Rock Hudson was one of the most popular leading men in the 1950s and 1960s. Considered a classic example of the «heartthrob» of Hollywood's Golden Age, he achieved stardom in films such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Giant (1956), the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. His starring role opposite Doris Day in the hugely successful Pillow Talk (1959) made him the number-one male actor in America at that time. In a career that spanned four decades, Rock appeared in nearly 70 films and starred in several television productions, notably the procedural drama McMillan & Wife (1971-1977), with Susan Saint James. But before Rock, there was Roy.
Rock Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. on November 17, 1925 in the village of Winnetka, Illinois. His parents were Katherine «Kay» (née Wood), a homemaker and later telephone operator, and Roy Harold Scherer, Sr., an automobile mechanic. His father was of German and Swiss descent, while his mother had English and Irish ancestry.
When Roy was five years old, at the height of the Great Depression, his father lost his job and the family was forced to move in with Kay's parents, James and Mary Ellen Wood. Their new living arrangements were incredibly frustrating. Mr. and Mrs. Woods were already sharing their tiny one-room bungalow in Winnetka's Center Street with Kay's brother, his wife and their four children, who were forcibly relocated to the attic upon the Scherers' arrival. Roy Sr. put up with these conditions for over a year, before heading to California in search of work.
With her husband away, Kay had to work as a housekeeper for a local dignitary to make ends meet. Eventually, she was able to save enough money to put down a bond on a shabby two-room apartment above a local drugstore. Later in life, Rock said that the only thing worth remembering about that place what that, while living there, he learned to play the piano.
In the summer of 1932, short of money once again, Kay travelled with her son to California, where she found Roy Sr. living precariously and working as a doughnut seller. She tried to persuade her husband to return with her to Illinois, but he remained adamant. On the journey back home, Kay met a young Marine named Wallace Fitzgerald and the two soon became involved. They were married in February 1934, immediately after Kay's divorce from Roy Scherer was finalized. A few months later, Wallace left the Corps to work at a local electricity plant and Kay took up a job as a waitress. But their relationship was never an easy one. By 1941, the Fitzgeralds would have divorced, remarried and divorced yet again.
Upon his marriage to Kay, Wallace Fitzgerald legally adopted Roy and gave him his name, but showed little affection for the boy. «He took all my toys away and used to beat me regularly, saying he wanted to make a man out of me,» Rock later recalled. Apparently, his stepfather's disappointment stemmed from Roy's lack of interest in school. Apart from swimming, he was not too keen on sports either. All Roy ever wanted to be was an actor, as he said in a 1983 interview: «I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a little boy — but living in a small town in the Middle West, I didn't say so because that's sissy stuff. I once asked my stepfather if I could have drama lessons. When I said I wanted to be an actor — Crack! — and that was that!»
Roy's unhappy home life made him even more determined to achieve his goal. At the age of ten, encouraged by his mother, he took a weekend job with a local butcher to make money to pay for his own acting lessons. However, afraid that his stepfather would find out and punish him, he instead spent the money on cinema tickets and movie magazines. As he headed towards puberty, Roy's greatest inspiration was Jon Hall, the star of numerous campy adventures including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) and Cobra Woman (1944). When Roy saw Hall diving in out of the water in The Hurricane (1937), his mind was made up: «I'd always been a diver, so I had to be an actor and go to Tahiti and be like Jon Hall!»
|LEFT: Rock in 1941. MIDDLE: Rock during his high school years. RIGHT: Rock's yearbook photo (New Trier High School, Class of 1944).|
After her marriage to Wallace Fitzgerald ended, Kay bought a run-down property in Winnetka's Ash Street and turned it into a boarding house. However, the business was not very successful and she had to work as a part-time telephone operator to support her meagre income from the boarding house. Teenage Roy struggled a lot during this period, especially since he was forced to stay in school for six additional months because of his abysmal grades. Instead of graduating in the summer of 1943, he did not leave high school until early 1944.
Three weeks after graduation, Roy enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent on a training course as an apprentice aircraft repairman at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago. He was then shipped out to Samar, in the Philippines, on the SS Lew Wallace, and for two years worked for the Aviation Repair and Overhaul Unit 2. Much of his time was spent unloading fighter planes from aircraft carriers. Reportedly, he was quite hopeless as a sailor. On one occasion, he accidentally turned on both engines of the bomber he was repairing, causing the machine to veer across the runway and crash into another stationary place.
In May 1946, Roy returned to Winnetka and took a job as a piano mover. Two weeks later, still bent on becoming an actor, he joined his father in California. Roy Sr. had remarried and was living in Long Beach with his new wife and adopted daughter. At the time, he owned an electrical appliances business, and when young Roy was refused a place at the University of California due to his poor grades, Scherer Sr. gave him a job as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Roy was so shy that in his first month he did not make a single sale, so his father had to let him go. He then started working a truck driver with a company owned by a friend of his father.
One night some time in 1947, at a bar on Ocean Boulevard, Roy met Ken Hodge, the former producer of the Lux Radio Theatre. Hodge took an interest in Roy and offered to help launch his acting career. He got him a membership to a gym in order to improve his physique, bought him new clothes and paid for his first professional photographic shoot. The pictures were then sent to every studio executive in town, as well as receptions at which the moguls would be attending.
At one such event in Culver City, Roy was introduced to David O. Selznick's talent scout and the former agent of Lana Turner, the infamous Henry Willson. He liked Roy's photographs and agreed to take him on as a client. Willson sent Roy to Lester Luther, one of Hollywood's top voice coaches. Luther helped him get rid of his Midwestern drawl and the stammer which Roy claimed was prominent only when he was nervous. Roy received drama lessons from Florence Cunningham and was taught how to stand, sit and walk by Universal athletics coach, Frankie Van. He was also enrolled for lessons in horse-riding, fencing, tap-dancing and even ballet and deportment. But before Willson could find a suitable vehicle to showcase his protégée, he had to come up with a better name than Roy Fitzgerald. He decided on Rock Hudson. From then on, the world was his. He never liked the name, but he sure lived up to it.
This post is my contribution to The Rock Hudson Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters to Old Hollywood.