At one point in my (largely) misspent professional life, Doubleday, the New York publishing giant, wanted me to write as-told-to autobiographies. That is, the famous author would tell me the story, and I, the unknown writer, would write it.
None of these proposed celebrity projects ever worked out–Robert Mitchum, despite being offered an advance of $1 million for his life story, turned us down flat–but in pursuit of subject matter, I spent some time with the legendary Hollywood movie producer, Ross Hunter.
Hunter is largely forgotten now, but in the 1950s and 1960s he was famous for producing frothy romantic comedies and soapy melodramas, all beautifully shot in pristine Technicolor against opulent settings, featuring the most glamorous stars of the day–the most popular of those stars in Hunter’s fairy tale universe being Rock Hudson.
It was Ross who helped catapult Hudson, a former truck driver named Roy Scherer Jr., into stardom after he cast him opposite Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession. Thereafter, Hunter produced some of Hudson’s most successful films, including All That Heaven Allows, Battle Hymn, and Pillow Talk, Hudson’s biggest hit, the romantic comedy with Doris Day for which he is best remembered.
I thought about Ross and Hudson the other after the announcement came that a movie is to be made about Rock Hudson or, more to the point, about the invention of Rock Hudson, for he was very much a manufactured studio product, perhaps the last movie star creation–and if not the last, certainly the most successful. They do not make movie stars like Rock Hudson any more, but then they don’t have movie producers like Ross Hunter, either. If Universal, the studio where Ross toiled, was at the time the industry’s bargain basement, Ross always insisted on occupying the penthouse.
Hoping Ross’s life could be turned into a book, I flew to Los Angeles to meet him a couple of years after Hudson’s death in 1985 from AIDS at the age of fifty-nine. Hudson had become the first celebrity to publicly admit to having the disease let alone die because of it, and thus his tragic death had drawn a huge amount of attention.
The former Martin Fuss (everyone in those days seemed to change their names upon arriving in Hollywood) held court at his luxurious home atop one of the Hollywood Hills. Welcoming me as his long-lost friend, waited on by an anxious assistant, Ross was beautifully dressed and brimming with stories about his years as a hit-making producer–stories, I soon discovered, that were carefully dry cleaned and rearranged for public consumption.
For example, Ross would not talk about–or deal with–his own gayness. When it came to Rock Hudson I knew we were in big trouble after Ross announced with a straight face, “Ron, I didn’t even know Rock was gay.”
I looked at him in astonishment before saying something to the effect that it was hard to believe he wouldn’t have known. Hunter swore up and down that he had no idea. Needless to say, with that kind of selective memory, we did not get very far with the book.
Those were the days when stars and movie makers would rather have their fingernails pulled out than admit to being anything but full-blooded heterosexuals. This was particularly true of a ruggedly masculine leading man like Rock Hudson shaped and molded to appeal to women in the sort of carefully constructed romantic melodramas in which Ross Hunter specialized.
To admit anything else, even in the 1980s when by then the world knew of Hudson’s sexuality, apparently remained beyond the pale for Ross. Today, a Ross Hunter probably would have little to worry about. But a Rock Hudson would run into the same problems. The world still likes the illusion of its romantic heroes and action stars as two-fisted ladies’ men.
I had met Rock Hudson in December 1980 as part of the press contingent in New York to cover the premiere of The Mirror Crack’d, what turned out to be the actor’s second last feature film appearance.
The marketing hook for what otherwise was a straight-forward whodunit based on an Agatha Christie mystery featuring Christie’s Mr. Marple character (played by Angela Lansbury), was that a group of 1950s superstars–Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis (who had risen through the ranks at Universal alongside Hudson), and Kim Novak–were together for one last big screen swan song. Attention was particularly focused on Hudson and Taylor who were playing husband and wife, and who last had been paired in the classic Giant, the movie that sealed Hudson’s superstardom and for which he earned his only Academy Award nomination.
Nobody knew it then, of course, but Hudson had only four years to live. Already age, accompanied by a lot of drinking and smoking, had taken its toll:in his mid-fifties he looked older, gray and puffy.
But he was still a big, strapping guy–at six feet, five inches, he certainly possessed the size and heft everyone expects of a movie star (but seldom gets). It was not hard to see how Ross Hunter, as well as Hudson’s agent Henry Willson (who changed Roy to Rock after the Rock of Gibraltar) would have seen the leading man getting out of the truck he was driving.
Taylor, Curtis, and Novak had seen better days (although Kim Novak, long retired from movies, still looked stunningly camera ready for the big screen). Nonetheless, they continued to cling to movie star pretensions: flitting around in a swirl of acolytes and publicity people, hurrying away from photographers no longer all that anxious to capture them on film.
Only Hudson hung around, seeming in no hurry to leave. After the din of the various press encounters had died down, he sat at a corner table with a group reporters and chewed the fat about Hollywood and the movies. The biggest male star of the 1950s was, momentarily, just one of the guys.
You couldn’t help but like him. He was shy and soft-spoken, and I remember thinking at the time there was an air of sadness about him.
Rock Hudson did tell his story to author Sara Davidson for a book published after his death. In the opening pages, as Hudson is dying, Ross Hunter shows up for lunch and is described as a regular visitor over the years. So he must have known.
Ross died this month in 1996 at the age of seventy-five. He finally told his life story but not to me. I have no idea what he said about Rock Hudson.
But I can just imagine.