Like himself, many of agent Harry Willson’s clients were gay, most notably his most successful client, Rock Hudson. Willson was known for the men he represented, whether straight or closeted gay. There were a few women, but mostly men.
Many clients were gay, many were straight, and without doubt there was another group that was straight but ambitious. Willson had numerous clients and endless casting couch options, which he enthusiastically pursued. In fact, his penchant for promising to make pretty young men who parked cars and waited tables into movie stars got his tires slashed on a regular basis.
Willson’s approach was to seek out people with startling good looks. He signed Lana Turner and Rock Hudson with no concerns about whether or not they could act. Which was handy, because they couldn’t. In a way, that handicap worked in their favor. Turner and Hudson were deliberately cast in some of their first few roles based on the fact that they were gorgeous and couldn’t act. Like Hudson, many improved with experience.
Rock Hudson was a typical Willson name for midwesterner Roy Fitzgerald. Willson gave them names that reflected a post-war macho, square-jawed image that spawned others like James Dean to come up with their own hilarious variations. Few of the recipients of those names liked them. Rock Hudson made no secret he hated his name. On the other hand, Troy Donahue liked the name change; he felt it was the name of an actor he aspired to be. Even if Willson had tried it twice before on other actors.
Willson schooled his gay clients to help eliminate any mannerisms that might mark them as gay to anyone paying attention. How to sit, how to light a cigarette, and so on. Hofler writes that Rock Hudson was one of those who needed such instructions.
What about documentation, you ask. Hofler does not footnote, but he does have a section in the back of the book that attributes quotes and narrative segments. I don’t know how thorough it is, but I checked on one of the more incendiary incidents described (he never gets into really graphic detail) and found that it, at least, had attribution.
Numerous celebrities like Roddy McDowell, Shirley Temple, Tab Hunter, and others contribute their observations on Willson. For example, Song of Bernadette star Shirley Temple’ describes her attempts to avoid womanizing producer David O. Seznick’s clutches. Her co-star Jennifer Jones at the very least tripped when she tried to get away from Selznick. And, Krisha help us, the Virgin Mary in the production was played by Selznick’s alleged mistress, Linda Darnell.
Hofler doesn’t hesitate to name names, saying outright that Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and Ceasar Romero were gay. In fact, Grant and Scott lived together in the pre-WWII years until studios started responding to morality concerns. A lot of actors starting out shared houses which doesn’t make them gay, but Hofler apparently feels Grant and Scott, established stars, were in a somewhat different relationship.
Willson had a talent for getting first notice of new scripts by spreading gifts among secretaries, limo drivers, and other lower level employees in the industry. After he left David O. Selznick and struck out on his own, Willson focused on a new audience, newly dubbed as “teenagers,” offering Rock Hudson, Natalie Wood, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Van (Green Hornet) Williams, as well as his earliest post-war discoveries, Guy Madison who would eventually be TV’s Wild Bill Hickok and ex-con and future TV Western star Rory Calhoun (an early Troy Donahue).
Willson famously threw gay former clients Tab Hunter and ex-con Rory Calhoun to the wolves at the magazine Confidential to avoid top breadwinner Rock Hudson’s exposure as gay, then married Hudson off to his secretary to quiet the rumors. Tab Hunter said in his autobiography, which led me to this book on Willson, he wouldn’t doubt that that is exactly what Willson did, although he wrote that the Confidential story outing him did not seem to have much ripple effect.
As the 1960’s dawned, the studios began downsizing, which included drastic cuts to movie production. Warners put its dwindling number of contract players into TV shows that dominated the airwaves in the early days before the studios panicky blockade of television finally dissolved completely. For a handful of years, Warners was in the drivers seat. After that, their list of contract players was reduced even further. Chad Everett, another Willson product, was the last Warners contract player. (Everett left Willson for another agency because of Willson’s notoriety which cast a shadow over his clients.)
Excellent book. Interesting insights into Hollywood. Lost of gossip, lots of names.