Arts & Entertainment
Oh, Henry Oh, Henry
The pretty boys and dirty deeds of Hollywood agent Henry Willson The pretty boys and dirty deeds of Hollywood agent Henry Willson
Published Thursday, 17-Nov-2005 in issue 934
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
by Robert Hofler
Carroll & Graf
Some Hollywood legends aren’t born: they’re manhandled. During the 1950s, Hollywood agent Henry Willson was responsible for discovering and manufacturing a stable of hunky – although not necessarily talented – movie stars, including Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue. Many of his “beefcake” clients were also objects of his hands-on lechery. A genius at publicity stunts, he expertly manipulated his clients’ careers: He arranged Hudson’s marriage to a secretary, he traded dirty secrets about some clients to tabloid reporters in exchange for hush-hush about others and he employed the services of off-duty L.A.P.D. roughs to put the kibosh on would-be blackmailers. Yet Willson also betrayed a genuine and even paternal side, not to mention a knack for discovering bona fide talents like Natalie Wood and Lana Turner. Willson’s life, achievements and scandals are brought to life and light in The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (Carroll & Graf).
“I would love for someone to say, ‘The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson picks up where Hollywood Babylon leaves off!’” laughs author Robert Hofler. “That’s what I want!”
Hofler, 55, has lived in both Los Angeles and New York working as a senior editor and theater reporter, respectively, for Variety. He first heard of Willson decades back. “I knew about this man who had supposedly invented Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue or came up with their names,” he recalls. “He was a very high-profile agent and written about a lot in magazines. He did something agents at the time never did and haven’t done since, which is really insinuate himself into the lives of his clients. Reporters knew they could always get good quotes from Henry Willson. If you looked up articles on Tab or Rock or Natalie Wood you would find all this material, quotes Willson had given the reporter. Of course today agents would be fired for that. And he was brilliant at publicity stunts. He had Rock dress up as an Oscar and sent him to a masquerade ball in 1950. That was Rock’s first interview with [gossip columnist] Luella Parsons, who was very influential. That wouldn’t work at all today.”
Hofler says that The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson was borne from a much larger project. In 1996, he was contracted to write a book on the history of gay Hollywood. He quickly realized that would be more like a 20-volume endeavor, so Hofler narrowed the focus to just Willson. Although difficulties in procuring information and material led him to abandon the book a number of times, he finally completed the tome in 2004, and it was released last month.
Willson emerges as a complicated character in Hofler’s book, one whose sexuality drove his career and life decisions. During his youth in Forest Hills, N.Y., Willson was close to his father, a man who both enabled his showbiz obsession and hindered his personal development. “His father suspected he was gay and sent him off to this boys’ school in rural North Carolina for his senior year of high school,” Hofler notes. “This is a guy going to Broadway shows and loving it and writing about it for Variety while still in high school. To be taken out and sent to N.C. because somebody suspects there’s something wrong about your sexuality must have been devastating. Yet Henry adored his father. If he hated his father he would’ve been better off because he would have taken that punishment and said, ‘Fuck you for sending me there.’ But he didn’t, and probably on some level accepted that punishment for being this depraved homo.”
The young Willson picked up his more amoral habits while working in Hollywood as a talent scout for Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick. One of his duties entailed procuring women for his employer. Later, as a full-fledged agent, Willson made beautiful male “talent” his specialty. Rock Hudson, then known as Roy Scherer, was one of his greatest finds. Willson gave these hunks literally interchangeable names and had his way with many of them. Talk about mixing business and pleasure. “Henry was like the gay Hugh Hefner,” Hofler says. “This was someone who took his sexual orientation and really manufactured these sex fantasies. The only difference is Hefner exploited that fact and Willson had to do it in semi-privacy.”
Yet Hofler learned during his interviews and research that Willson didn’t get “hands-on” with every client or young hopeful. For example, Willson wouldn’t take liberties with some actors, like John Gavin – those who hailed from moneyed, high society families. He was more apt to molest the naïve, off-the-bus types who would do anything to see their names in lights. “There were lots of different circumstances,” Hofler explains. “Some [men] would say ‘I resisted his advances and he apologized.’ And others resisted and Henry freaked out with a, ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’ But there were a lot of contradictions. A huge contradiction I saw is a conundrum of how he could be so out there and not realize that everyone was talking about him. For the most part, straight people would say Henry was completely out, yet gays and his secretary said he had no idea people were talking about him.”
Indeed, Hofler says that his interview subjects (which included Dennis Hopper and Tony Curtis) offered radically different accounts of Willson and their experiences with him. Furthermore, some were reticent to discuss scandalous details on the record. And others – like former Willson clients John Saxon and Gena Rowlands – refused to talk at all.
“I would contact people and they said, ‘Look, I’m not going to talk about any of that dirty stuff,’” Hofler recalls. “The most outrageous interview was one I did with Elaine Stritch. She’s a nasty piece of work. I wanted to know what Henry and Rock were like together. She went, ‘Where are you going with this book?’ I said, ‘I’m interested in what their professional relationship was.’ She was outraged and then she went ‘Tab, Troy, Rock, Rip, Rad, whatever, it was horrible what he made those poor men do!’ It was just berserk and I was like, ‘Thanks for the quote. But what were they like together?’ I just wanted to know that. Shirley Temple Black talked about going to Henry’s house and they had séances together. Henry served hot dogs and was like the uncle. That’s all stuff a biographer can use.”
Conversely, Hofler was privy to some juicy dish that he decided not to use in the book, including what Willson allegedly enjoyed in bed. “Enough is enough,” he explains. “But people were telling me he liked to take off his belt and whipped them or something. Also, something one of his assistants talked about, [he hired] hustlers in the ’60s. It was bizarre to me because he could walk into gay bars and pick up anyone – he was Henry Willson and he could make you a star.”
Hofler also mined a wealth of photographic gems for the book that, viewed in retrospect, induce guffaws today. One of the funniest is a magazine spread of shirtless stars Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall – both known today as big queens – on a telephone with the caption, “Calling All Girls: Whistle-bait in the beefcake brigade… do some prowling of their own!” Calling all girls for sure!
“It was such a different era,” Hofler notes, amused. “There’s an amazing photo that isn’t in the book of Henry in his home at a breakfast table with the maid and Guy Madison being served breakfast in his sailor’s outfit. It was a publicity photo for a story about how Guy stayed at Henry Wilson’s house when he was on leave. His only complaint was how the bed at Henry’s was too soft.”
Willson’s final years were spent in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. Essentially broke, he was accepted as a charity case. “I’m sure in the end he was absolutely miserable,” Hofler opines. “It’s in the San Fernando Valley so he couldn’t just take a walk out onto Hollywood Boulevard. I’m sure he saw that as horribly humiliating and yet he didn’t want to stop working. He would watch soap operas and see guys and say ‘I can make them a star.’ There are writers and playwrights who keep cranking out plays or books that don’t get produced or published because that’s what they do. That’s their life. And his was discovering talent and nobody wanted it anymore.”
In 1978, Willson died from cirrhosis of the liver. His era of Hollywood has died since as well, Hofler opines. “I don’t think you have these really bad actors anymore,” he says. “Troy Donahue – maybe he’d get a reality TV show or soap opera, but I can’t imagine that he’d make a dozen movies. I really do think the level of acting in movies is generally better.”
Yet a few things haven’t changed in Tinsel Town, he adds. Bigwigs surely still take advantage of starry-eyed young cuties, and homophobia continues to linger under the Hollywood sign. “I actually feel in a number of cases today that some of the big agencies will not handle actors they suspect of being gay,” Hofler says, “because they’re afraid it’s all going to come out that they’re gay and not going to get the big bucks to be the next action hero or whatever. That wasn’t going on back then because the tabloid press was just starting and basically people knew [homosexuality] wasn’t going to be talked about. Today they know it will be talked about.”