On this day in 1985, actor Rock Hudson, 59, becomes the first major U.S. celebrity to die of complications from AIDS. Hudson’s death raised public awareness of the epidemic, which until that time had been ignored by many in the mainstream as a “gay plague.”
Hudson, born Leroy Harold Scherer Jr., on November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois, was a Hollywood heartthrob whose career in movies and TV spanned nearly three decades. With leading-man good looks, Hudson starred in numerous dramas and romantic comedies in the 1950s and 60s, including Magnificent Obsession, Giant and Pillow Talk. In the 1970s, he found success on the small screen with such series as McMillan and Wife. To protect his macho image, Hudson’s off-screen life as a gay man was kept secret from the public.
In 1984, while working on the TV show Dynasty, Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS. On July 25, 1985, he publicly acknowledged he had the disease at a hospital in Paris, where he had gone to seek treatment. The news that Hudson, an international icon, had AIDS focused worldwide attention on the disease and helped change public perceptions of it.
The first cases of AIDS were reported in 1981 and the earliest victims were gay men who often faced public hostility and discrimination. As scientists and health care officials called for funding to combat the disease, they were largely ignored by President Ronald Reagan and his administration. Rock Hudson was a friend of Reagan’s and his death was said to have changed the president’s view of the disease. However, Reagan was criticized for not addressing the issue of AIDS in a major public speech until 1987; by that time, more than 20,000 Americans had already died of the disease and it had spread to over 100 countries. By 2006, the AIDS virus had killed 25 million people worldwide and infected 40 million others.