The Turbulent Life of Golden Age Star: Rock Hudson

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Rock Hudson dominated the silver screen. However, Hudson had a tough journey to the top of Hollywood. For starters, he wasn’t great at memorizing lines which is a huge disadvantage for an aspiring actor. He didn’t have the easiest upbringing either and was hit when he expressed interest in becoming an actor. But perhaps his biggest struggle of all was keeping a deep secret about his sexual orientation.

Rock Hudson Reads

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Through it all, Hudson never gave up. His hard work and determination made him a massive star and Hollywood legend. The actor eventually went on to appear in more than 60 movies before his untimely death.

From his lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Taylor to his feud with James Dean to his family drama and personal tragedies, this is the incredible life of Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson.

His Real Name

Like many other stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Rock Hudson didn’t use his real name. He was welcomed into the world on November 17, 1925, as Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., and took on the hunky stage name when he got into showbiz.

Young Rock Hudson

Young Rock Hudson. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

His mother Katherine was a homemaker and later a telephone operator, and his father Roy Harold senior was an auto mechanic, so they were of hardy working-class stock. But as we will soon see, Young Rock didn’t have an ideal childhood. His father wasn’t the nicest man, and his mother didn’t protect him.

Hudson’s Big Secret

Throughout his entire Hollywood career, Hudson struggled with a huge secret: He was gay. Reportedly, many of his producers and co-stars were aware of his sexuality, but the public had no idea, partly thanks to his many handlers who suppressed the information in the newspapers.

Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale Starring in Film

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Times have definitely changed for the better, but this is Old Hollywood we’re talking about. Being openly gay wasn’t nearly as accepted as it is now. So, Hudson had to go to very disturbing lengths to keep his sexuality hidden. We’ll get into all the details later.

Drinking Buddies With Elizabeth Taylor

Hudson’s most famous role was, without a doubt, in the 1956 classic Giant, alongside fellow Hollywood heartthrob James Dean and screen siren Elizabeth Taylor. The film remains infamous to this day. Perhaps because it was one of Dean’s last starring roles before he tragically died in a car crash before the movie was even finished, but that wasn’t the only scandal on set.

Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor

Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. Photo by Robin Platzer/Images/Getty Images

Hudson and Taylor got along really well… maybe a little too well. Hudson personally hand-picked Elizabeth Taylor to be in the movie over Grace Kelly, and the two apparently spend the whole shoot living it up: drinking chocolate vodka’s martinis together until the crack of dawn. But Hudson and Dean were a whole other story.

Rock Hudson and James Dean Had a Disturbing Rivalry…

Reportedly, Dean was an absolute terror on the set of Giant, and he directed most of his rage at Hudson. He didn’t like the fact that he received a smaller paycheck than Hudson, so he resorted to marking his territory and cruelly insulting the sensitive actor. But that wasn’t even the worst part.

James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson

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Dean, who was heterosexual, hated the fact that Hudson was pretending to be straight. He called his co-star “queer” and a “fairy” on several different occasions. He also accused the gay actor of coming on to him. But Dean quickly came up with the meanest taunt he could think of: He reportedly tackled Hudson one day and French-kissed him.

Baby Daddy

When he was a young man, Hudson briefly joined the army, and evidence suggests that while serving, he fathered at least one child. A woman named Susan Dent emerged in 2014, claiming to be Rock Hudson’s long-lost daughter.

Rock Hudson Posing in Early War Uniform

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But oh, it gets juicier. Other sources reported that he knocked up two women at the same time and actually had two daughters. This was Hudson’s first scandal but certainly not his last. Needless to say, he wasn’t really involved in their lives and didn’t have any kids with his future wife (which we’ll get to).

Daddy Dearest

The Scherer family fell on some incredibly hard times during the Great Depression. Roy Sr. lost his job as a car mechanic. When this crisis happened, Hudson’s dear old dad put him through even more torment. Roy Sr. abandoned his family before Hudson turned four, and sadly, the worst was yet to come.

Rock Hudson During the Prohibition era

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Hudson’s mother remarried a man named Wallace Fitzgerald in 1932. He was a strict, retired Marine officer. Hudson despised his stepfather, and for a very good reason. Fitzgerald was not only domineering but forcefully adopted the child without his consent, making him “Roy Fitzgerald” against his will.

He Had a Messed-Up Family Life

Since he was a youngster, Hudson learned some cold, hard lessons. When he told his stepfather that he wanted to be an actor, he physically hit little Hudson. One of Hudson’s biographers explained that after this incident (and other similar ones), “he learned that you could talk about pretty much anything – except what you truly felt.”

Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson On Location/Fans

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Hudson first broke into the world of acting when he worked as an usher in a theatre and had huge dreams of being on the big screen himself. He auditioned for some school plays but was always disappointed. It was difficult for him to remember his lines, so he didn’t land any roles. This fatal flaw would come back to haunt him.

He Wasn’t Always a Heartthrob

Hudson’s acting debut came in the 1948 film Fighter Squadron. He had a small part with only one line to remember. Unfortunately, it was a disaster for everyone involved. His inability to remember lines surfaced and the nervous acter needed 28 takes to say his one line.

Rock Hudson and Walter Reed in Fighter Squadron (1948)

Rock Hudson and Walter Reed in Fighter Squadron (1948). Source: IMDB

When he was in high school, Hudson was not the hunk of a man we remember him as today. He spent most of his teenage years delivering newspapers and performing in his local glee club. The people who knew him back then described him as a quiet boy, and even when he was famous, he was called “a pathologically shy man.”

Hard Work and Perseverance

For much of his young adult life, poor Rock couldn’t catch a break. While trying to pursue his Hollywood career, he took on a bunch of odd jobs to pay the bills, including driving a truck. Later, when he applied to the University of Southern California to study drama, he was rejected because of his low grades.

Rock Hudson with Lauren Bacall and Rhonda Fleming

Rock Hudson with Lauren Bacall and Rhonda Fleming. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

But Hudson was so desperate to become a star, and he went to great lengths for Hollywood to notice him: He capped his teeth, took acting lessons, and apparently had his voice surgically lowered. The intense side effect was that it took away his decent singing voice, so Hudson avoided most musicals throughout his career.

His Lucky Break

Hudson never gave up on his dreams and aspirations. His hard work finally paid off when he got a lucky break. He sent around some shots of his square-jawed face, and they made their way to talent scout Henry Willson. Willson took young Roy Fitzgerald under his wing, but it ended up costing Hudson.

Rock Hudson and his dogs

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It has been reported that Willson took advantage of the naïve boy. As actor Tony Curtis later described it: “Everybody who went with him had to sexually express himself to Henry, I’m putting it nicely.” Others have said that Willson purposely blackmailed him about his sexuality to have something over him.

He Hated His Stage Name

As soon as Willson met young Roy, he changed his name to Rock Hudson. The macho name was a combination of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River to create an adventurous, masculine hero. There was one little problem: Hudson hated the name. But he didn’t say a word and went by Rock Hudson for his entire career.

Promotional portrait of actor Rock Hudson, as he appears in the movie 'Horizons West,'

Rock Hudson in ‘Horizons West’. Photo by Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

As Hudson was climbing up the Hollywood ladder, he gained a reputation as the go-to man when it came to adventure B-movies. In the early 1950s, Hudson worked on Westerns such as The Lawless Breed and Horizons West. It was a good amount of work for someone who had trouble memorizing his lines, but his big break was about to come.

Getting Famous Overnight

Hudson became a sensation in 1954. After his performance in the romantic drama Magnificent Obsession, pretty much everyone with a pair of eyes became, well… obsessed with him. The film was a smash hit at the box office, and a magazine named him the most popular actor of 1954. His Hollywood dreams were coming true, but there were more struggles ahead.

Rock Hudson And Jane Wyman

Rock Hudson And Jane Wyman. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

On the set of Magnificent Obsession, Hudson was so nervous that he kept forgetting his lines while acting opposite Jane Wyman. Hudson made scenes go for 30, sometimes 40 takes. Wyman had an unforgettable reaction to her leading man.

He Was Grateful for Her

Even though Wyman also had to do retakes every time Hudson messed up, she never got frustrated with him or made him feel bad. Hudson always remembered her kindness and was forever grateful to his co-star.

Movie Star Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson

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Years later, Hudson saw Wyman at a party. He went over to her and said, “You were nice to me when you didn’t have to be, and I want you to know that I thank you and love you for it.” I guess sometimes this cruel world isn’t such a bad place to live in. Faith in humanity restored!

His Marriage Was a Charade

In 1955, Hudson’s deepest secret was almost exposed in the most brutal way imaginable. Confidential Magazine got ahold of Henry Willson and threatened to reveal Hudson’s bedroom preferences. In order to keep them quiet, Willson had to give up information about his other clients. But Hudson had a higher price to pay.

Hudson And Phyllis Gates

Hudson And Phyllis Gates. Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Soon after, Hudson took desperate measures to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. In 1955, he tied the knot with Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates in a quicky wedding after dating her briefly. Things moved so fast that she was surprised he proposed. Spoiler alert: It didn’t end well.

A Bitter Divorce

Contrary to popular belief, Gates insisted she was in love with Hudson and didn’t marry him to cover up his sexual orientation. Still, the couple was doomed to a heartbreaking end. In 1958, three years after walking down the aisle, the pair split up.

Rock Hudson and Wife During Honeymoon

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Gates was the one to file for divorce, and her reason was “mental cruelty.” For his part, Hudson let her go quietly without making a scene. Perhaps because now she had some leverage over him. Don’t worry, more on all that later.

A Steamy Night With Marlon Brando

Throughout his life, Hudson had plenty of lovers. Some of his long-time partners included Marc Christian and his live-in publicist, Tom Clark. But his most famous conquest is the stuff fan fiction is made of. Apparently, Hudson and fellow adventurous Hollywood hunk Marlon Brando shared at least one steamy night together.

Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, and Gregory Peck

Left to right: Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, and Gregory Peck. December 1962. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

A lifetime of suppressing his sexuality took a toll on the actor toward his later years. He became an incredibly heavy smoker and drinker. His addictions got so bad that in 1981, he suffered a heart attack. He was in his mid-50s at the time. But even after that medical scare, Hudson couldn’t kick his smoking habit.

There Were Early Signs

The classic ‘80s TV show Dallas was based on Rock Hudson’s movie Giant, so it only makes sense that the producers asked him to join the cast and play Daniel Reece on the series. At first, Hudson was excited to return to the spotlight, but it didn’t take long for people to realize that something was seriously wrong.

Rock Hudson And Elizabeth Taylor In 'Giant'

Rock Hudson And Elizabeth Taylor In ‘Giant.’ Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Hudson started using cue cards to help his bad memory. However, on the set of Dallas, not only did he have trouble memorizing his lines, but he had difficulty saying them. The producers were forced to write him off the show, but the truth came out soon enough.

Lying About His Diagnosis

In 1984, Hudson had a strange rash on his neck and went to the doctor to get it checked out. He thought it was an ordinary skin condition, but the diagnosis he got changed his life. It was a cancerous lesion called Kaposi’s sarcoma. The doctor knew exactly what Kaposi’s sarcoma meant: Rock Hudson had AIDS.

Rock Hudson

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For the next few months, Hudson took his time coming to terms with this terrifying diagnosis. When he started to look sick and skinny, he told people he was suffering from anorexia. After all, AIDS had a stigma surrounding it, and the disease wasn’t really understood at the time. He thought if he revealed his diagnosis, it would out him as gay.

But He Told His Partners Anonymously

Shortly after he was diagnosed with AIDS, four men received strange letters. When they opened them, they must have freaked out. Hudson anonymously told him about his illness, writing: “We recently had sex together, and I have been informed by my doctor that I may have AIDS. Please go to your doctor and have a check-up.”

Rock Hudson at home in Beverly Hills

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Despite his embarrassment, he did the right thing by telling him. Tragically, at least one man had the same devastating fate. A 22-year-old man whom Hudson briefly slept with found out that he also had the disease the very next day.

He Wanted to Get Better

Hudson was obviously devastated and completely heartbroken over his alarming diagnosis. He was just as worried and scared as you would imagine. He didn’t want to die. So, he did everything he possibly could to get better.

Rock Hudson Portrait

Photo by Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Over the next few months, Hudson continued to work while traveling to France secretly to find a cure and try out experimental treatments. Unfortunately, the end was getting close. On July 21, 1985, Hudson collapsed in a Paris hotel. His publicist claimed he had liver cancer, but nobody bought it. People were getting more and more suspicious.

Doris Day’s Best Friends

One of Hudson’s most heartbreaking and memorable television appearances on TV came just a few months before he died. In 1985, his former co-star Doris Day, with whom he starred in classics such as Pillow Talk, invited Hudson to appear on her show, Doris Day’s Best Friends.

Rock Hudson And Doris Day

Rock Hudson And Doris Day. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Hudson gladly agreed, but when he showed up, Day took one look and almost burst into tears. By that point, AIDS had taken over his body; he looked pale and sickly. He still didn’t reveal his condition to the public or even to most of his friends. But it was clear to Day and everyone else that something wasn’t right.

A Devastating Goodbye

Day looked back at her last moments with Hudson in agonizing detail. She later expressed how Hudson was even too sick to eat lunch, and she tried to cherish every moment with him. She remembered, “We kissed goodbye, and he gave me a big hug, and he held on to me. I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him – but he’s in heaven now.”

Rock Hudson, Doris Day in

Rock Hudson, Doris Day in “Pillow Talk” 1959. Photo By RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

By July 25, 1985, Hudson was so ill that his publicist had no choice but to reveal the tragic truth: Rock Hudson was indeed dying of AIDS. The news shook the world. He was one of the very first celebrities in Hollywood history to openly admit to an AIDS diagnosis. His revelation fundamentally shifted the conversation about the misunderstood, deathly disease.

The Public’s Supportive Reaction

As we know, Hudson spent his entire life terrified of revealing his sexuality and disease; but he didn’t have to be so scared. After to finally confessed that he was suffering from AIDS, there was an incredible amount of love, grief, and support from his friends as well as fans.

Morgan Fairchild

Morgan Fairchild. Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Furthermore, after his announcement, the number of contributions towards AIDS research skyrocketed. Actress Morgan Fairchild famously said that Hudson “gave AIDS a face.” However, that doesn’t mean all the reactions were positive.

That’s Mr. Beefcake to You

Hudson truly was a hunky fella. I mean, just look at him. Hollywood writer Sidney Skolsky certainly noticed and came up with the term “beefcake” with Rock Hudson in mind. He was quickly dubbed “Mr. Beefcake,” and since then, the term has been used to describe someone who is exceptionally good-looking.

Liza Minnelli, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor

Liza Minnelli, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor was really close friends with Rock Hudson, and she had her own nickname for the actor, Rockaby. The besties worked together on Giant, for which Hudson was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It ended up being his only Oscar nomination.

Being Himself After Hours

We know Hudson went to extreme lengths in order to keep his secret out of the newspapers, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t let loose during late-night Hollywood parties. Whenever he would get some alcohol in his system, he wasn’t as shy about his sexuality or his more feminine side.

Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida

Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Apparently, when things got hazy at some of the super star-studded soirees, some of his Hollywood pals had the privilege of seeing the actor dress up as a ballerina and twirl around the room. Still, his secret was kept safe, perhaps because this was way before social media.

Some People Don’t Believe He Was Gay

Believe it or not, not everyone agrees that Rock Hudson was, in fact, a homosexual, despite the fact that he was pretty much the poster boy for the gay community, as he was one of the first openly gay celebrities (openly gay toward the end of his life, at least).

Rock Hudson Enjoying New Role as Mayor

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But some critics believe that, especially in his early days, Hudson was involved in bisexual encounters with certain actresses. One of them claims she has receipts. Blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren admitted that after a studio-arranged date, she and Hudson got hot and heavy.

His Most Controversial Romance Never Even Happened

But even the hot and steamy affairs Hudson was not having nearly destroyed his life. In the early 1970s, a rumor spread that Hudson and one of his friends, Jim Nabors, tied the knot in a secret ceremony. Nabors was, in fact, gay but also extremely closeted.

Carol Burnett with Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson at the Academy Awards.

Carol Burnett with Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson at the Academy Awards. Photo By Getty Images/Bettmann

As it turned out, he and Hudson were actually just friends, but the vicious rumor forever ruined their friendship. It’s just so sad how terrified people were to come out back then. Hudson reportedly always knew he was gay, ever since the tender age of 9-years-old but couldn’t say anything.

The French Kiss Scandal

After Hudson came clean and admitted he had AIDS, people found a disturbing connection. Just months prior, Hudson had shared a French kiss with actress Linda Evans during a scene in Dynasty. Again, this was a time when the disease was still incredibly misunderstood.

Linda Evans and Rock Hudson in Dynasty.

Linda Evans and Rock Hudson in Dynasty. Source: MovieStillsDB.com, Copyrights: Aaron Spelling Productions

Nowadays, we know that AIDS cannot be transmitted through saliva alone, but at the time, the CDC issued a warning saying it was possible. Many thought it was wrong of Hudson not to disclose his condition with his co-star, but even more, controversy was ahead.

Elizabeth Taylor Was There Until the End

One of the last people to ever see Hudson alive was his dear, lifelong friend, Liz Taylor. The two were incredibly close, and Taylor always loved and accepted Rock Hudson just the way he was. She was heartbroken to find out he was sick.

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson leaving Savoy Hotel

Photo by Tom Wargacki/WireImage

When she saw Hudson strapped to an IV and slipping in and out of consciousness, she was completely devastated. She became a crusader for understanding and sympathizing with AIDS patients and later pleaded to the world, “Please God, he did not die in vain.”

His Final Request

October 2, 1985, was a tragic day; Rock Hudson passed away in his sleep at his house. The legendary actor was only 59 at the time and just six weeks away from his 60th birthday. Hudson wanted his body to be cremated, and his wish was granted almost immediately after his death.

UCLA Med Star Helicopter Carrying Rock Hudson

UCLA Med Star Helicopter Carrying Rock Hudson. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

Sadly, there was no funeral in his honor as he didn’t want one. But it didn’t matter; the world still came together to mourn the loss of an incredible star. Although his death left a hole in Hollywood, his legacy continues to live on through his movies and in our hearts.

The Man He Loved Felt Betrayed

There was one person in particular who was utterly shocked about Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis: his former lover Marc Christian. He claimed that Hudson never even told him about his diagnosis and continued to sleep with him after he knew he was sick. He felt extremely betrayed.

Marc Christian and Marvin Mitchelson Announcing Lawsuit

Marc Christian and Marvin Mitchelson Announcing Lawsuit. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

As you might imagine, Christian was terrified that he may have contracted the illness and took immediate action. He went ahead and sued Hudson’s estate for “emotional distress.” He won the case, but luckily, Christian tested negative for AIDS. Looks like a win-win for him.

Repenting for His Sins

Like many people, when Hudson’s final days were approaching, he started feeling deeply worried about his soul. Growing up, he was a Roman Catholic and only became an atheist later in life. Still, in his last remaining moments, he begged to confess to a priest.

Rock Hudson Leaning on a Saddle

Photo by LGI Stock/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Rock Hudson spent his last hours on this earth repenting for his “sins.” It should be noted that we don’t know exactly what he said, but it’s safe to assume it may very well have been about his sexuality. Either way, Hudson died shortly afterward.

The Secret Tape of His Confession

The Hollywood Reporter claimed that just as their marriage was falling apart, Hudson’s wife Phyllis Gates hired a private investigator to record her confronting her husband about his sexuality. She clearly wanted leverage because that tape would have destroyed him.

Rock Hudson With His Bride, Phyllis

Rock Hudson With His Bride, Phyllis. Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

On the recording, Gates asked him about his bedroom habits with men and accused him of picking up men off the street. Although he denied picking anyone up, he gave her an honest answer about sleeping with men, saying he “lasts longer” with boys because “boys don’t fit.” It’s a very open conversation for a 1950s couple.

Trying to Get Noticed

Whether you like it or not, a pretty face will get you far in Hollywood, and Hudson knew it. He was well-aware of his dashing good looks, so he decided to use it to his advantage, despite his lack of acting training.

Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates with Movie Camera

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Hudson would stand outside of studio gates, posing, hoping to catch the eye of someone influential in Hollywood. And he sent photos to multiple agents and producers. That’s how he eventually met Henry Willson, who took on the aspiring actor as his client.

Posing for the Studio Producers

In his Rock Hudson biography, All That Heaven Allows, author Mark Griffin interviewed Ken Maley, one of Hudson’s close personal friends. “Just think about the young Rock Hudson – this big stud standing up against his truck outside the studio gates,” Maley expressed. “He’d roll up his sleeves and just stand there, like some giant ad for sex, waiting to be noticed day after day.”

Rock Hudson In 'Send Me No Flowers'

Rock Hudson In ‘Send Me No Flowers’. Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images

He certainly was determined, but it only proves that his hard work paid off. Although no one picked him up outside the studio, it shows how hard he was willing to work to make it. This is a guy who couldn’t memorize his lines but still managed to become an iconic movie star.

The Brad Pitt of His Time

Despite needing at least 30 takes to say his one line in his on-screen debut, it didn’t take him long to become a huge star. As Ryan Murphy puts it, Hudson eventually became one the most beloved, popular, and acclaimed actors in the industry.

Piper Laurie And Rock Hudson In 'Has Anyone Seen My Gal'

Piper Laurie And Rock Hudson In ‘Has Anyone Seen My Gal.’ Photo by Universal/Getty Images

He wasn’t just a celebrity; he was pretty much the Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio of his time. He landed his first movie at the ripe age of 23 and was in the game until his death. He had an impressively successful career, and his fellow co-stars and producers had wonderful things to say about the actor.

A Huge Star

But remember, he didn’t have any real acting training. In 1948, when he landed a contract with Universal Pictures, the studio provided him with acting lessons. Once he knew what he was going, it didn’t take long for him to skyrocket to fame.

Elizabeth Taylor (right), Rock Hudson(center), James Dean(left)

Elizabeth Taylor (right), Rock Hudson(center), James Dean(left). Photo By Getty Images/ Bettmann

In 1950, everyone knew Rock Hudson’s name after he starred in Giant, alongside Hollywood darling Elizabeth Taylor and showbiz bad boy James Dean. He earned himself an Oscar nomination for the movie, and his career went uphill from there. He was in over 60 movies before his untimely death.

The Evil Stepfather

Despite his overwhelming efforts to appear straight, it was obvious to some people that Hudson was, in fact, gay. Sure, he had numerous Hollywood lovers, but before he became an acting icon, he was conditioned by a man not to behave like himself. We briefly mentioned his abusive stepfather…

Rock Hudson

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During an NPR Fresh Air interview, Griffin told Terry Gross, “Sadly, Rock did have this abusive, alcoholic stepfather, Wallace Fitzgerald, who was a former Marine. And Rock tells this sort of tragic story that when he built up the courage to tell his stepfather that he had these ambitions to be an actor, his stepfather hit him – and not only that, but I think confiscated any toys that he thought were in some way effeminate and discouraged any theatrical ambitions that Rock may have had.”

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