The real-life story of Rock Hudson and Henry Willson – the true history behind Netflix’s Hollywood

Jim Parsons and Jake Picking play two real-life Hollywood figures in Ryan Murphy's fictionalised Netflix drama

Rock Hudson and Henry Willson in Hollywood

If you’ve been watching Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix drama Hollywood, you’re going to be wondering: just how much of all this is true? What’s based on reality – and what’s been dreamed up?

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Here’s what you need to know…

Is Hollywood based on a true story?

Yes and no! The Netflix drama blends fact and fiction, starting off somewhere close to reality and then veering off into a counter-factual version of history.

Many of the characters in Hollywood are fictional (Jack, Raymond, Archie, Camille, Claire…) but the TV series blends in real-life historical figures including Rock Hudson, Henry Willson, Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel and Eleanor Roosevelt.

While the story starts in the racist, homophobic, sexist Hollywood of the 1940s, the show’s creators have given us an idealised version of what could have happened next.

The show’s executive producer, writer and director Janet Mock asks: “What if a band of outsiders were given a chance to tell their own story? What if the person with green-light power was a woman? The screenwriter a black man? What if the heroine was a woman of colour? The matinee idol openly gay? And what if they were all invited into the room where the decisions are made, entering fully and unapologetically themselves to leave victorious and vaunted, their place in history cemented.”

Netflix drama Hollywood - cast

Who was Rock Hudson?

Rock Hudson was an American movie star and a heartthrob of the Hollywood Golden Age, who also happened to be gay and spent his whole life ‘in the closet’. His story is at the centre of Netflix’s new drama, in which he’s played by Jake Picking – but while the series stays true to the facts of his early life and arrival in Los Angeles, events soon take a turn into the fictional as Ryan Murphy & co reimagine Rock’s life.

The real Rock Hudson was actually born “Roy Scherer Junior” in the village of Winnetka, Illinois. But Roy Senior soon ran away, abandoning his wife Katherine and their young son during the Great Depression. After the divorce, Katherine married a man named Wallace Fitzgerald, which turned out to be bad news for young Roy who was neglected and mistreated and ultimately ended up detesting his stepfather.

Having graduated from high school in the middle of the Second World War, Roy immediately joined the Navy; after the war was over he moved to Los Angeles, planning to live with his biological father and pursue an acting career.

At first he worked odd jobs and made little progress. But things started to change after he met talent agent Henry Willson, who signed him up as a client and came up with a billboard-worthy name. Roy Fitzgerald was now “Rock Hudson”.

Rock Hudson

Hudson made his acting debut the following year, with a tiny part in the movie Fighter Squadron. According to Hollywood legend, it took him 38 takes to successfully deliver his one, simple line. (Across his whole career, he had a reputation for struggling to learn his lines.)

But Willson insisted on his potential and highlighted his good looks. The aspiring young actor was soon signed with the film studio Universal, where he received coaching and acting lessons and started to appear in minor movie roles. He became a leading man for the first time in 1952’s Scarlet Angel, but he didn’t really become a star until 1954 romantic flick Magnificent Obsession – in which he acted the part of a playboy brain surgeon who saves the life of his love interest.

Other high-profile movies followed. In 1957, he received his first (and only) Oscar nomination for the movie Giant, having starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. He also had a hit starring opposite Doris Day in the rom-com Pillow Talk. Overall, he starred in nearly 70 movies.

Was Rock Hudson gay?

Rock Hudson with his wife on their wedding day
Rock Hudson with his wife on their wedding day (Getty)

Yes, and throughout his entire career Hudson had to hide his sexuality. While many in the film industry knew (or claimed to have known) about his homosexuality, Hudson was discreet about his private life – and the fact that he was gay only became public knowledge after his death.

The discrimination and prejudice of the times meant that it was impossible to be openly gay, and the truth would have been a scandal. Worryingly for Hudson, in 1955 Life magazine ran a story with the pointed headline: “Fans are urging 29-year-old Hudson to get married — or explain why not.” And in that same year, another magazine directly threatened to publish an exposé about the actor’s homosexuality; Willson had the story quashed, but things were getting dicey.

That explains why Hudson was quickly married to Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, after a whirlwind ‘romance’. (The couple divorced three years later. Neither remarried.)

How did Rock Hudson die?

Rock Hudson in Dynasty in 1985
Rock Hudson in Dynasty in 1985 (Getty)

Hudson remained a popular actor throughout the 1960s and ’70s, though he had a few dud movies and chose to focus more on television work – including the hit TV series McMillan & Wife. But in 1981 the Hollywood heartthrob suffered a heart attack, and had to undergo quintuple heart bypass surgery; after this point his health seriously declined, although he continued to appear in a handful of TV shows and movies over the next few years.

In 1984, Hudson was told by his doctors that he had AIDS. This was a relatively new illness to hit America, and one which came with huge social stigma and limited medical understanding (and a strong dose of homophobia). Hudson had already developed a cancerous tumour and the prognosis was bleak.

The actor initially kept his terminal illness a secret as he sought medical treatment around the world, and he even made a final acting appearance in the US soap opera Dynasty – though he became too ill to continue and even his speech began to deteriorate.

Finally, in July 1985, he publicly announced that he was living with AIDS – an admission which was also taken by many to be a tacit acknowledgement of his homosexuality. He also authorised an honest biography about his life, saying: “I’ve always been a private person. I’ve never wanted to write a book, I’ve never let my house be photographed, and I’ve never let the public know what I really think. Now that’s changed – there’s a lot I want to say and not too much time left. I want the truth to be told, because it sure as hell hasn’t been told before. So I’ve asked those who know me best – my real friends – to work with Sara Davidson in telling my story.”

Rock Hudson died on 2nd October 1985 at the age of 59.

Who was Henry Willson?

Henry Willson in 1935

Played by Jim Parsons, Henry Willson emerges as one of the most repulsive characters in the Netflix drama – a manipulative, predatory talent agent who preyed on aspiring actors like Rock Hudson.

The real Henry Willson was an agent who soon gained a reputation for signing young, attractive clients who looked great (but weren’t yet great actors). He’d then make them into stars.

“Henry Willson was a real-life villain, and that role was very heavily researched,” Ryan Murphy explained. “Willson was a true sexual predator and an alcoholic who would take these young men who were vulnerable and from bad homes, who came to Hollywood trying to make it, and then sexually abuse them.

“It’s a very tricky thing when you’re writing a monstrous character like Henry Willson, because you may not like what they do, but I want you to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Nobody just becomes a monster. Monsters are made.”

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Murphy added: “He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men. He would be their manager and make them sexually service him. Weirdly, he was actually an okay manager. He was friends with everyone, so could get clients in the room with [power brokers].”

However, Willson’s biographer Robert Hofler, who wrote the 2005 book The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, disputes the drama’s portrayal of the talent agent. When it comes to Netflix’s Hollywood, he told RadioTimes.com, “Almost nothing about it is real regarding Henry Willson.”

Willson did see the potential in Hudson. He gave him a new name, had his teeth sorted, bought him a new wardrobe, and sent him to acting and vocal lessons to lower his voice and make it more ‘masculine’.

He also reportedly coerced the young actor into sexual acts.

However, Hofler points out that Willson’s behaviour was not unusual or exceptional in the film industry at the time. Aspiring actors were well aware what would be expected of them – and Hudson himself expected sexual favours from less-famous actors who he’d helped get cast in his movies, the biographer told us.

“What bothers me about the series… is that [it says that] Henry was this horrible, horrible person,” Hofler said. “You can see what Ryan Murphy was doing: he was going, I’m going to have a villain and he exploits these innocent people.”

As for what else is true, and what is not: yes, Willson did fall in love with an actor called Junior Durkin who died in a car crash when he was just 19. But no, he did not have a penchant for drag or try to seduce Hudson by performing a Salome routine – so far as we know.

Did Rock Hudson fire Henry Willson?

Yes, but not like we see in the TV series.

In the decade after Hudson’s career took off, relations between him and his talent agent soured, although according to Hofler the two of them continued to sleep together into the early 1960s.
But Willson was an alcoholic who could be vicious and cruel. His power in Hollywood was on the wane, especially as the old studio system was disappearing; and according to Hofler, “he also developed a reputation for having a gay casting couch, so a lot of top talent did not want to sign with him.”
In 1966 Hudson finally fired him.
Willson died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1978, in such a state of poverty that he could not afford a headstone for his own grave.
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Hollywood is available on Netflix now. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide