Troy Donahue is straight. He is sexy and many gay men wish he was gay. If you like him, just say it: I Ain’t Ashamed of My Man Crush. He has salt and pepper hair. Scroll down and check out his short and/or medium salt and pepper hairstyles & haircuts.
Henry Willson,the agent who masterminded Rock Hudson’s career along withthose of such other Hollywood hunks—straight andgay—as Troy Donohue and Tab Hunter, had rulesfor his gay clients. „No two men can live together andhave a career in Hollywood,“ he advised one of hisactors in the 1950s. „It is not allowed. You’ll ruin it allif you live with this other man.“
If Willson, whodied in 1978, were still alive, Hollywood’s changingattitudes toward homosexuality would probably leave him at arare loss for words. Although no A-list star has yetemerged to challenge Willson’s long-held belief thatthe public will not accept an openly gay leading man,in most other respects the scene has changed dramatically.
Ang Lee’s struggling with their attraction for each other, already ispositioned as one of this year’s major awardscontenders. Performances like Philip Seymour Hoffman’sportrayal of the title character in , with both Broadway-trainedactors playing thoroughly hetero characters.
By contrast, the’50s, when Hudson reigned as the country’s top boxoffice draw and Willson, one of Hollywood’s leading agents,commanded the best tables at Ciro’s and the Mocambo,was far more rigid and closeted. It was hardlystraitlaced, though, because the decade also harbored asubterranean gay culture with its own elaborate codes andcustoms.
In the newlypublished and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson our own. Willson, born in Lansdown, Pa., the son of an EastCoast record company executive, migrated to Hollywood in the’30s, first working as a fan-magazine writerchronicling the migration of Broadway talent attractedby the talkies. By the ’40s he had become producer DavidO. Selznick’s head of talent, where his duties includedsquiring Selznick’s star and paramour, Jennifer Jones,around town. By the ’50s, Willson had gone intobusiness for himself, representing a growing stable ofclean-cut, hypermasculine stars who appealed to thebobby-soxers who drove the box office.
He also became acontroversial figure. When the gossip magazine threatened to expose Hudson, Willsonfended off the scandal, possibly working throughintermediaries, by feeding the magazineinformation about Rory Calhoun’s criminal record andHunter’s attendance at an all-male „pajama party.“ Willson,gay but homophobic and politically conservative,maintained a straight persona—PresidentTruman’s daughter Margaret was just one of severaldates he claimed was his „fiancé.“ But his lecherousreputation was an open secret in Hollywood—somuch so that in later years many of his clients, bothstraight and gay, would deny he ever represented them.
Nevertheless,Hoffler makes a compelling argument that Willson, thoughhardly laudable, served an important function. Suchwomanizing moguls as Selznick, Darryl Zanuck, andHarry Cohn might have had an eye for identifyingfemale stars. But at a time when female executives didn’texist, Willson and other gay agents and managers took on thejob of identifying and grooming many of the male starswho brought in female ticket buyers. In short, theyturned matinee idols into gold. (Gregg Kilday, viaReuters)
Book Review: The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
I just took a long hot bath – in dollar store bleach! I still don’t exactly feel clean but, thankfully, the permanent scum encountered by reading Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson (The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson) is definitely a joyous one!
Here, Hofler recounts the history of the moneyed Willson whose many smoothly muscular male clients paved the way for the term “beefcake”. Best known for creating Rock Hudson (Pretty Maids All In A Row, Embryo), Willson also was (at least initially) responsible for the careers of such terror bound clients as Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell), John Saxon (Black Christmas, A Nightmare on Elm Street), Tab Hunter (Grotesque, Cameron’s Closet), Troy Donahue (Blood Nasty, My Blood Runs Cold) and James Darren (Venus in Furs).
Portraying Hollywood as a cesspool of sexual manipulation, this sticky tome chronicles how Willson would mold his unrefined upstarts into camera ready studs. Of course, the extremely closeted agent often demanded sexual favors from his flock and Hudson, upon reaching the far heights of his fame, often indulged in Willson’s stable of up-and-comers, as well. In fact, if even half the allegations are true, this tale of seductions and internal homophobia is a mindboggling examination of the lengths that people will go to for fame in the often corrupt environs of Hollywood.
Of course, false or not, Willson’s account of (extremely well hung) cowboy star Calhoun’s affair with (fellow stud) Guy Madison is sure to be a delight filled revelation for lavender horror freaks who grew up relishing tales of Farmer Vincent’s fritters. Granted, Hofler does try to give equal weight to Willson’s kindnesses, however dubious they, ultimately, come off. Many colleagues defend Willson’s devotion to the young men under his influence, claiming that he truly took care of them, emotionally and financially, throughout the entirety of their careers. Hudson while painted as sexually voracious is also given props for his genuine humility. Although, Hudson’s best friend George Nader (Robot Monster) comes out looking the best of the bunch here by seeming to genuinely avoid all of the sordidness at hand.
Still, as dazzlingly enjoyable as this tome is for all its sheet stained revelations, this is ultimately a tale of sadness. In reality, Hollywood has changed little since Willson’s days of hush-hush dalliances. Combining this fact with the knowledge that Willson died a pauper and that Hudson’s status as the first truly famous victim of AIDS is perhaps more significant to history than his light footed eloquence in such classics as Pillow Talk marks The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson as both a sobering sociological study and a glitzy expose – a nimble feat for Hofler.
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!
Tagged: Henry WillsonJames DarrenJohn SaxonRobert HolferRock HudsonRory CalhounTab HunterThe Man Who Invented Rock HudsonTroy Donahue
Henry Willson, Rock Hudson’s Agent, Was as Complicated as Depicts
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the talent agent Henry Willson invented Rock Hudson. Depicted by Jim Parsons in the Netflix show Hollywood, Willson was a powerful figure in 1940s Hollywood. He was also a controversial one.
The mechanics of Willson’s star-making machine are introduced in „Hooray for Hollywood: Part 2,“ Hollywood’s second episode. Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), a farm boy from Indiana, walks into Henry’s office. He leaves renamed Rock Hudson, and on a trajectory to stardom—never mind the fact that he can’t act. As Willson liked to say, „The acting can be added later.“
“I know in the first 30 seconds if someone has got what it takes to be a star. And you, believe it or not, got it. You got picture potential,” Henry says in Hollywood, before listing Rock’s new regimen of exercise, tanning, and even lowering his vocal cords.
As Rock soon learns, signing on as Henry’s client has more strings attached than the 10% commission fee. A demeaning predator, Henry often expects sexual favors from his clients—not to mention private audiences for his strange dance routines. For all their physical differences, Henry and his clients, including Hudson, often had something major in common: They were gay, and had to keep their true identities hidden.
Ironically enough, playing this complicated figure was a “joyous” experience for Parsons. „It was just about as rewarding for me as anything I’ve ever gotten to do. A lot of it has to do with the fact that he is an outlandish character, and was in real life. It’s a candy shop of choices and opportunities,” the Big Bang Theory actor tells
He even choreographed his own moves for „Dance of the Seven Veils“ from Salome, culminating in an unforgettable performance that even Meryl Streep called brilliant.
Whereas his version of Henry Willson got a kind of redemption in Hollywood’s alternate history, the real Willson fell from power and died in poverty in 1978. Here’s what you need to know.
Tab Hunter’s Secrets
Imagine an alternative universe in which being gay in nineteen-fifties America was not just tolerated but celebrated. The hottest couple in Hollywood would undoubtedly be Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins. The two actors met in 1956, at the pool at the Chateau Marmont. Perkins, brooding and darkly handsome, was doing “Friendly Persuasion” and was four years away from “Psycho.” Hunter was a studio player at Warner Brothers: a blond, blue-eyed dreamboat, whom the studio was selling—quite successfully—as the quintessential boy next door.
Had the three-year romance that followed been acceptable in the light of day, Hunter and Perkins might have been iconic: an East Coast–West Coast, sunny-meets-stormy power couple. In real life, of course, the relationship was a potential career-ender for both, and they kept it secret from even their closest friends. As Hunter recalls in Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary, “Tab Hunter Confidential” (opening in New York this weekend), he would go out on “dates” with starlets like Debbie Reynolds, arranged by the studio and lapped up by movie magazines; sometimes, he and Perkins would double-date with women and then go home together.
If you’re too young to remember Tab Hunter, ask your mother. For a good stretch of the fifties, his square-jawed image was a staple on teen-age girls’ bedroom walls. Raised Arthur Gelien, in California, by a mother whom he later had to commit to a psychiatric institution, Hunter was so Adonis-like that the girls in his high school used to chase him around in mobs—for reasons that are now obvious, this made him extremely uncomfortable. He joined the Coast Guard to escape the attention, until he was discharged for being underage. Nevertheless, he wound up with a Hollywood agent, who gave him a new name, and he appeared in movies like “Island of Desire,” “Battle Cry,” and “Damn Yankees!” He typically played soldiers and surfers and other totems of wholesome American masculinity. (James Dean, Warner Brothers’ in-house bad boy, was his mirror image.) He branched out into a recording career, crooning hits like “Young Love.” For a while, he was dubbed “The Sigh Guy.”
“They labelled me the all-American boy,” Hunter said earlier this week, at the Kimberly Hotel in midtown. At eighty-four, he is still approachably handsome, dressed as if headed to a wine tasting in Napa: slacks and a light-blue Oxford shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. He was in town with Allan Glaser, his partner of thirty-three years. (They live in Santa Monica, with two horses and two whippets.) He added, “I’ve always been sort of an anti-label person.”
That includes the other label he spent his career carefully avoiding. In the fifties, homosexuality was considered a perversion, and it was particularly toxic for Hollywood leading men. (And, to a large extent, it still is.) The studio kept most of the rumors out of the movie magazines, though Confidential reported Hunter’s arrest at a “limp-wristed pajama party” when his former agent bartered the information to protect Rock Hudson. Itching for artistic freedom, Hunter bought himself out of his contract with Warner Brothers, which quickly gave the blond-heartthrob slot to Troy Donahue. The roles dried up, and, when the fifties gave way to the sixties, a distrust toward prepackaged matinée idols made Hunter a relic. Meanwhile, his relationship with Perkins petered out after Hunter appeared in the TV baseball drama “Fear Strikes Out,” and then Perkins arranged to star in the movie version himself. “We didn’t see much of each other after that,” he said.
For a while, he was stuck doing B-movies and dinner theatre. (“Between the belching and the passing of gas, we’d do the first and second act of a show.”) While on the road in the early eighties, he got a call from John Waters, who wanted to cast him in his new film, “Polyester,” opposite the drag queen Divine. “He said, ‘One question: How would you feel about kissing a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound transvestite?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sure I’ve kissed a hell of a lot worse!’ ” His appearance in “Polyester” and in a second movie with Divine, “Lust in the Dust” (which is how he met Glaser, one of its producers), occasioned a tongue-in-cheek resurgence, in which he played off his clean-cut image. But, for the past three decades, he has mostly focussed on his horses.
Hunter is the opposite of Norma Desmond. “He didn’t save a still, a lobby card, a poster,” Glaser said. “He gave his gold record away. He kept nothing.” When his movies come up on TMC, he flips past them. He revealed his long-held secret only when he got word that an unauthorized biography was in the works, and Glaser persuaded him to preëmpt it with his own book, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” which appeared in 2005. Even after that, the documentary took seven years to make, Glaser said, because of “how reticent he is to talk about some things.” “I was brought up very quietly, very privately,” Hunter said. “My mother was a very strict German, religious, and so you just didn’t discuss things like that.”
Glaser said that the process had been “cathartic” for Hunter, but he still seems ill at ease discussing his gay identity, and he disapproves of modern celebrities who are “blah, blah, blah, right in your face.” You probably won’t find him accepting GLAAD awards or riding in gay-pride parades, like George Takei or Ian McKellen. Asked if he would come out of the closet if he were a young movie star today, he said no. “The thing that I feel is good about the documentary,” he reasoned, “is there are a lot of men like me who have lived very hidden lives. And it’s got to be hopefully a little step in a direction where they don’t feel as bad about it.”
One gets the sense that Hunter enjoyed the zenith of his fame, despite the secrecy of his personal life, but that he never really bought into his own stardom. Unlike Perkins, he wasn’t ruthless, and his talent had its limitations. Being a teen heartthrob means being a product, and products tend to run their course. What’s admirable about Hunter is that, against his long-standing instinct for the quiet life, he is filling out an important part of gay history, when the studios controlled their charges and the celluloid closet was firmly locked shut. That he has lived to tell his tale in an era when the door is creaking inexorably open is a fate not afforded to Perkins. He died in 1992, of AIDS, and left behind a wife and two kids.
Hunter embodied the clean-cut image but was forced to deny his gay sexuality for years
Tab Hunter: decades after he shot to fame he revealed he was gay. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tab Hunter, the tall, blond, blue-eyed movie star who as a teenage idol in the 1950s was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system – and who made an unlikely comeback in a very un-Hollywood film when he was almost 50 – died on Sunday in California. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his spouse, Allan Glaser, who said the cause was cardiac arrest after a blood clot moved from Hunter’s leg to his lung.
Arthur Gelien was 17 when agent Henry Willson gave him a new name and added him to a roster of clients that included Rock Hudson, Robert Wagner and Rory Calhoun. “Acting skill,” Hunter said in his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential, written with Eddie Muller, “was secondary to chiselled features and a fine physique.”
He might not have had the skill, at least not yet, but he had the look; he was the epitome of the sunny all-American boy enshrined in decades of Hollywood films. His first audition for Island of Desire (1952) consisted of taking off his shirt. The screen test came later. On the basis of that movie, in which he played a brash Marine corporal marooned with Linda Darnell on a South Seas island, the readers of Photoplay magazine voted him the year’s No. 1 new male star.
His breakthrough movie was Battle Cry (1955), in which he played another Marine, at the beginning of second World War, who has a girlfriend back home and a steamy love affair with a married USO volunteer (Dorothy Malone) in San Diego. Its success led to a seven-year contract with Warner Bros.
In February 1956, Hunter received a reported 62,000 Valentines. He was the dream date of teenage girls on several continents. And he had a secret. It was not until 50 years after Battle Cry, when he wrote his autobiography, that he publicly discussed his homosexuality; his love affair with actor Anthony Perkins; the rage and wrath of his parish priest when, as a 14-year-old boy, he haltingly confessed what had happened in the dark of a movie theatre; and years of being “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture – where I was even less comfortable and less accepted”.
He was most comfortable on horseback, a lifelong passion. He had been discovered while shovelling manure at a riding academy in return for being allowed to ride. During his heady Warner Bros. years, he bought horses – and cars – that he could not afford. He had never had money before; now it spilled through his fingers.
His fame grew when he starred with Natalie Wood in two 1956 movies: The Burning Hills, a Western, and The Girl He Left Behind, in which he played an arrogant rich boy turned into a man by the Army. (The studio also arranged to create the illusion of a romance by having the two stars be seen together in public.) When Warner Bros. made the movie version of the hit Broadway musical Damn Yankees, about a middle-age fan who is turned into a young baseball superstar by the devil, in 1958, Hunter played the superstar.
His reviews were sometimes terrible. In his memoir, he quoted one review of The Girl He Left Behind: “Since Mr Hunter discloses not one redeeming feature as an actor, the picture misses fire whenever he’s around.” Determined to turn himself into a real actor, Hunter sought out live television. He played a murderer on Playhouse 90 and Jimmy Piersall, the major league baseball player who came back from a nervous breakdown, in a well-reviewed adaptation of the book Fear Strikes Out on the series Climax. But Warner Bros refused to buy the movie rights to Fear Strikes Out for its teenage idol, and the film was made by Paramount, with Hunter’s sometime companion Anthony Perkins.
Frustrated, Hunter bought himself out of his Warner Bros contract in 1959. The studio already had another actor under contract and ready to take his place: Troy Donahue, who was as tall and blond as Hunter but five years younger. (In his autobiography, Hunter said he had heard that when people mistook Donahue for him, Donahue would sometimes correct them by explaining, “I’m the straight one.”)
Leaving Warner Bros. proved to be a mistake. “I was a product of Hollywood,” Hunter told The New York Times in 1981. “And one morning, I woke up and couldn’t get arrested.” He never stopped working, but he would not return to the spotlight until maverick filmmaker John Waters cast him in his quirky Polyester (1981) and made him hip for a new generation. Arthur Andrew Kelm was born in Manhattan on July 11, 1931, to a forbidding German immigrant mother and a father who welcomed his birth by tossing a nickel candy bar on his wife’s hospital bed and leaving her to carry the baby home to their tenement in a borrowed blanket. By the time Arthur was three, Charles Kelm had departed, leaving Arthur only the memory of begging his father to stop beating his mother.
Gertrude Kelm reclaimed her maiden name, Gelien, and moved with her two sons first to San Francisco, where she was gone for weeks at a time as a stewardess on cruise ships, and then to Southern California, where she held various jobs. “The constant in my early life was my brother,” Hunter wrote. Schools and cities blurred, but his brother, Walter, 11 months older, who would die in Vietnam leaving behind seven children, was always there.
At 15, Hunter lied about his age and joined the Coast Guard. Whenever he got leave, he hitchhiked from Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley to ride. Discharged a year later when the coast guard discovered he was underage, he finished high school at the urging of actor Dick Clayton, who had met him when he was 12 and working at a stable and told him, “If you ever want to get into pictures, talk to me.”
Unable to afford horses, Hunter found a less expensive passion, figure skating – which led to a romance with Ronnie Robertson, who would win a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics. Although, as Hunter wrote, “I didn’t long for an acting career, not in the way I longed to be on the ice or at the stables,” Clayton brokered an introduction to Willson, who had cornered the market in wholesome all-American boys. Willson gave him his name and his start, but Hunter became a client of Clayton, who had given up acting to become an agent, just before Battle Cry made him a star.
At around the same time, the scandal magazine Confidential revealed that Hunter had been among several people arrested five years earlier at a gay house party. (The magazine called it a “queer romp” attended by “a load of shrill nances.”) The charge, being “idle, lewd or dissolute,” was later reduced to disturbing the peace, and he received a suspended sentence and a $50 fine. But in those button-down days, such a revelation could have ruined his career.
Warner Bros. chose to ignore it, and eventually the public did too. “Remember this: Today’s headlines – tomorrow’s toilet paper,” Hunter recalled the studio’s Jack Warner telling him a few months later when Hunter was named the most promising new male personality of 1955 in an audience poll conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organisations. (Among those he beat for that honour were Harry Belafonte and Jack Lemmon. )
His image untarnished, Hunter remained in the public eye. Though by his own admission he was not much of a singer, his recording of Young Love rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957 and stayed there for five weeks. In the 1960-61 television season he starred in an NBC sitcom, The Tab Hunter Show.
But not long after that, Hunter –over 30, no longer under contract and no longer in demand – was considered a has-been.
He stayed busy. He made, as he put it, “a lot of Mickey Mouse movies” overseas. In his memoir he recalled that when he was in Madrid in 1967 to make The Christmas Kid, a Western, he ran into Jeffrey Hunter, there to make a thriller that would be released as The Fickle Finger of Fate ” Figuring that the producers wouldn’t know Jeffrey Hunter from Tab Hunter, they switched movies.
Most of Hunter’s American films in the 1960s and 1970s – among them Operation Bikini (1963), Hostile Guns (1967) and Timber Tramps (1975) – were similarly forgettable, although he did have small roles in the major studio films The Loved One (1965) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and even a brief stint on Broadway in an ill-fated 1964 production of Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, starring Tallulah Bankhead. He was also seen throughout the 1970s in guest roles on TV shows such as Police Woman and The Love Boat.
But mostly there was dinner theatre and summer stock, where faded movie stars were always welcome. He toured for years, from Ogunquit, Maine, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and from Warwick, Rhode Island, to Salt Lake City. The touring ended when Waters asked Hunter to play the suave, seductive Todd Tomorrow and cavort with the drag performer Divine, as a suburban housewife named Francine FishpawPolyester.
Waters, best known at the time for challenging the notion of good taste in underground films like Pink Flamingos, said he wanted Hunter for the part because “to me, he has always been the ultimate movie star.” His script, which sent up Hollywood clichés, made Hunter laugh, and he took the part despite warnings that it would kill his career.
It did not. Polyester, released in 1981, was an unexpected success, with critics as well as at the box office. It was both Waters’ first mainstream hit and Hunter’s ticket out of dinner theatre. Four years later, when Hunter reunited with Divine for the comedy Western Lust in the Dust, he was not just the co-star but one of the producers. “Lust in the Dust” was also a hit, and Hunter and Divine planned to make more movies together. Those plans ended when Divine died suddenly in 1988.
That same year, Hunter’s comeback ended – by choice. After that, except for playing a small part in the 1992 movie Dark Horse, a family drama based on a story he wrote, he did no more acting and spent his last years living in Montecito, California, near Santa Barbara, with his dogs, his horses and Glaser, his business and personal partner since 1983.
They married shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in California, Glaser said. He leaves no other immediate survivors. – New York TimesService
Tale of agent for Hudson both uneven and engaging
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry WillsonBy Robert HoflerCarroll & Graf, 480 pp., illustrated,
Time and again during his Hollywood heyday, Rock Hudson was threatened with exposure. Despite his carefully nurtured public image, everyone in town knew Hudson was gay, and every now and then a former lover, a scandal-mongering publisher, or a blackmail artist came close to telling the rest of the world.
Henry Willson always saved the day. Hudson’s agent would keep his biggest star’s secret even if doing so required throwing another client or two to the wolves or paying hired muscle to rough somebody up. To quash speculation about Hudson’s extended bachelorhood, Willson even got his beautiful young secretary to marry his top-grossing heartthrob. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Hudson was dying of AIDS, that the public at large learned that the quintessentially handsome star was gay.
By then Willson was gone, but not before leaving his greasy thumbprints all over the history of American cinema. As Robert Hofler tells us in his dishy book, “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,“ Willson not only discovered Hudson but also created him, reinventing the former sailor and delivery-truck driver known as Roy Fitzgerald into the matinee idol of millions. With his unerring sense of what women wanted in a screen idol, Willson created a whole genre of bankable cinematic hunks, all of whom he gave equally generic names. These included Tab Hunter, John Saxon, Clint Walker, Rory Calhoun, and Chad Everett, as well as such lesser lights as Trax Colton, Chance Gentry, and Cal Bolder. Willson actually tried the name Troy Donahue on three guys (the third time was the charm).
Willson could spot talent in women as well — his clients at times included Natalie Wood and Lana Turner, and in his youth he excelled at procuring attractive young actresses for his womanizing boss, producer David O. Selznick — but his stock in trade was men, and all Hollywood knew it. From the 1930s right up through the ’50s, Willson’s office brings to mind the title of the 1960 spring-break classic, “Where the Boys Are.“
The difference was that the film was so much more innocent. According to Hofler, if you wanted Willson to make you a star — and legions of young men did — chances were that you had to provide sex. Even in Willson’s overweight, alcoholic later years, his appetite for handsome young men was legendary, and countless aspirants, well aware of the seemingly talentless pretty boys who had blossomed under Willson’s touch, submitted to his advances. Many, of course, found that it got them nowhere, although one of these discards, who later became a Beverly Hills cop, got his revenge one night when the drunken driver he pulled over turned out to be none other than Willson himself.
Like its simultaneously odious and engaging subject, “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson“ is bloated, disheveled, oddly lacking in perspective, and altogether fascinating, if only for the remorseless accretion of detail with which the author brings alive a time too many of us are too eager to sentimentalize. Readers of this newspaper, who mostly live in a state that has extended the right of legal matrimony to gay men and lesbians, may find it useful to be reminded what the world was like for homosexuals in the middle of the 20th century, particularly for homosexuals who were famous for being attractive to women.
Willson, for instance, had an iron rule for his clients: No matter how much gay sex they had, cohabitation was out. Willson’s policy was simple pragmatism. While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott lived openly together for a while in an arrangement portrayed publicly as bachelors sharing a pad, public sentiment and Hollywood policy soon turned against any hint of same-sex relations, and in 1934 the two separated and Grant got married. Although Hofler doesn’t dwell on it, there was also the question of whether, even in a world more accepting of homosexuals, ticket buyers could stand the illusion-shattering experience of knowing some of the handsomest men in Hollywood had more chemistry with one another than with Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day.
On the other hand, the author doesn’t fail to put Willson and his ways in Hollywood perspective. The casting couch was a well-established springboard for women wanting film roles, and Willson’s version had the same function even if his preferences were different. He was, in other words, just part of the same oppressive sexual order. Willson’s rise and fall also reflect the changing business, and legal and social landscape, in which he operated. Although the breakup of the studio system benefited agents like Willson, he couldn’t keep up when the world changed and suddenly movie audiences preferred short ethnic guys like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman to the homogenized Stepford hunks he was so expert at promoting. Even hunks grew wary; people knew about Willson and assumed male clients slept with him even if they hadn’t. Of course, not all did, and few who did admitted it.
Willson’s end certainly casts no doubt on the cliche “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.“ When Hudson finally left him, Hollywood’s gay Pygmalion went to pieces. After a hospital stay and shock treatments, he saw his agency fall apart and his free-spending ways bankrupt him financially as well as emotionally. When the end came — in 1978, from cirrhosis — he had been living on an allowance of a dollar a day as a charity case at the motion picture rest home in the San Fernando Valley. In death he was laid out in a Styrofoam casket with a nylon lining. Willson was just 67.
He was buried in a cemetery known as Valhalla, but in a twist worthy of Billy Wilder, Willson’s final poverty was such that there was no money for a headstone, and so the man who gave names to so many was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
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Willson had a very specific type of client.
Part talent scout, part talent agent, part career coach, part well-connected media mastermind, Willson really did help his clients achieve stardom—but he only went after a certain type.
Willson was known for cultivating unexperienced, handsome young men, and turning them into stars who fit the „beefcake“ physique popular in that era. His clients included Guy Madison, Tab Hunter, Robert Wagner, Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun, and Yale Summer, according to Vanity Fair. The ploy paid off especially well with Rock Hudson, Willson’s most famous client, who ended up being called the „Baron of Beefcake.“
Further, many of Willson’s clients, including Hudson and Tab Hunter, were closeted gay men. „He would find these young guys who almost all came from horrible home situations—with broken marriages and absent fathers—and take them on as clients…He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men. He would be their manager and make them sexually service him,“ Hollywood creator Ryan Murphy told Vanity Fair
Mark Griffin, Hudson’s biographer, put Willson’s schtick even more succinctly on NPR: „It [was] the gay casting couch.“
Tab Hunter, one of his clients and a veritable heartthrob of the ’50s and ’60s, recalled being part of Willson’s „stable of young colts“ in his autobiography. „His routine was to wine and dine come on to you. How things developed was up to whomever Henry was pursuing. If you put the brakes on, Henry used his ‚out‘ line: ‚Come on, you know I was only joking.'“
Hunter says he never crossed professional boundaries with Willson, but others did. „Henry had a magnetic personality, but it certainly wasn’t strong enough to lure me onto the casting everybody who wanted Henry to make them a star had such boundaries,“ he wrote.
Willson died alone, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Hollywood’s finale(spoiler!) gives Henry Willson a redemption. While Hudson does not forgive him, Willson finances a movie that features Hudson playing a gay leading man.
The real Willson did not have a happy ending, or even a glimmer of one. Willson became destitute during his struggle with alcoholism and addiction. In 1978, Willson passed away of cirrhosis and was buried in an unmarked grave in North Hollywood’s Valhalla Memorial Park. He was 67.
IN THE HEADLINES: Teens convicted in death of gay man
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Two teen-age boys who admitted to repeatedly beating and kicking a gay man after he called one of them „beautiful“ were convicted of murder Monday. Bryan Donahue, 17, was found guilty of second-degree murder and robbery. Hours later, a … [Read More…]
Answered June 24, 2016 2:48AM
Do you think gay talent agent Henry Willson (who picked „Troy“sname and made Rock Hudson a star) was helping him out of thekindness of his heart? He had an infamous casting couch. Youplayed, you got parts. The 1950’s pretty boys were all his clients-Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Robert Wagner. Rock Hudson even toldfriends he had sex with Troy Donohue but was disappointed by hisendowment. Yes, I know he had wives (Suzanne P. lasted a fewmonths) but I have no reason to think he wasn’t just another closetcase.
There is a quote attributed to Troy Donohue „I wound up in apile at Henry’s“ that supposedly refers to Donohue getting involvedin a gay orgy at Henry Willson’s. On the other hand, Troy Donohue’slong time live-in companion was Zheng Chow, a female Chinese Operastar.
Troy Donahue was my next door neighbor in Hollywood during themid 1970’s. I do not believe he was gay. I knew one of his formergirlfriends, and he was known to favor sex with ladies in publicplaces like laundromats. One day I saw Troy dressed only in veryshort sorts, standing in the street and seeming to be getting offon all the girls driving past who recognized him and squealed. Hehad a big, white Irish Sheep Dog that he walked past my windowevery evening, but otherwise seemed to keep to himself. His careerwas essentially over by then, but he was still appearing in minorroles on TV and in films.