For Rock Hudson, life as an A-list hunk came about only through a life of hard work and heartache. From his legendary pairings with his great friend Doris Day (he called her “Eunice Blotter,” she called him “Ernie”) to his turns as a heavy romantic in Douglas Sirk’s classic melodramas, Hudson defined masculinity at a time when that definition was extremely limited.
“Bright, playful and easygoing,” in the words of actor Joel Gray, Hudson was big and muscular in every way. (A former lover joked that if Hudson ever did a nude scene, he would have to shoot it at CinemaScope.) But as biographer Mark Griffin explores in the exceptional All Heaven Permits: A Biography of Rock Hudson, Hudson was also a gay man with high ambitions in a world full of prejudices, who valiantly tried to be everything to all people.
“Think about it: she had her family, her professional life and her private life, and she had to represent a different person in each of those realms,” her adoptive sister Alice Waier told Griffin. “Trying to please everyone but himself … He was a great performer, not just in acting but throughout his life.”
Everyone is american
Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. was born on November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois. His father, Roy, and his mother, Katherine, were workers, and Roy grew up driving the plow and driving the tractor on his family’s farm. “He grew up watching his grandparents work on their own farm,” recalls his cousin, according to Griffin. “From a young age, he learned what it takes to survive.”
His survival instinct would increase in 1931, after his father abandoned his young family, causing mother and son to lean on each other. “She was a mother, father and older sister to me,” Rock Hudson would later say, according to Griffin. “And I was a son and a brother to her.” The two were physically abused by Katherine’s second husband, and they often escaped to the movies, where the sweet and charming boy silently yearned for a different life.
“In a small town, I could never freely say, ‘I’m going to be an actor when I grow up,’ because that’s just silly,” he later said, according to Griffin. “You know, ‘Don’t bother with that. Should be a policeman or a firefighter. So, I never said anything. I just kept my mouth shut. “
The Baron of Beefcake
After a brief stint in the military and doing odd jobs, Hudson, still harboring his secret dreams of stardom, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. He found work delivering nuts. According to Griffin, the naive Midwest would park his delivery truck outside the big studios, hoping a tycoon would pick up on his 6’4 ”figure and turn him into a star.
But it wasn’t Louis B. Mayer who finally hired the “great, big, beautiful farmer.” It was the notorious agent Henry Willson, a super predator decades before the #MeToo era. “It was like silt pouring out from under a rock that you didn’t want to turn over,” said Hudson’s great friend Roddy McDowall, according to Griffin.
Willson’s concert consisted of signing and seducing young hopefuls and baptizing them with new names. She had already had some success shaping heartthrob Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun; later he would do the same with Troy Donahue and Tab Hunter. “Henry would tutor these guys, groom them and give them manners,” Wilson’s biographer Robert Hofler said, according to Griffin. “Henry Willson was like Henry Higgins, but it’s a better story than My beautiful lady because he didn’t have an Eliza Doolittle. I had a few hundred. “