On this day in 1985, Rock Hudson, a quintessential tall, dark and handsome Hollywood leading man during the 1950s and 1960s who made more than 60 movies during his career, dies at the age of 59 from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in Beverly Hills, California. Earlier that same year, Hudson announced through a press release that he was suffering from the disease, becoming the first major celebrity to go public with such a diagnosis. The first cases of AIDS, a condition caused by a virus that attacks and destroys the human immune system, were reported in homosexual men in the United States in the early 1980s. At the time of Hudson’s death, AIDS was not fully understood by the medical community and was stigmatized by the general public as a condition affecting only gay men, intravenous drug users and people who received contaminated blood transfusions.
Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., on November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois. He rose to fame in the 1950s, starring in such films as Giant (1956), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and A Farewell to Arms (1957). Hudson’s good looks and charm were on full display in 1959’s Pillow Talk and several other romantic comedies he made with Doris Day in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, Hudson co-starred in the popular TV series McMillan and Wife. Early in the next decade, he began experiencing health problems and underwent heart bypass surgery. His final TV role was a recurring part on Dynasty from 1984 to 1985.
In July 1985, Hudson was hospitalized while in Paris. Some media reports indicated that he was suffering from liver cancer. However, on July 25, Hudson issued a press release stating he had AIDS and was in France for treatment. Hudson, who had a three-year marriage during the 1950s to a woman who had been his agent’s secretary, never spoke publicly about his sexuality.
Hudson’s death was credited with bringing attention to an epidemic that would go on to kill millions of men, women and children of all backgrounds from around the world. Hudson’s friend and former Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor became an AIDS activist and rallied the Hollywood community to raise millions for research. In 1993, Tom Hanks received a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the director Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, the first major Hollywood movie to focus on AIDS.