Rock Hudson is a prominent character in Ryan Murphy's latest show Hollywood, now streaming on Netflix. Though Hudson is a very real actor who led a high-profile life in Hollywood, the characteristics between Murphy's iteration of him and the real man are vastly different. In Hollywood, Hudson shows up in the City of Angels with his real name, Roy Fitzgerald, looking to become a star. The handsome and very green actor is terrified to be gay but ends up accepting that he is. This is basically where Murphy deviates from Hudson's real story and into a fictional character.
Hudson, whose birth name was Roy Scherer but became Roy Fitzgerald when his stepdad adopted him, did grow up in Winnetka, IL, before coming to Hollywood to become a star. After sending his headshots all over town, he met an agent named Henry Willson. Like in Hollywood, Willson took a liking to Hudson because he saw potential, but he knew he needed a better name. He handed him the moniker Rock Hudson to match his rugged good looks.
In the Netflix series, Willson, as well as everyone else around Hudson, finds out pretty quickly that he's gay, especially because he's dating (fictional) screenwriter Archie Coleman. In real life, Hudson kept his sexuality under wraps, never publicly admitting that he was gay. No one truly knows if Willson was aware of Hudson's sexuality, though the truth has often been considered a commonly accepted secret in Hollywood.
Hudson's acting career got off to a slow start, thanks to never having any acting training. But he eventually got a contract with Universal Pictures, which not only provided him acting lessons, but it put him on the path to stardom. Hudson starred in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, but it was 1956's Giant that The New York Times says catapulted him into the ranks of the stars.
As Hudson continued to make films, he also married Phyllis Gates — Willson's secretary — in 1955. The marriage only lasted three years. Mark Griffin, who wrote All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson, told NPR in 2018 that there could be any number of reasons Hudson and Gates got married in the first place, but many believed it was a setup by Willson to keep the illusion of Hudson's heterosexuality alive. "And almost as though [Willson] sent out a casting call, he was looking for the perfect person to be the king of Hollywood's consort," Griffin said to NPR. "And so it could be that Henry Willson very shrewdly put together Rock and his secretary, and a lot of people insist this is exactly how it happened. It was an arranged marriage from the get-go."
Hudson continued acting for the next 30 years and lived as a closeted gay man — a complete departure from how he's portrayed in Hollywood. While the Hudson in Hollywood publicly shows up at the Academy Awards on the arm of his screenwriter boyfriend and proceeds to lead an openly gay life, the real Hudson never did anything of the sort. Murphy told New York Post that his ideas for the show were based in reality. "I wanted to give some people who were dealt a terrible hand by Hollywood a happy ending," he said, which is why he turned Hudson's real story on its head and let him be gay from the start.
However, for the real Hudson, it wasn't so peachy, and instead he contracted AIDS. In July 1985 Hudson acknowledged his AIDS diagnosis, and though it wasn't an admission of his sexuality, it was assumed at the time that that's what it meant. After his diagnosis, Hudson contacted his previous lovers to tell them to get tested, according to Griffin's book, but did so anonymously. He died in October 1985, just a few months after announcing his illness, still never having said he was gay.