Rock Hudson’s sleazy puppet-master: how Henry Willson became the most feared man in Hollywood

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Among the many fictional players grasping at fame in Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s new drama about the film business in post-war Los Angeles, one real-life character stands out. His name was Henry Willson, a high-profile agent played in the series by Jim Parsons as a star-maker extraordinaire – and rapacious sexual predator.

Willson’s major achievement was to establish the leading man status of one Roy Fitzgerald, the Illinois sailor boy he took under his wing in 1947 and sculpted, piece by piece, into the matinee idol we know as Rock Hudson. He was neither the first nor the last starry-eyed nobody whom Willson would exploit to feed both the  era’s demand for beefcake pin-ups, and his own insatiable libido. But he was the only one who became a real hit – America’s most bankable male star in the late Fifties – before the Willson brand became hopelessly tarnished.

When Fitzgerald, a 6ft 5in delivery boy nervously trying his luck in a new tweed suit, first knocked on the door of his office, the unattractive, nerdy-looking Willson had already been working for a few years as chief talent scout for Gone with the Wind producer David O Selznick, who was some way on the downward slope from his glory days. The way Hollywood plays it, Willson sees instant potential in Fitzgerald’s hidden vulnerability; then seals the deal by insisting on oral sex.

Willson, far right, with Fred and Paula Stone in 1935

Credit: Bettman

This feels thoroughly in line with the Willson modus operandi, as does the character’s thing for watching clients romp around together. More fanciful, perhaps, is a scene in which Parsons drags up in a kimono and parades around his living room in front of a bewildered Hudson; Willson was an arch-conservative with a hatred – internalised or otherwise – of all such effeminate displays.

As Robert Hofler recounts in his enjoyably salacious book about Willson, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, it was his hands-on (in all senses) management style that made him both feared and despised. Ruthlessly protecting Hudson from any whiff of tabloid scandal about his homosexuality – an open secret in the industry, but a career-ender if it had got out – Willson traded information about other clients’ police records to stop Confidential magazine publishing an exposé in 1955. That same year, he orchestrated one of the most transparent sham marriages in film history, coaxing his own secretary, Phyllis Gates, into marrying Hudson.

As a devious wrangler of publicity who knew where all the bodies were buried, Willson had few equals among Hollywood’s talent managers, and helped turn his profession – known as the “tenpercentary” – into the butt of a thousand disobliging jokes.

He was a born fixer. Scion of a showbiz family, he’d started out writing  puff pieces for Variety and Photoplay, before setting himself up as a junior agent. Around this time, he became a regular at gay bars on the Sunset Strip, where he would splash the cash and the cocktails, while trying his luck with promises of an audition here, a screen test there.

Willson helped Lana Turner get famous, having shepherded her as a 16-year-old schoolgirl into her first credited role, as a murdered teenager wearing a form-fitting sweater in They Won’t Forget (1937). He also negotiated the contract that led to Joan Fontaine’s Oscar for Suspicion (1941); helped Natalie Wood cross over from child star to ingénue in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); and gave a leg-up to Gena Rowlands when she was only known as Mrs John Cassavetes.

But it was a certain category of male client, typified by Hudson, with which Willson was most infamously associated. They tended to be boys with no conspicuous acting talent – that could be added later – but a certain look to make the bobby-soxers swoon. They went into his office with names that called to mind farm boys (James Westmoreland; Merle Johnson Jr; Robert Mozeley) or a certain ethnicity (Carmine Orrico; Louis A Morelli) and came out, sometimes a little dishevelled, as Rad Fulton, Troy Donahue,  Tab Hunter, John Saxon, or – my personal favourite – Trax Colton. 

Rock Hudson, circa 1955

Credit: getty

At least, that’s how it was for  the lucky ones who, under Willson’s guidance, would parlay their boyish looks into a flurry of minor roles in beach party films, or eventually TV. Those less fortunate went back to being waiters or bus boys, or car valets for restaurants on La Cienega Boulevard. 

“Those boys hated Willson,” the actress Maila Nurmi would later recall. “He promised them stardom, used them and then threw them aside. His tyres were always getting slashed up and down La Cienega.” Nurmi  famously arranged a practical joke at Willson’s expense, dragging a mattress to his front lawn and pinning an advert for Pond’s cold cream – his preferred lubricant – on top of it. Willson, ever paranoid about his public image, failed to see the funny side: he took out a $2,000 Mob contract on Nurmi’s life.

Willson knew everyone worth knowing in the Hollywood of the Forties and Fifties and amassed endless tales of his A-list exploits. He had taken Jennifer Jones to the Oscars on the night she won Best Actress for The Song of Bernadette (1943). In 1956, he also escorted Natalie Wood to the New York premiere of Giant, the sprawling cattle-ranch epic that cemented Hudson’s popularity and got him his only Oscar nomination. 

That was quite some turnaround from 1949, when Willson cooked up the second most outrageous publicity stunt of Hudson’s career, slathering him head-to-toe in  gold paint (with the dancer Vera-Ellen) so they could attend a photographers’ ball as a pair of Oscars.

But none of Willson’s stunts was as outrageous as the Gates-Hudson marriage, which fooled no one, was expensively dissolved after three years, and marked the beginning of the end for Hudson and Willson. Hudson felt pressured into making A Farewell to Arms (1957), the last and least successful film of Selznick’s producing career, and would never forgive Willson for failing to secure him the much-coveted, Oscar-winning lead role in Ben-Hur (1959).

Jim Parson as Henry Willson in Hollywood

Willson’s grasp of the youth market also started to falter when the edgier likes of James Dean, Warren Beatty and Paul Newman – a breed apart from his brand of pliant pretty boys – rose to prominence. Disastrously, he chose this moment to set up his own boutique agency, with Hudson as the sole A-lister on his books.

As the films kept failing, Willson spiralled into alcoholic destitution. When Hudson phoned to dispense with his services in 1966, Willson threatened to throw a jar of acid in the star’s face, saying his looks were all he had going for him.

By the mid-Seventies, an unemployed Willson was moved as a charity case into a Mulholland Drive retirement home. He died penniless, from cirrhosis, in 1978 and was buried in an unmarked grave in North Hollywood’s Valhalla Memorial Park. Years later, a mystery well-wisher paid for a headstone to mark the spot. “Henry Willson, 1911-1978,” it reads. “Star – Star Maker”.

Hollywood is now on Netflix

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