One of Willson’s first clients was also his live-in lover, former child star Junior Durkin (Huckleberry Finn), who died tragically in a car crash at age nineteen. Willson’s other protégés included Guy Madison, Tab HUNTER, and Rock HUDSON. So many of Willson’s clients were gay that it was often assumed that any good looking young man represented by him was likely of that persuasion. Willson arranged the marriage between his secretary, Phyllis Gates, and Rock Hudson in 1955 to protect Hudson’s image. Willson also traded information about the sex lives of Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter in exchange for an agreement that Confidential would not out Hudson. (Picture: Junior Durkin)
Henry Willson (July 31, 1911 – November 2, 1978) was an American Hollywood talent agent who played a large role in popularizing the beefcake craze of the 1950s. He was known for his stable of young, attractive clients, including Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Chad Everett, Robert Wagner, Nick Adams, Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun, Clint Walker, Doug McClure, Ty Hardin, and John Derek. He discovered Rhonda Fleming walking to Beverly Hills High School, brought her to David O. Selznick's attention, and helped groom her for stardom, and was instrumental in advancing Lana Turner's career.
Willson was born Henry Leroy Willson into a prominent show business family in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. His father Horace was the vice-president of the Columbia Phonograph Company and advanced to the presidency when the company was renamed in 1922 as the Columbia Gramophone Manufacturing Company. Willson came in close contact with many Broadway theatre, opera, and vaudeville performers, and Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Fred Stone numbered among the family friends once they moved to Forest Hills, an upscale neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.
Concerned about his son's interest in tap dance, the elder Willson enrolled Henry in the Asheville School in North Carolina, where he hoped the school's many team sports and rugged weekend activities such as rock climbing and backpacking would have a positive influence on the boy. He later attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, spending weekends in Manhattan, where he wrote weekly gossip columns for Variety.
In 1933, Willson migrated to Hollywood via a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. On board he cultivated a friendship with Bing Crosby's wife Dixie Lee, who introduced him to the Hollywood elite and secured him a job with Photoplay, where his first article was about newborn Gary Crosby. He began writing for The Hollywood Reporter and The New Movie Magazine, became a junior agent at the Joyce & Polimer Agency, moved into a Beverly Hills home purchased by his father, and became a regular at Sunset Strip gay bars, where he wooed young men for both professional and personal reasons. One of his first clients (and lovers) was Junior Durkin, whose career was cut short by an automobile accident on May 4, 1935, in which Durkin was killed.
Willson joined the Zeppo Marx Agency, where he represented newcomers Marjorie Bell, Jon Hall, and William T. Orr. He was introduced to Hollywood High School student Judy Turner in 1937, whom he renamed "Lana Turner" and got cast in small roles, finally introducing her to Mervyn LeRoy at Warner Brothers. In 1943, David O. Selznick hired Willson to head the talent division of his newly formed Vanguard Pictures. The first film he cast was the World War II drama Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, and Shirley Temple. He placed Guy Madison, Craig Stevens, and John Derek (billed as Dare Harris) in small supporting roles.
Willson eventually opened his own talent agency, where he nurtured the careers of his young finds, frequently coercing them into sexual relationships in exchange for publicity and film roles. Suzanne Finstad says that "Some of the would-be actors Willson represented were heterosexual, but a disproportionate number were homosexual, bisexual, or 'co-operated' with Willson 'to get gigs,' in the observation of Natalie [Wood]'s costar Bobby Hyatt..." "If a young, handsome actor had Henry Willson for an agent, 'it was almost assumed he was gay, like it was written across his forehead,' recalls Ann Doran, one of Willson's few female clients."
His most prominent client was Rock Hudson, whom he transformed from a clumsy, naive, Chicago-born truck driver named Roy Fitzgerald into one of Hollywood's most popular leading men. The two were teamed professionally until 1966. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an expose about Hudson's secret homosexual life, and Willson disclosed information about Rory Calhoun's years in prison and Tab Hunter's arrest at a gay party in 1950 in exchange for the tabloid not printing the Hudson story. At his agent's urging, Hudson married Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates in order to put the rumors to rest and maintain a macho image, but the union dissolved after three years.
In his later years, Willson struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, paranoia, and weight problems. Because his own homosexuality had become public knowledge, many of his clients, both gay and straight, distanced themselves from him for fear of being branded the same. In 1974, the unemployed and destitute agent moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, where he remained until he died of cirrhosis of the liver. With no money to cover the cost of a tombstone, he was interred in an unmarked grave, in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, in North Hollywood, California.
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson by Robert Hofler
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press (September 12, 2006)
Amazon: The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson
Henry Willson started off as a talent scout under Gone with the Wind's powerhouse mogul, David O. Selznick. The starmaker-to-be was on the lookout for promising newcomers when he received an unsolicited photograph from a movie star hopeful named Roy Fitzgerald. The photograph of the handsome young man with bad teeth not only had a career defining impact for Willson but, more importantly, it redefined Hollywood's concept of the male heartthrob. Roy Fitzgerald became Rock Hudson and, for the next twenty-five years, Henry Willson became the man behind movie "beefcake." The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson delves into Willson's life in explicit, unsparing detail. Variety reporter Robert Hofler deftly chronicles Willson's maneuvers to sidestep the FBI's investigation into Hudson's sex life; the agent's use of off-duty L.A.P.D. cops and Mob ties to scare off Hudson's blackmailers; Hudson's "arranged" marriage to Willson's secretary, Phyllis Gates; as well as Hudson's affair with a Universal Pictures vice-president to help secure starring roles. Additionally, the book discusses Willson's other star clients, including Robert Wagner, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, John Derek, James Darren, Chad Everett, Mike Connors, and many others.
Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall by Richard Barrios
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (February 24, 2005)
Amazon: Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall
Rapacious dykes, self-loathing closet cases, hustlers, ambiguous sophisticates, and sadomasochistic rich kids: most of what America thought it knew about gay people it learned at the movies. A fresh and revelatory look at sexuality in the Great Age of movie making, Screened Out shows how much gay and lesbian lives have shaped the Big Screen. Spanning popular American cinema from the 1900s until today, distinguished film historian Richard Barrios presents a rich, compulsively readable analysis of how Hollywood has used and depicted gays and the mixed signals it has given us: Marlene in a top hat, Cary Grant in a negligee, a pansy cowboy in The Dude Wrangler. Such iconoclastic images, Barrios argues, send powerful messages about tragedy and obsession, but also about freedom and compassion, even empowerment.
Mining studio records, scripts, drafts (including cut scenes), censor notes, reviews, and recollections of viewers, Barrios paints our fullest picture yet of how gays and lesbians were portrayed by the dream factory, warning that we shouldn't congratulate ourselves quite so much on the progress movies - and the real world -- have made since Stonewall.
Captivating, myth-breaking, and funny, Screened Out is for all film aficionados and for anyone who has sat in a dark movie theater and drawn strength and a sense of identity from what they saw on screen, no matter how fleeting or coded.
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