Rock Hudson and the Hollywood AIDS scare

Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson 'Giant' Cliff

Rock Hudson, who would have been 90 years-old today, had a more significant impact on Hollywood when he died than in a long acting career that included “Giant” (pictured), 1960s comedies with Doris Day and TV series “McMillan & Wife”.

Hudson died aged 59 on Oct. 2, 1985 from complications related to AIDS. On Feb. 8, 1986, I reported from Los Angeles on the impact of his death for TV Guide Canada. Here’s that story, which reflects all the fear, confusion and ignorance of that time.

A grim reality even Hollywood can’t avoid

By Ray Bennett

Like the best screenplays, “AIDS Scare in Hollywood” opened with a socko scene: Doctors in Paris announce that handsome movie hero Rock Hudson is dying of the disease.

It didn’t matter that thousands of less famous families had been touched already by acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Hollywood is a fantasyland with the power to make the world go away. Only when the carefully constructed heroic facade of a quintessential leading man crumbled in the face of AIDS did the dream factory realise suddenly that here was something that simply would not go away.

It didn’t matter that Hudson’s homosexuality was revealed. Most of Hollywood had known that for years. Screenwriter William Goldman said, “The panic is because all of Hollywood is based on fantasy. It’s not just because an actor is hiding being gay. These gorgeous men and women are supposed to be perfect.”

The effect of the Hudson AIDS disclosure last July at least had one positive aspect. For the first time, everyone had someone they could relate to who had suffered from the disease. And when the world’s favourite personalities responded to Hudson’s fate with very human alarm, the media leaped at the chance to do what it does best: overreact.

“Hysteria in Hollywood”, screamed the headlines. Never mind that the publicity mill has everyone in Tinseltown sleeping with everyone else; our hottest stars were actually worried about kissing.

Linda Evans was said to be hysterical because of her kissing scenes with Hudson on “Dynasty” when he knew he had AIDS. Evans kept silent but a spokesperson for the show declared: “Everything attributed to her – that she’s asking for blood tests, that she’s suing Rock Hudson, that she’s panicked – is not true.”

Still, Joan Rivers, who was one of the first entertainers to raise money for AIDS research, told columnist Marilyn Beck: “If I were Linda, I would be crazed now.”

As depicted in the press and on TB, performers became in their reaction to AIDS what they are on stage and screen: bigger-than-life surrogates for the rest of us in our own little worlds. We watched with fascination as the more voluble celebrities stated our fears within their own context. Charlton Heston fumed at the New York Times: “I think a member of that lovely euphemism ‘a high-risk group’ has an obligation to refuse to do kissing scenes.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor (pictured), who was a friend and co-star of Hudson and who had emerged as a leading fund-raiser for AIDS research, has likened the AIDS scare to the worst Hollywood witch-hunt. She said, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business who is sick. It’s like McCarthyism. Who is sick is not public property whether they are in or out of show business. Actors have a right to some privacy.”

Inevitably, television viewed the dramatic possibilities of the killer disease. Not movies, of course, because nothing so insidiously deadly exists in the teenage utopias of “E.T.” and “Rambo”. On the off-Broadway stage, writers grappled with the horror usually with mordant humour: “What is the hardest thing about getting AIDS? Convincing your parents that you’re Haitian.”

NBC’s irreverent hospital series “St. Elsewhere” had an episode in November 1983 dealing with AIDS although co-producer and writer Tom Fontana says now, “We did an AIDS story when nobody was paying attention and nobody paid attention when we did it.”

In November 1985, NBC aired a TV-movie titled “An Early Frost” and the ratings were very respectable. “Trapper John MD” had an AIDS story and, last month, Ken Kercheval from “Dallas” played an AIDS victim on “Hotel”.

It has taken “St. Elsewhere”, though, to hammer the point home. In the Jan. 29 episode, heterosexual Dr. Bobby Caldwell, played by Mark Harmon, discovered that he has contracted AIDS from a woman. The story continues in the Feb. 12 episode and since Harmon has already left the series, Caldwell’s fate is unknown. He is not seen dying but the likelihood of future episodes following the story is slim because Harmon is pursuing a film career. [Caldwell’s death occurred later offscreen]

Harmon was not altogether happy with the manner of his departure from the show: “It was not my choice”. But he kills rumours that Coors Beer, for whom he does high-profile commercials, was unhappy at the turn of events: “They have been first-class. They hired me as an actor. They know that’s what I do. I’m in the business of make-believe and if anyone mistakenly chooses to confuse what happens to Bobby Caldwell with Mark Harmon, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I know that and they know that.”

“St. Elsewhere” co-producer and writer John Masius says the motivation for doing another AIDS story was that the disease has moved into the heterosexual community. He says: “It seems to be the most natural evolution of Caldwell. If you’re out there and you’re promiscuous, it might happen. It’s a scary idea and that’s what our main concern was.”

It’s a sober treatment of what everyone faces with the AIDS threat and beyond all the headlines, the Hollywood community is behaving no differently from any other group. It is true that one of the two happily married hunks on one top-rated CBS series declared flatly that he would kiss no guest-starring actresseses. It is true that the kissing between two of the leads on a popular NBC show stopped abruptly. It is true that Lorimar, which produces such shows as “Dallas”, “Falcon Crest” and “Knots Landing”, has issued individual make-up kits for each cast member on all of their series.

Last year, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) told its members they had the right to refuse contact with anyone whom they believe might have any communicable disease. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) characterised open-mouth kissing as “possibly or potentially hazardous work” under an existing agreement with producers. SAG further states: “A producer … must give advance notice to a player that the player will be required to perform in an open-mouth kissing scene.”

The Guild’s statement crystallised three key concerns:

  • Performers, especially females, are concerned about contracting AIDS through open-mouth kissing.
  • Gays fear a homophobic backlash.
  • Producers and directors fear violations of creative rights guaranteed not only by contract but by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The major production companies don’t buy SAG’s approach. Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) Senior VP Carol Akiyama says, “SAG was in a tough spot because they had a lot of performers, especially female performers, who were hysterical. They had to address the issue somehow. We recognised the concern but we don’t agree that kissing is hazardous work. The information that we had is that there have been no reported cases of AIDS being transmitted by any sort of kissing.”

One Dec. 19, close to 150 people from all areas of film and TV production attended a seminar at the AMPTP headquarters. They heard three eminent medical specialists answer questions on the most recent data concerning AIDS. L.A. Department of Health Services’ Acute Communicable Disease Control Chief Dr. Betty Agee was one of the speakers. She says, “None of us is willing to say that there’s absolutely no risk under any circumstances but we do say the risks on a film set are negligible. The most convincing thing is the study of AIDS in households with young children. If you don’t transmit AIDS that way, boy, I don’t know how you’re gonna transmit it on a set.”

From SAG’s point of view, the remaining problem, according to spokesman Mark Locher, “is that they never say it’s impossible”. He says, however, “The doctors did emphasise that it’s a difficult disease to catch and they reassured everyone that it’s not spread by casual contact.” In fact, Dr. Agee and her colleagues confirmed that there has been no case of AIDS shown to be caused by the passage of saliva in kissing.

SAG’s earlier alarm bells about open-mouth kissing, however, rankled producers and directors. Directors Guild of America Assistant Executive Secretary Harry Evans says, “We don’t believe there should be constrictions placed upon us. If a director tells an actor, ‘Show a little more passion and open your mouth’ and the actor says, ‘I’m not gonna do it’, then the actor is not gonna do it. It’s that simple.”

Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Entertainment Industry Chairperson Chris Uszler says that a feared industry backlash against homosexuals has not yet materialised, “But our concern is that if an actress can decide that she will or will not open-mouth kiss this or that actor and she decides not to, then a producer might say, ‘Let’s get a guy this actress will be more than willing to kiss.’”

The DGA’s Evans says that kind of choice is no different from what happens now: “If you have Dustin Hoffman in a film, he’s going to have some sort of control over who’s gonna be cast anyway and he will or won’t kiss somebody based on his mood. Pick a name. If Glenn Close doesn’t want to do an open-mouth kissing scene, you have to deal with that. It’s not new. There are a number of actress in this town who won’t perform with their clothes off. They are known, and if you want to have those folks in a film, you go in knowing that you’re gonna have to make some sort of compromise.”

Chris Uszler isn’t sure the dust has settled where homophobia is concerned. But there does seem to be a general sigh of relief in Hollywood following December’s medical seminar. The consensus is that it makes sense to reduce the amount of open-mouth kissing. Uszler says it should be across the board – not by any individual choice – to help prevent a gay backlash. SAG President Patty Duke asks, “What’s wrong with kissing scenes like we had in the ’40s?”

SAG’s Mark Locher points out: “It has always been possible to stage and perform a very passionate kiss without necessarily exchanging saliva. Most people who are kissing are being a little more moderate in the way they perform it. I certainly don’t think anyone is eliminating kissing scenes. I think they are probably changing the way they kiss.”

Only viewers dedicated to watching the mechanics of screen osculation might notice a difference. Alfred Hitchcock managed to convince millions of moviegoers that they had seen Anthony Perkins slash Janet Leigh with a knife in the famous “Psycho” shower scene but in filming that sequence not once did the blade touch flesh. Evans says, “There are a lot of things that can be done, even using body doubles and obviously in these touchy times a lot of that will be done.”

That’s the way it will be until a cure is found for AIDS but there remains an almost greater problem – the age-old one of prejudice. Tom Fontana says that when the current storyline on “St. Elswhere” was announced, protest letters started to arrive: “One woman wrote and said, ‘If you have to give AIDS to somebody, can’t you give it to somebody ugly? Why do you have to give it to Bobby Caldwell?’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s even more reason to give it to Caldwell. It’s OK for an ugly person to die from a disease but it’s not OK for a handsome person? That’s baloney.”

Fontana provides the coda for “AIDS Scare in Hollywood” with his reason for dealing with the subject on the show: “This is something that is now affecting all of our lives. More important, it’s about a re-examination of the morals of our generation. When I was in college, it was free love: Let’s do it! This is a fundamental believe we’ve had for 15 years. Now we have to rethink it. We all have to rethink it.”

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