The True Story of Rock Hudson: Who Was the Hollywood Icon Featured in Netflix's 'Hollywood'

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If you’ve ever listened to the soundtrack for “Grease,” Rizzo sings the lyric “Even Rock Hudson lost his heart to Doris Day!” in the famous song, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” So who was Rock Hudson? He was bonafide Hollywood star who made his big break earning him an Oscars nomination for the 1956 film, “Giant” with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor 

“Rock Hudson, in the 1950s and '60s, was the very embodiment of American masculinity on screen,” explained Mark Griffin, author of "All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson." “He was beloved by millions of moviegoers who watched him literally grow up in front of their eyes.”

The actor is one of many real-life characters featured in “Hollywood” on Netflix. How he’s portrayed within the seven-episode series created by “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy isn’t 100% accurate. The show merges fact and fantasy, painting a picture of Hollywood’s golden years for contemporary audiences. 

In “Hollywood,” audiences are introduced to Hudson as a fresh-faced kid played by Jake Picking. He arrives in Tinseltown and signs with agent Henry Miller, played by Jim Parsons. Miller is also based on the real person, who, according to Griffin, “had very shrewdly and carefully and meticulously groomed him [Hudson] to be the resident Adonis at Universal Studios.”

“Rock Hudson was definitely controlled and exploited by his longtime and very predatory agent Henry Willson,” Griffin said. 

For the series, Picking needed several facial prosthetic pieces to make him look more like Hudson. He also had fake teeth to mirror his character’s dental work. Griffin says Picking really captured Hudson in his portrayal by “capturing how good-natured he was, but also shy and terribly self-conscious.” 

As for what the series is getting right? It’s true that Wilson changed the future star’s name from Roy Fitzgerald to Rock Hudson, as seen on the show. Hudson was born Roy Scherer, Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois in 1925. After his biological father abandoned the family in 1931, Hudson’s mother divorced him, explained Griffin. Adding in 1935, his mother remarried a marine named Wallace Fitzgerald who adopted him and his name was legally changed to Roy Fitzgerald. 

In the 1940s, Hudson was a truck driver with no acting experience. Then he arrived in Los Angeles. 

“[He] was this big strapping guy, but also a gentle giant who was very vulnerable, who had, I think, a damaged self esteem, which was understandable given his very traumatic early years, abandoned by his biological father, abused by his stepfather, loved, but also dominated by his mother,” Griffin revealed of Hudson’s past. 

In “Hollywood,” the first film Hudson appears in is “Meg,” a factitious movie about a real British actress named Peg Entwistle who jumped off the Hollywood sign. In reality, Hudson’s first on screen appearance was a small role in 1948’s “Fighter Squadron.”

In “Hollywood,” Hudson is seen on the red carpet at the Oscars for “Meg” holding hands with his African American boyfriend, Archie, a fictional character played by Jeremy Pope. In real life, his red carpet experience was “much different due to societal pressures in place,” said Griffin. “It was expected that Rock would squire a really beautiful ingenue, like Vera Ellen or Piper Laurie, to a red carpet premiere.”

Since “Hollywood” takes place in the 1940s, it doesn’t show Hudson’s later years leading up to his death. 

He died in 1985 from AIDS and became the face of the pandemic as one of the first major celebrities to die from the virus. It was the first time the world learned he was gay. 

“He never publicly stated ‘I am gay,’ said Griffin. “I think the rumors that had circulated for years about Rock Hudson, even his devoted fan base out in middle America could probably finally figure it out. But there was never any direct statement of that in his lifetime.” 

Hudson appeared in nearly 70 films throughout his four-decade career. 

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