outside of studio gates and sending photographs of himself to various producers. In 1947 talent scout Henry Willson took an interest in him and invented a new name for his protégé: Rock Hudson–Rock for the Rock of Gibraltar and Hudson for the Hudson River. The world would never see Roy Fitzgerald again.
Hudson made his acting debut with a small part in the 1948 Warner Bros. film Fighter Squadron; clearly lacking any formal training, it required 38 takes for the newly-minted Hudson to successfully deliver his only line in the picture. Undaunted, Hudson doggedly pursued his career, and soon enough numerous film magazines declared Hudson Star of the Year, Favorite Leading Man, and similar titles.
At Universal, Hudson graduated from bit parts to larger roles in a succession of westerns and adventure films, and he completed some 28 pictures in six years. He went on to play sympathetic protagonists in several Douglas Sirk-directed melodramas and stylized “women’s pictures,” including Magnificent Obsession. In 1956 Hudson scored his opus, playing opposite James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in the critically-acclaimed George Stevens epic Giant.
During the 1960’s Hudson moved away from sentimentality and melodrama to play the series of roles for which he is best known. Paired with Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964), Hudson proved that he had a significant talent for light comedy. As his film work became sparse, Hudson found stage work, then triumphantly turned to the small screen, starring in the popular television series McMillan and Wife from 1971 to 1975.
All told, Hudson appeared in nearly 70 films and starred in several television productions during a career that spanned more than four decades. In 1956 he had been nominated for an Oscar for his role in Giant.
He was 59.