History

What Rock Hudson Did for AIDS Awareness

AIDS used to be considered an illness that affected society's fringes, until Rock Hudson announced he had the disease.

Thirty years ago, Rock Hudson died at 59 years old from AIDS-related health complications. In life, he drew legions to the box office in the 1950s and 1960s, frequently cast as the dashing lead in romantic comedies.

With his death, he was the first celebrity to succumb to a poorly understood disease that between 1981, when it was first discovered, until his death in 1985 claimed nearly 6,000 lives.

First diagnosed with the disease 15 months before his death, concerns over Hudson's health initially arose when he appeared at a press conference to announce a reunion with Doris Day, a co-star and friend, on her variety show. Hudson looked like a shadow of his former self, skinny and weathered for his age.

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AIDS was a disease that carried a heavy stigma throughout the 1980s. The public knew little about it, other than that it was fatal and not curable. As a result, Hudson hesitated to make his condition public. While liver cancer was initially cited as the reason for Hudson's poor health, on July 25, 1985, Hudson's spokesman confirmed the star had AIDS.

As the Los Angeles Times noted just two days after his announcement, Hudson's public admission "raised public awareness in a way that educational campaigns and public health warnings have been unable to do since the deadly disease was first identified." Hudson, a mid-20th century paragon of masculinity, had changed the face of a disease thought of as exclusive to homosexuals, drug addicts and people who received contaminated blood.

How Hudson acquired HIV is not known. In 1981, Hudson underwent heart surgery. He attributed his illness to tainted blood transfused during the operation. Hudson may have also contracted the disease through sexual contact. Rumors of the star's sexual orientation persisted for years, and his homosexuality was well known within Hollywood circle. But Hudson never came out as a gay man. Hudson led an intensely private life and also feared his sexuality would negatively affect his career given common public perceptions of homosexuals at the time.

Regardless of how Hudson came to acquire the disease, his announcement led to an immediate outpouring of support among his friends in the entertainment industry as well as the general public. The announcement gave "cause for canonization in both the medical and gay communities," People Magazine wrote in his obituary in 1985. AIDS hotlines across the country lit up with callers looking for information and offering donations.

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Hudson didn't have any intention of leading a personal crusade against the disease; his French publicist even stated, "He has done the maximum by announcing he has AIDS."

Weeks before his death, on September 19th, the Commitment to Life fundraiser, organized by close friend and former "Giant" co-star Elizabeth Taylor, an outspoken AIDS advocate, would be the last time his audience would hear from Hudson again. Hudson was too sick to attend in person, so instead Burt Lancester read on Hudson's behalf a statement: "I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth."

Even those within the AIDS research community acknowledged Hudson's contribution toward changing how the public felt about the disease. Michael Gottlieb, the immunologist among the first to identify AIDS and later a physician to Hudson, described the actor as "the pivotal person in the history of the AIDS epidemic, the single most influential patient ever."

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Hudson (left) with President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan at a White House state dinner, May 1984, less than three weeks before he was diagnosed with HIV.

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