An Agent's Stable of Secretly Gay Stars
Writer Robert Hofler's new book is The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. Hofler profiles the gay Hollywood agent who was responsible for making the careers of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Hofler is a reporter for Variety.
Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2005
DATE November 7, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tab Hunter discusses his life and his memoir, "Tab
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
He was a heartthrob of the '50s, blond and clean-cut. He made the covers of
all the movie magazines. He was described as the boy next door, the
all-American boy, Hollywood's most eligible bachelor. He starred opposite
Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren, and he was gay. Now Tab Hunter has written a
memoir about what it was like to keep that secret in Hollywood. The book is
called "Tab Hunter Confidential."
Hunter made more than 50 films, including "Damn Yankees!," "Battle Cry," "That
Kind of Woman," "Ride the Wild Surf" and "The Life and Times of Judge Roy
Bean." Hunter spoofed his own image in John Waters' 1981 film, "Polyester,"
in which he seduces a suburban housewife played by Divine, a 300-pound man in
Tab Hunter, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you wrote this book. You know,
you're one of the few actors who can talk about what it was like to be a
heartthrob in the '50s while you were in the closet, or at least, I should
say, you're the only one who's willing to talk about it, if there's more out
there. So I'm really glad you wrote it. How long have you been out?
Mr. TAB HUNTER (Author, "Tab Hunter Confidential"): Well, thank you. You
know, I had to write the book. Number one, the reason I wrote the book, and I
think that's important, is because I heard someone else was going to be
writing a book about me, and I figured, `Look, get it from the horse's mouth,
not from some horse's ass after I'm dead and gone,' because we all know people
put their own spin on things, and I figured I'm going to be out there. I'm
going to be very truthful and, you know, I hope it's a good read but also you
get the facts from me.
And actually I'm not an `out there' kind of a person. I never have been.
I've always been a very private person. I had a very strong mother who said
things like, you know, `Nothing in your life is for show. Do this'--you know,
`Hold back, you're this and this.' And, consequently, what do I do? I wind
up in show business. I mean, that's pretty ironic.
GROSS: But, you know, I'm wondering if you felt you had to be an actor off
the screen as well as on the screen, 'cause offscreen you had to act the role
of Tab Hunter. You're gay; Tab Hunter was supposed to be straight. And also,
I mean, the name wasn't yours, and, you know, let's face it, a lot of actors
had personas offscreen that the Hollywood studio created for them. But when
you're in the closet, that sense of a persona is even more extreme.
Mr. HUNTER: I think a lot of people place importance on all of that, you
know, being in the closet and this and that. You know, number one, you're a
human being. You have to be yourself, and that's the most important thing.
Of course, you have conflicts in all of that within yourself. At the time, I
had a lot of those. And I was a young, wide-eyed kid thrown into the studio
system and starring in motion pictures and I loved it. I mean, God, what
young man wouldn't love all that stuff? But by the same token, my touch of
reality in a really unrealistic world were my horses, my love of my animals.
I mean, the horses were my touch of reality in an unrealistic world.
GROSS: So did you know that you were gay when you became a movie star?
Mr. HUNTER: Did I know I was gay? The word didn't even exist when I was a
movie star. I mean, this is something only in the last, you know, I don't
know how long, but, no, I was--number one, I'm a human being. That's what
it's all about. I knew I had these--you know, that my sexuality was different
from the average person, but I had conflicts of living with that.
GROSS: Did the studio--like who, in Hollywood, knew about your sexual
orientation, because this would have been a big issue had it been revealed.
So did the studio heads know? Did other actors know?
Mr. HUNTER: I never said anything. I was very quiet. You know, nothing--I
never was out there, so to speak, not at all. The people who knew I'm sure
probably my agent, Dick Clayton. My--the studio had to know because I saw a
memo when I was researching--you know, when I was doing my work at the
archives for the book, you know, George--What's his name?--George Abbott, who
produced "Damn Yankees!," didn't want me for the film. He thought I was a
little--to quote his memo to Jack Warner--"a little light in the loafers," or
whatever. But that's his problem, not mine. I--you know, Jack Warner said,
`Look, I bought "Damn Yankees!" for Tab Hunter. I bought "Pajama Game" for
Doris Day. Tab is going to do the film.' I mean, I have no idea what went on
in the offices of the studios other than when I had questions to ask them
GROSS: You had a relationship with Tony Perkins for a couple of years. Were
there places you could be together without anyone knowing that you were more
than buddies? I mean, were you able to be out in public together?
Mr. HUNTER: I'd go out with Tony. We'd go to premieres, we'd go to movies,
we'd go to the opening of the Ice Capades and things like that. We might
double-date to go out. Tony was a little uncomfortable sometimes going out,
like if we'd just go out to a movie or something like that, and in those days,
he would wear a baseball cap and sunglasses or something, maybe. Who knows?
Maybe he didn't want to be seen with me. I have no idea. But, no, I never
worried about it that much really. He'd take his car someplace, I'd take my
car someplace. Occasionally, we'd take--we'd go in the same car. But I knew
Tony for, oh, I guess about three years, and, you know, he was a very fine
actor, very busy young man, doing plays on Broadway and films in Europe and
films at Paramount. He was under contract to Paramount, and I was at Warner
Bros., so we had our own careers, our own lives, aside from the time we had
GROSS: Now you write that he had shock therapy to try to turn himself
straight. Was that when you knew him?
Mr. HUNTER: No. That was quite a number of years after.
GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard that?
Mr. HUNTER: I was literally shocked, yeah. I was quite surprised.
GROSS: Were you ever...
Mr. HUNTER: But I did see Tony a few years before he passed away, and I saw
Barry and the children up at the house. It was just wonderful to see that.
It really was. I was very happy for him.
GROSS: Were you ever troubled in that kind of way about being gay yourself?
I mean, he underwent shock therapy to try to change. Did you ever feel
pressure enough or uncomfortable enough to want to change that badly?
Mr. HUNTER: In--I mean, the change--I think you have to learn to be
comfortable with what you are. I mean, I'm not going to lie to myself and,
you know, say, get m--I thought of getting married a couple of times, but I
thought that would be so deceitful, so untrue, that wouldn't be fair. And
fair is a wonderful four-letter word beginning with F that--we really aren't
always fair in our lives, and I think we have to be.
GROSS: An article that could have really damaged you but didn't was published
in 1955 in the tabloid Confidential, and it was headlined, `The lowdown on
that disorderly conduct charge against Tab Hunter.' You reprint a paragraph
from this in your book, and I'd like to just read some of it, just to give a
sense of what those times were like.
Mr. HUNTER: And that's just one article in Confidential. I think I made
three covers and four articles.
GROSS: Mm-hm, OK. Let me just read some of this.
(Reading) `It all started with a vice cop who was drifting in and out of
Hollywood's queer bars on the afternoon of October 14th, looking and listening
for tips on the newest notions of the limp-wristed lads. Pausing for a scotch
and water in one gay joint, the deputy struck up a conversation with a couple
of lispers who happily prattled that they were set for a big binge that very
evening at 2501 Hope Street in a suburb of LA. One drink led to another, and
the pair finally invited the snooper to come along. There was only one
dashing requirement: Bring pajamas.'
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, please!
GROSS: (Reading) `Since breaking up such queer romps was his business, the
detective pretended to fall in with his barroom chums and arranged to
accompany them. Between snorts, however, they called the Los Angeles
sheriff's office for reinforcements.'
Wow. What was your reaction when you read this article?
Mr. HUNTER: You see why I wrote my own book? I'm not going to have some
garbage like that spilled out out there. I was kid out of the Coast Guard,
and a friend of mine, Terry Marcella(ph), who's passed away, he said, `You
want to go to a party this evening?' I said, `Fine.' So I went, and I walked
in, and I hadn't--I'd been to a gay party before--big deal. So I saw a couple
guys dancing and a couple people dancing over here and there, and a couple of
women dancing over there, and I thought, `Oh, gosh, it's one of those
parties,' so I walked to the refrigerator, literally opened the refrigerator,
started to reach in for something to eat, and some cops came in and took us
all downtown. Big deal. I was 15 1/2 years old--16 1/2 years old.
GROSS: So you're about 21 when this was published?
Mr. HUNTER: Oh--yes, and the interesting story is this, that Confidential
magazine was going to be doing a story on Rock Hudson, so our agent at the
time was Henry Willson, and Henry did not want that, so what he did was he
said, `Look, kill the story on Rock Hudson. I'll give you two stories.' And
he gave them--he gave Confidential magazine the story on Rory Calhoun being in
prison and on my being at that party.
GROSS: Wow. Isn't that called betrayal?
Mr. HUNTER: No kidding! That's Hollywood, my dear.
GROSS: Wow. So was the story they were going to write about Rock Hudson
about him being gay?
Mr. HUNTER: I have no idea. I have no idea what the story was going to be
about, but they were going to do some scandalous thing, I'm sure, on Rock.
GROSS: So how did you find out that it was your agent who gave them the
Mr. HUNTER: Because it came out...
GROSS: Much later?
Mr. HUNTER: ...because of this.
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, it did. I was shocked to hear that.
GROSS: So you and Rock Hudson had the same agent.
Mr. HUNTER: Yes. Henry Willson was the agent for Rory Calhoun, Guy Madison,
Rock, myself, a number of people, and--he discovered Lana Turner. He was
Natalie Woods' agent for a short while. Rhonda Fleming, he discovered. I
mean, number of people.
GROSS: By the time you found out, was he still your agent?
Mr. HUNTER: That's why he gave it to--because I was no longer his--he was no
longer my agent.
GROSS: Oh, he was no longer your agent at the time he gave it.
Mr. HUNTER: No, I left Henry...
Mr. HUNTER: ...and went with Dick Clayton when Dick became an agent, because
Dick was my oldest friend, and to this day, he still his. You know, he's 90
Mr. HUNTER: ...God bless him, and he's a beautiful human being. And I
always said that, `When you're an agent, I want to be your client.'
GROSS: OK. So this article that I quoted is really obnoxiously written.
It's published to cause a scandal, knowing that it could hurt you. So did
anybody take the bait? I mean, what happened after this? I know it was a
distortion of a party you'd actually went to, but the party was busted, so
they could say, `Oh, no, this is factually correct. You know, he was at this
party; the party was busted.' So...
Mr. HUNTER: The press...
GROSS: So what happened afterwards? What were the consequences?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, the conseque--I was--I became the biggest star at Warner
Bros. at that time. Explain it to me, please. I don't understand what
GROSS: So instead of this article hurting your career, you're saying it...
Mr. HUNTER: People...
GROSS: ...helped you? Or is it just...
Mr. HUNTER: No. No, I don't think it helped me, but I do think that people
believe what they want to believe.
GROSS: Did anyone ever try to blackmail you?
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, a couple of times, yeah. I wrote about it in the book.
GROSS: So what did you do?
Mr. HUNTER: I talked to my friend Martha, who was an attorney, and I
just--you know, we just got to get out of this nonsense. I mean, this is
just--I just hate people that think like that, you know? I just can't
tolerate that kind of behavior.
GROSS: So how did you end it?
Mr. HUNTER: I let Martha take care of it for me.
GROSS: And you don't know what Martha did?
Mr. HUNTER: I think we gave this person some money just to get the heck out
of here. Get out of my life.
GROSS: My guest is Tab Hunter. He's written a new memoir called "Tab Hunter
Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star." We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tab Hunter, and his new memoir
is called "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star."
How did you become an actor? You're one of those actors who became famous
without having gone to acting school, though far fewer people went to acting
school back then. But, I mean, you learned by doing it. So how did you get
to do it in the first place?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, I was discovered in the stable as a stable boy who's
shoveling the real stuff. And I then was introduced to an agent later. At
first, I was a young, wide-eyed kid going, `Wow! Look at this. Look what's
happening.' But then I realized, `No, you've got to have some staying power.
You've got to have some legs.' So that was important to me, to really hone my
craft, and I was really fortunate to work with some really sensational people.
GROSS: Now you had a singing career, too.
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, yes.
GROSS: Your biggest hit was "Young Love." Who's idea was it for you to start
recording? Was it something you wanted to do or something that a music or
film executive thought would be a good idea?
Mr. HUNTER: No, I always liked singing very much. I sang in the choir at
St. Paul's Parochial School, and I loved music. My mother always encouraged
me to sing. She kept saying, `You've got a nice voice. You've got a really
good voice. You should sing more. You should sing more.' And I studied
singing because I was hoping that one day I would get to do a musical, whether
it be in the theater or in film.
But Natalie and I were in Chicago for the promotion of "The Burning Hills,"
and Howard Miller had a huge radio show. He was a major disc jockey. And he
said, `Gosh, you should put out a record if you can sing.' I said, `Well, I
love to sing.' He said, `Well, let me put you in touch with Randy Wood at Dot
Records.' Dot is where Pat Boone, Bonnie Guitar, you know--oh, gosh, just go
on and on--Gale Storm--a lot of people were there. So I met with Randy. He
heard me sing. He gave me a song called "Love Young." He just was very
excited. We went in and recorded on a Friday. By Monday, a hundred thousand
records had been shipped and it shot up to number one in the nation for quite
GROSS: What were some of the differences between how you were treated in the
recording industry when you had hit records and how you were treated in the
film industry in terms of the way you were marketed, how people treated you as
Mr. HUNTER: Well, the interesting thing--even a more interesting story, I
think, than that is the fact that Warner Bros. had me under contract. That
meant for everything. So I did--I cut this record for Dot. And Warner
thought, `Whoa, wait a minute. We can't have that. You're under contract
with us.' So they immediately stopped me from releasing a hundred thousand
advance copies of an album that I had done and a number of things. So I went
on a tour that the studios had me on and I asked everyone--they wanted me to
talk about "The Spirit of St. Louis." Well, we all know that Jimmy Stewart,
you know, played Lindbergh, and he and a fly flew across the Atlantic and
landed safely at Le Bourget. So people would say, `Yeah, yeah, we know that.
But what about your records? What about this? What about that?' And they
were always asking about those things. So I said, `Why don't you all just
drop a little note to Mr. Jack Warner, care of Warner Bros. Studios in
Burbank, California?' So they did, and Warner hit the roof! So he thought,
`We've got to do something about this.' And it took him a long time, but he
actually started Warner Bros. Records because of me.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. HUNTER: I was the first recording artist on that label.
GROSS: So that they could, like, release records by the people who they,
Mr. HUNTER: Yes. And then I recorded for Warner Bros. also. In fact, I've
just released a CD with tunes from my Dot originals, from the Dot and the
Warner Bros. label.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear your 1957 hit, you first hit, "Young Love"?
(Soundbite of "Young Love")
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) They say for every boy and girl there's just one love
in this whole world, and I know I found mine. The heavenly touch of your
embrace tells me no one could take your place ever in my heart. Young love...
Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Young love...
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) ...first love...
Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) ...first love...
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) ...filled with true devotion. Young love...
Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Young love...
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) ...our love...
Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) ...our love...
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) ...we share with deep emotion.
GROSS: That's Tab Hunter and his first hit, "Young Love." And Tab Hunter has
a new memoir and it's called "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie
John Waters cast you in his film "Polyester." Divine plays--Divine, who was a
300-pound man who played the leading lady in a lot of John Waters' movies,
plays a very put-upon housewife who learns that her husband is secretly a
pornographer. And you play the owner of--What?--an art house movie theater?
Mr. HUNTER: Art house drive-in.
GROSS: An art house drive-in, that's right. An art house drive-in. And you
kind of seduce Divine, with ulterior motives that she is not aware of. But
you sweep her off her feet, and I thought I'd play a scene between the two of
Mr. HUNTER: All righty.
(Soundbite of "Polyester")
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Pretty horrible, isn't it?
DIVINE (Actor): (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh, those poor people! Did you see it
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Yes, I saw it happen. I was following that
van, then everything cut right in front. Wham! It hit it right on.
Unidentified Actor: Excuse me.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh!
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's really horrible.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh, it is. It's just too horrible. I can't
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) You know, why don't we take a ride in the
country and get away from all of this mess? I mean, it's a beautiful day and
I find you quite attractive.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) But I don't even know your name.
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's Todd, honey.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Todd?
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) Todd Tomorrow.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Hi. I'm Francine Fishpaw.
Mr. HUNTER (As Todd Tomorrow): Francine Fish--it's a beautiful name. Fits
you well. Yeah, I've got something I want to show you.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Yes?
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's long.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oooh!
Mr. HUNTER (As Todd Tomorrow) And it's sleek.
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Ohhh!
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) And it's powerful!
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Oh, what is it, Todd?
Mr. HUNTER: (As Todd Tomorrow) It's my new 'Vette!
DIVINE: (As Francine Fishpaw) Ohhh! Oh! Oh!
GROSS: That's Tab Hunter and Divine in a scene from John Waters' film
Tab Hunter, what was it like for you to do this movie?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, I was just finishing a play in Minneapolis or somewhere in
the Midwest, and I got a phone call from John. And he said, `I'd love for you
to--I'm doing a film and I'd love for you to do it if you're available.' And
I said, `Well, I do--why don't you send me the script?' He said, `Well, I
have to tell you, it's with a 300-pound transvestite.' And I said, `So? I
love your work. I'm a big fan of yours, John.' Who could ever forget "Pink
Flamingos," you know? Or who could ever forget "The Diane Linkletter Story"?
So John sent me the script and I thought, `What have I got to lose? I've got
everything to gain. It's a wonderful opportunity to work with a really
creative man who's fun, has a great sense of humor.' Divine I had a met at a
cocktail party that David Hockney had a number of years prior to that. And I
thought, `This would be a wonderful experience.' So I had about, oh, 10 days
off or two weeks off prior to opening a play in another city, so I did the
film for John at that time. Went to Baltimore--John shoots all of his films
in Baltimore--and it was a fun, fun experience, I've got to tell you. It was
GROSS: Tab Hunter. His new memoir is called "Tab Hunter Confidential."
Here's Tab Hunter singing the theme from "Polyester."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of theme from "Polyester")
Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) You know about abandoned women. Well, this girl only
aims to please. Outside, there's a load of noisy neighbors. Upstairs,
there's a polyester squeeze. Polyester. This is your life, Francine. Smell
the fragrant perfume. Darling, my dream's purely polyester queen. Purely...
GROSS: Coming up, a star-maker of the '50s who taught his gay actors how to
be butch and helped his straight actors be more poised and polished. He kept
some secrets and sold out others. We talk with Robert Hofler about his new
book "The Man Who Invited Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Robert Hofler discusses his new book, "The Man Who
Invented Rock Hudson"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Hollywood agent who helped create Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson, the agent
who protected Rock Hudson's secret gay life and exposed Tab Hunter's, is the
subject of a new book by my guest, Robert Hofler. It's called "The Man Who
Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson."
Hofler describes Willson as a beefy, tough-talking, chronically phobic
arch-conservative homosexual. Most of his clients, who were nicknamed Henry's
boys, were straight actors. His roster included Rory Calhoun, John Derek,
Chad Everett, Nick Adams, Robert Wagner and Troy Donahue. My guest, Robert
Hofler, has covered show business for decades and currently works for Variety.
Is there a certain type of actor that Willson handled and helped create?
Mr. ROBERT HOFLER (Author, "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys
and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson"): Well, I really wouldn't even call them
actors. They were personalities. And he did that for a very specific reason.
He wanted to be the star-maker. He was not interested in people like
Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando or James Dean. These were people who had
Broadway experience, who came to Hollywood with a certain cache and a great
deal of power actually.
What he wanted was to pick up people off the streets, and he did. I mean, you
know, he found Guy Madison in an audience and, you know, put him under
contract to David O. Selznick. He found Rory Calhoun at some party. You
know, Rock Hudson brought in some photographs to his office. I mean, Henry
Willson was the agent in Hollywood of first resort, and most of these people
had no acting experience whatsoever. What they did have is that they were
extraordinarily good looking, and, for the most part, they were personalities.
And it's interesting because, you know, my book focuses on all the men he
handled, but certainly I go into the first big star he created, who was Lana
Turner. And when he couldn't get Lana Turner under contract with 20th Century
Fox in--I think it was like 1936, he asked them, `Well, why aren't you signing
her?' And the studio executives said, `Well, she can't act.' And Henry
Willson said, `I didn't say she could act. I said she could be a movie star.'
And that really sums up Henry Willson.
GROSS: What kind of look did he like and help create?
Mr. HOFLER: It was very clean cut, very clean cut. And here's what's
interesting--because he was homosexual, and people think, `Oh, he must have
been, you know, a leftist or a liberal,' he was very conservative. You know,
he was in the vein of, you know, J. Edgar Hoover or Roy Cohn or Whittaker
Chambers. I mean, he was, you know, this real right-wing Republican, and he
wanted his stars to be clean cut.
And he really took the soldiers and sailors coming out of World War II and
fashioned them into stars, and this was a much more macho look than America
had been used to which really was kind of more, you know, Cary Grant and much
more urbane and sophisticated. And Henry Willson, you know, was really helped
in this, but there were lots of documentaries about the war and the guys were
often shown, you know, shirtless or whatever, and this was a whole new kind of
photography. It was much more real, but these guys all had that, you know,
clean-cut crew cut and that's the way that he dressed them. And basically
that was, you know, the major look of the 1950s. Now, obviously, it went out
of fashion in the 1960s and that's ultimately what did him in.
GROSS: Now you describe how he groomed some of his gay actors to look more
straight. What did he do?
Mr. HOFLER: Yes. Well, first off, most of his clients were straight. So
there's always this kind of my--the big myth about Henry Willson was that he
had this all-gay client list, and the fact of the matter is is that Henry
Willson preferred straight men, not only his clients but as bed partners. Why
he got the all, you know, gay client list is because he handled Rock Hudson
and to a lesser extent Tab Hunter. And, of course, his big creation, his big
Galatea was Rock Hudson, but he would look for any kind of, you know, little
mannerisms that was considered effeminate.
There was one client of his I talked to who Henry didn't like his laugh, so
they kind of worked on a different way that he could laugh at a producer's
jokes. You know, he would work on a guy's walk to make sure--you know, it's
right out of teen sympathy. And, you know, he might give them dance classes,
or, you know, he would do things--like, he was a really, even though he was an
agent and a manager, he was a brilliant publicist and he knew how to
photograph these guys. And quite often he would photograph them, you know,
with guns and bow-and-arrows and anything macho. And, of course, what he
really did is that, you know, he put them on a number of studio arranged
GROSS: You describe how he tried to help Rock Hudson make his voice huskier.
Mr. HOFLER: Yes. That was with a vocal coach, Lester Luther(ph), that Henry
sent Rock to and they waited for Rock to get a sore throat and then they had
him screaming for hours. And somehow that took the vocal cords and lowered
them a few tones when they had healed, but, of course, it ruined Rock's
singing voice as it would anyone's singing voice. I've never heard of that
technique used today, but that is a very famous story. And Henry became very
friendly with the actor teachers and the vocal coaches around Hollywood, so he
knew when they had young talent, and quite often, you know, they would say,
`Oh, you should, you know, meet Henry Willson.'
GROSS: You say that Willson had some gay clients, but most of the actors he
represented were straight and he actually...
Mr. HOFLER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...preferred straight men as clients and as bed mates. Was that part
of the price for getting him to represent you? Did you have to sleep with
Mr. HOFLER: Well, it varied. I mean, you know, justified or not, he had the
reputation of having the biggest, longest-running, you know, gay casting couch
in Hollywood and he was certainly savvy. I mean, there were a number of
clients who came to him who came from money, who came from positions. They
couldn't act, but--and those people, he might leave alone, but a number of the
people he did. I mean, this was an interesting thing that I came across is
that how many of these men he handled were fatherless. I mean, their father
was out of the picture. I mean, that's true with Troy Donahue. That's true
with Tab Hunter. It's true of Rock Hudson. It was true of Rory Calhoun. I
mean, the list really goes on and on, and, of course, a number of people that
the names wouldn't mean anything to you. But there were other people, let's
say, like, John Gavin or Robert Wagner who came from money and their fathers
were still living, and, you know, so Henry was savvy on whom he hit on and
whom he did not hit on.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Hofler. His new book is called "The Man Who
Invented Rock Hudson."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Hofler. His new book, "The Man Who Invented Rock
Hudson," is about Henry Willson, the agent who helped create Rock Hudson, Tab
Hunter and Troy Donahue. Willson was gay, but with the exception of Hudson
and Hunter, most of his actors were straight and very clean-cut.
How did Henry Willson meet Rock Hudson?
Mr. HOFLER: There's a few stories about that and so quite often in the
book--and this is very typical when you start getting into a biography of a
gay person. So much of it is oral history because it was not written down.
There is one story that Rock and Henry told is that Rock had sent some
photographs to Henry Willson who was head of talent for David O'Selznick in
1948 and that's how they met. And Henry always had an open-door policy.
I cannot tell you the number of people even when Henry was a major agent in
the '50s and '60s that the number of people who came to Henry Willson directly
off the street. And, of course, one of the reasons Henry liked this is that
he was the star-maker, and also it was a great way to procure men, you know,
that the men would come off the street and say, `Hey, I can make you a star.
You know, why don't I give you a tour of my house in Bel Air,' you know, that
kind of thing. And he would go to Ciro's and Mocambo, and before that, the
Trocadero, and there would be all these soldiers. Remember it was World War
II or after, and it is was the Port of Los Angeles and these sailors and
soldiers would be at the bar. And he would walk around with his card and go,
`Hey, I can make you a movie star. You know, would you like a tour of my
house?' And so, you know, this is what he did.
But he was also as an agent brilliant at what he did and the crazy names he
gave people, at that particular time, was a brilliant publicity ploy. It got
people publicity before they'd even made a movie. Also he was very well
connected in Hollywood. This is what I was talking about with the acting
coaches and the vocal teachers. He also plied secretaries and mail room boys
with lots of gifts. He never forgot their birthday because they fed him the
screenplays and sometimes Henry Willson would get a hold of a screenplay
before the producer or the head of the studio had even seen it. And he would
go, `Oh, I've got this guy who's perfect for that role.'
GROSS: How did he give Rock Hudson his name?
Mr. HOFLER: The story is that he took it after the Rock of Gibraltar and he
took the river--the Hudson River, that he wanted two strong names, and so that
is the story that he told. There were some people I found who said, `No, Rock
Hudson came to Henry Willson with that name, that Rock Hudson had actually
been named that'--his real name was Roy Fitzgerald--by a real estate agent
named Ken Hodges who used to be a producer and now wanted to be an agent and
he thought he had found his meal ticket back to Hollywood with this Roy
Fitzgerald and he was actually the one who named him Rock Hudson. I kind of,
you know, doubt that story.
GROSS: Willson was gay. Willson knew that Rock Hudson was gay. What advice
did Willson give Hudson about being seen in public with other men?
Mr. HOFLER: Well, it's what he would have told anyone that he represented,
and that was that you could never be seen in public with one other man. It
was OK to be seen with two other men because that meant all the guys' night
out. The two or four men meant a date. Now what happened to Willson later in
his career, like in the '60s when kind of drugs and alcohol--and he actually
became a little lazy as an agent. He started taking over, you know, a room at
the Cock & Bowl(ph) or Pantha's(ph), Lazy Susan(ph), Norscandia(ph), a number
of these restaurants, and he would have three or four tables of young
attractive men. And to Henry Willson's way of thinking, this did not read as,
like, you know, the back room of a gay bar. It read like kind of the boys'
night out, kicking back a few after the football game.
What was interesting is that Henry became notorious in Hollywood, but Henry
didn't know that, but it was an open secret that he was gay and particularly
when he arranged for the marriage of his secretary, Phyllis Gates, to Rock
Hudson, you know, people started laughing about it. I mean, I talked to Tony
Curtis, I talked to Debbie Reynolds, and they just said, you know, that that
was the point which everyone in Hollywood just openly started talking about
the fact that Rock Hudson was gay.
But Henry was a little delusional, and I talked to Dennis Hopper and he was
just saying, `Well, Henry was obvious. He just openly came on to you, and he
didn't care who else was in the room.' And yet Henry didn't see it that way.
I mean, people talked about Henry being with Rory Calhoun on the set of movies
in, like, the early '50s, and they just said it was obvious that, you know,
Henry Willson was in love with Rory Calhoun. There was a head of talent at
MGM who first met Roy Fitzgerald before he was named Rock Hudson, which is why
I doubt that story about Ken Hodges who said that, you know, Henry was
holding, you know, Roy Fitzgerald's hand during the job interview at, like,
MGM because Roy Fitzgerald, Rock Hudson, was so nervous. It was obvious, she
said, that these men were lovers.
GROSS: So Henry Willson, Rock Hudson's agent, basically found a wife, you
say, for Rock Hudson and that wife was Henry Willson's secretary, Phyllis
Gates. What did you find out about why Henry Willson thought the time was
right for this marriage, and why did he set up Rock Hudson with his secretary?
Mr. HOFLER: Well, you know, that was a major mistake for lots of reasons, and
you know a big one is that he didn't look far enough. I mean, you know, if
you want to set someone with Rock Hudson, you know, you don't set them up with
your secretary. You know, everyone in Hollywood knew what was going on, but
the fact of the matter is is that the general public never kind of caught on
to what was going on. So, you know, it's kind of, like, OK. And Terry Moore,
who was a starlet at the time, she says, `You know, it didn't matter in
Hollywood what, you know, Hollywood, you know, insiders knew. It was what the
general public knew.'
The other thing about Rock Hudson that protected him in Hollywood--I've been
covering, you know, the celebrity game here for, you know, about 30 years, and
I have to say rarely, rarely have I heard anyone say that Rock Hudson, those
people that knew him, he just wasn't the nicest guy in the world, that
Hollywood adored him and he was a real Hollywood creation as opposed to the
other big stars at that time who were, like, you know, Montgomery Clift, James
Dean or Marlon Brando, who came from Broadway. He was essentially, you know,
a hometown boy.
GROSS: When Henry Willson, Rock Hudson's agent, suggested that it was time
Hudson get married, was Willson worried that the story was about to break that
Hudson was gay?
Mr. HOFLER: He had--at least two ex-lovers of Rock Hudson had been approached
by Confidential for $10,000 each to tell their stories.
GROSS: And Confidential was like a Hollywood tabloid magazine.
Mr. HOFLER: That was--oh, yeah, the biggest, but you have to also remember,
that was late in 1954, and Rock had just been cast in "Giant," George Stevens'
big movie, and that was the plum role. Henry already knew that there were two
guys who had been approached, two who refused to cooperate, 'cause they still
liked Rock, but something had to be done. And I don't know if Confidential,
which--you know, was paid off by the studios, but this I do know, that
Universal also had Rory Calhoun under contract at that time, and in the May
issue of Confidential, there was a tradeoff that Rock Hudson would be spared
and Rory Calhoun, who had a prison record and was in the federal penitentiary
for a number of years, would be exposed in Confidential. And that was a
tradeoff. Actually that kind of prison record actually helped Rory Calhoun's
career. He did lots of, you know, sob story interviews and whatever. And
that was in the May issue.
That summer, Tab Hunter fired Henry Willson. This was written about in The
Hollywood Reporter. A couple of very scathing items were written by a gossip
columnist for The Hollywood Reporter named Mike Connelly, who was a good
friend of Henry Willson's. He wrote two scathing items about Tab Hunter
firing Henry Willson, and in the September issue of Confidential, Tab Hunter's
story about being at this pajama party in Glendale was written about in
Confidential. Now that was an old--a five-year-old arrest that had remained
buried. One of the few people who knew about it was Henry Willson. And his
friend was Mike Connelly, who was an informant for Confidential. Mike
Connelly, his byline appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, but Mike Connelly was
also gay and was being blackmailed by Confidential. And in exchange that they
would not expose him as a homosexual, Mike Connelly gave them gossip that he
could not publish in The Hollywood Reporter.
Then in October--that was the September issue of Confidential. In October,
Rock Hudson got the cover of Life magazine. Now this is staid old Life
magazine. They put him on the cover. They called him the most handsome
bachelor in Hollywood, but on the inside, they really very blatantly asked,
`Why isn't he married? He's going to be 30 years old soon. He'd better
explain to his fans why he's not married.' I mean, that's about as uncoded as
you can get. I mean, that's just practically outing a person. And the next
month Rock Hudson was married.
GROSS: You know, the picture you're painting is of--you know, like, blackmail
and trading one person's secrets to prevent somebody from outing you or outing
your client, and it sounds like it was really dirty.
Mr. HOFLER: Well, you get into the whole House Un-American Activities, and I
don't think I'm going too far afield talking about this, but you have to
remember that in the '50s, there were more homosexuals who were let go from
the State Department than there were suspected Communists. That--to be a
subversive, you know, it just wasn't political. You know, to be considered to
be subversive, you know, you were--you know, if you were suspected of being
homosexual, you know, that was enough to fire someone.
As I said earlier in this interview, homosexuality could only be mentioned as
an accusation at that particular time, and that's one thing that we keep
forgetting about when we look at this behavior, but you also see--well, here
was J. Edgar Hoover who was gay and you had Whittaker Chambers, and you had
Roy Cohn and, you know, it would be that they were just politically
conservative men and they just--this is the way they were and if they were
straight or gay, but I think that their homosexually probably played into it
in that, you know, they were, like, `Hey, I'm not gay. You know, I'm a true
American, you know? I'm not a cultural subversive. I'm not a political
subversive.' So they did this as a kind of cover.
GROSS: So if you were outed in the '50s, it not only would have meant that
people would question whether you could be a leading man in a movie but your
patriotism would be questioned, too, your standing as an American.
Mr. HOFLER: Yeah. I think at that particular time, you have to realize that
it was Senator McCarthy who had a very famous line which was that if you're
against me, you have to be either a Communist or--and he had a slur for
GROSS: My guest is Robert Hofler. His new book is called "The Man Who
Invented Rock Hudson."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Robert Hofler. His new book, "The Man Who Invented Rock
Hudson," is about Henry Willson, the agent who helped create Rock Hudson, Tab
Hunter and Troy Donahue. Willson was gay, but with the exception of Hudson
and Hunter, most of his actors were straight.
You quote some of the FBI files on Rock Hudson. Did you get those files
through the Freedom of Information Act?
Mr. HOFLER: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: What are some of the things you found in there?
Mr. HOFLER: Well, the...
GROSS: First of all, why did the FBI have a file on him in the first place?
Mr. HOFLER: There were two reasons and it goes back to, you know, what we
just talked about and that was that he was considered subversive because he
was a homosexual, you know, that they were, you know, out to--I don't say
expose, but they wanted to know what homosexuals were up to. I mean, they
were degenerates. I mean, this was the American culture. It was being
sullied. And, you know, I suppose in a similar way, it's like how many people
during that period who were suspected of being Communist were Jews. You know,
it's that kind of thinking, `Oh, well, the Jews are more likely to be
Communists; the homosexuals are more likely to be Communists.' I don't know,
but that was the major reason they kept it.
The other thing is also--and this was a little bit later in Rock's career
because I believe the file was kept for over 10 years--is that he was up for
some roles to play an FBI agent, and so all of those scripts had to be vetted.
But if you really look through the files, you know, most of it had to do with,
like, you know, Rock Hudson attended this orgy. Now, unfortunately, I have to
say they had a whole list of other names that were blocked out because I was
asking about Rock Hudson. So all these other names, which looked like it
could be a couple of dozen names, were blacked out.
And one interesting thing in there is that I would say the file started in
1959 which was the year that Henry Willson and his assistant were interviewed
by the FBI and the FBI came in and said, `Is Rock Hudson a homosexual? Are
you two guys homosexual?' And they asked for some names. And that's when the
file started. I think they closed it in the early '70s, but in the early
'60s, there was a very interesting item in it, saying that Rock Hudson had a
close associate who could be trusted to be an informant. And it was around
that time that Henry Willson's assistants told me that Henry Willson
started--when people would threaten, blackmail or they would say something he
didn't like, he would say, `They'd better not. I'll get J. Edgar Hoover on
them,' and this was something that, you know, he used a lot. Whether he was
the informant or not, I don't know. There was also a very funny line--well,
it's funny and it's sad--is that when Rock Hudson was interviewed in the file,
it said that two mature FBI agents would be sent to interview Rock Hudson.
GROSS: Why is that funny?
Mr. HOFLER: Because they had to be mature and they had to send two. They
couldn't send one FBI agent 'cause...
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
Mr. HOFLER: ...you know, Rock Hudson might seduce them because he's this
GROSS: Got it.
Mr. HOFLER: So they had to send two mature--they made a big deal out of it.
GROSS: You've been covering movie celebrities for decades. Do you think the
American movie-going public is ready to accept leading men or leading ladies
who are gay or lesbian?
Mr. HOFLER: You know, I hate to say that I don't think they're ready because
that seems to perpetuate it, and, you know, that's what I would have to say.
And I think someday it will happen and it will be someone not like a Rock
Hudson but someone like a Montgomery Clift or a James Dean, who comes out of
the theater, they're put in an indie movie or they come out of the British
theater and they make a British movie and they play a romantic leading man and
all of a sudden this little movie takes off at the box office, they win an
Oscar. And this guy goes, like, `You know, I just don't really care that much
about a movie career and then we will see what happens.' And this is a person
who can go back and forth between movies and theater and there's so many
independent movies now that, you know, it's conceivable that you don't have to
have this huge box office.
But here's my theory--and for the last six years, I was a theater reporter for
Variety. There's a big difference between the theater and film, and Henry
Willson actually worked for Variety, wrote for Variety in the late '20s about
the theater. And then when he moved to Hollywood, he had this, you know,
mantra which was, `I didn't say she could act. She could be a movie star,'
you know, that kind of stuff--is that the movies are about sexual fantasies.
The theater is not. The theater is about talent. The theater is about being
able to hold the stage for two hours. That isn't really what the movies are
about, and the movies are constantly asking you to turn on to either violence
or sex. I mean, Aling Kill(ph) said it all. `It is all kiss-kiss,
bang-bang,' and that is what the movies sell primarily, is having `it,' being
sexually attractive, being a sexual fantasy. And the fact of the matter is is
that in our culture, you know, most people, you know, fantasize about, you
know, the opposite sex.
GROSS: Robert Hofler, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HOFLER: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Robert Hofler is the author of the new book, "The Man Who Invented
Rock Hudson." He works for Variety.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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