The Man Behind Rock Hudson
Hollywood’s infamous casting couch wasn’t just for actresses. Some actors advanced along the same route via the industry’s influential, closeted gays. Long time entertainment journalist Robert Hofler, in his tell-all The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and the Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (out in paperback from University of Minnesota Press), explores the shady career of powerful agent in 1950s Hollywood.
According to Hofler, Wilson “discovered, renamed, trained, and groomed, and sometimes romanced, dozens of young men to be movie stars”—among then Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue and Tab Hunter. Under threat of blackmail from scandal mags and eager to protect Hudson, his biggest star, Willson offered up one of his clients, Hunter, as a kind of human sacrifice to Confidential magazine. It sated their appetite and got the dogs off his scent. Years before, with the more reputable Life magazine sniffing around Hudson’s suspicious bachelorhood, Willson arranged for the star to marry his secretary, Phyllis Gates, and stage-managed the wedding as a photo op.
In Hofler’s dishy account, Willson was the ultimate “manizer” who “elevated cruising to a full-time, lucrative career.” His client-stars were largely interchangeable, molded according to his sexual fantasies—a masculine ideal of vacant perfection. While Willson had his defenders, notably TCM’s Robert Osborne, Hofler describes the agent as “resilient, adaptable, ultimately cunning,” a political reactionary who outlived his success. Alcoholic and broke, he begged money from the stars he created in the decade before his death in 1978.