Henry Willson changed the face of Hollywood in the 1950s, ushering in a new era of “beefcake” heartthrobs. His hard work brought young musclemen like Rock Hudson into the spotlight, but it all came at a cost. Behind the scenes, the agent had secrets, and he leveraged them to get exactly what he wanted.
Willson’s name may not be a familiar one, but he made his clients well-known. Along with Hudson, the agent cultivated the careers of Guy Madison, Tab Hunter and Ty Hardin. His business focused on young Hollywood actors, and he had a reputation for his ability to transform them into A-list stars.
At the same time, Willson ingratiated himself with Hollywood’s biggest players. He made himself an indispensable resource to those who made Tinseltown’s biggest decisions. These relationships certainly helped his clients – but Willson didn’t always operate above board. Instead, the agent knew everyone’s secrets, and had some of his own, too. He used all of this to his own advantage, according to sources who knew what he really did to make his boys into stars.
Henry Willson’s career path through Hollywood made sense, considering where he came from. His father served as president of the Columbia Phonograph Company, which meant that his son, born in 1911, got the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrities of the era. Before the advent of movies, these stars were vaudeville and Broadway performers.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given this background, that Willson developed an interest in tap dancing. His father sent him to the Asheville School in North Carolina to hone his talent – or, so some sources say. Others have speculated that the Columbia Phonograph Company’s president sent his son there because he suspected he was gay.
Robert Hofler wrote a biography of Willson,The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson. And he told Men’s Health magazine in May 2020, “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.”
Hofler suspected that Willson internalized his father’s decision to send him to North Carolina as a “punishment,” one that may have influenced his life down the line. But first, he had to complete his education, which saw him move from the Asheville School to Wesleyan College in Connecticut. While enrolled in school, he also traveled to New York City every week to write a gossip column for Variety magazine.
In 1933 Willson made the journey from one coast of the United States to the other. After arriving in Hollywood, he started out as a writer for movie fan magazines. Biographer Mark Griffin explained to NPR in 2018 how this time spent as a gossip columnist informed Wilson embarking on a career as an agent and manager, beginning in 1937.
Griffin explained, “He was an agent, and he had started in the business writing for some of the fan magazines of the time. And I think that sort of gave Henry Willson an insider glimpse as to how to sell someone to the public. You know, so when he was writing profiles of movie stars, you know, oftentimes he didn’t report exactly what he saw in front of him. He would redress it so that it was more palatable for the public.”
Wilson worked himself into the Hollywood crowd thanks to a friendship with Dixie Lee, who was married to Bing Crosby. Then, in 1937, Willson became an agent with the Zeppo Marx Agency. It was there that he helped create his first huge Hollywood star — Lana Turner, perhaps best known for her work in the 1946 film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Willson’s work with Turner impressed Hollywood heavyweight David O. Selznick, who produced such classics as 1939’s Gone With the Wind and Rebecca a year later. He started Vanguard Pictures in 1943 and brought Willson on board as head of the talent department.
However, Willson’s most noteworthy work – apart from launching Turner’s career – would be done at his own agency. And his skill in cultivating talent made such an impression that Ryan Murphy made a version of the agent into a central character on his 2020 series, Hollywood. In May of that year, Murphy spoke about why he included Willson in the show, which explores an alternate reality in which stars fought against racial, homophobia and sexism in Tinseltown.
Murphy explained his inclusion of Willson in the show to Vanity Fair, saying, “Henry Willson was a fantastic, crazy character. He was friends with everyone, so could get clients in the room with [power brokers].” And Jim Parsons, who plays Willson in the series, said that the agent had a very specific type of client he sought.
Parsons said, “He felt that he knew what America wanted to see in a certain type of male star, and he made it his mission to make sure they all fit the general mold.” Hofler, who wrote Willson’s biography, compared his work to that of a hit modern-day TV series: Queer Eye.
As Hofler wrote in his biography of Wilson, “The original queer eye for the straight guy, Henry Willson gave heterosexual men the necessary grace and social polish to shine in Hollywood’s better executive suites, nightclubs and Bel Air homes.” But the agent didn’t just teach straight male actors the ropes — he did the same for his homosexual clients.
On that note, Hofler explained, “[Willson] was equally effective at teaching gay men how to butch it up and pass for lovers of women on the big screen.” One of the agent’s clients, in particular, proved his ability to do this — actor Rock Hudson, who Willson plucked from obscurity and transformed into a huge star.
Hudson arrived in Hollywood as Roy Scherer, a six-foot-four aspiring actor who became Willson’s prize client. The agent was famous for saying, “The acting can be added later,” meaning he could teach the essentials to aspiring hopefuls with the right look. He carefully cultivated the star he saw in Hudson, starting with his hunky stage name.
Hudson’s Biographer Mark Griffin told NPR how Willson worked to make Hudson screen-ready. He said, “There was a lot of reconditioning that happened. You know, his — they got him voice lessons with a former opera singer. And, you know, I think there was a fair amount of butching him up so that he seemed matinee idol ready.”
Willson didn’t stop there, either. He gave Hudson a full makeover, even paying out of pocket to cap the aspiring actor’s teeth. The agent provided him with a new wardrobe and housing, and he sent him to acting lessons. He even showed Hudson how to smile just wide enough to hide his gums — and, combined, this created the picture-perfect image that a Hollywood star would need during this era.
For Hudson and many other clients of Willson’s, that also meant hiding their sexuality from the public. The agent had many secretly gay clients on his roster, and he trained them to act more masculine in front of the camera. In Hudson’s case, he softened his effeminate mannerisms by slapping limp wrists or swaying hips.
Willson’s biographer, Holfer – who compared him to the cast of Queer Eye when shaping straight stars — spoke about his ability to transform gay men into heartthrobs. In his book about the agent, he wrote, “He was equally effective at teaching gay men how to butch it up and pass for lovers of women on the big screen.”
However, Willson didn’t hesitate to go the extra mile when it came to protecting his stars’ reputations — especially Hudson, who became the most successful of his proteges. It was no secret in Hollywood that Hudson was gay, but the film industry — and the public — would not have accepted such information at that time.
Magazines started to spread speculation about Hudson, though. A 1955 issue of Life had the actor on the cover and wrote, “Fans are urging 29-year-old Hudson to get married — or explain why not.” In the same year, Confidential came forward with a threat — they were going to expose Willson’s star’s sexuality to the world.
Willson had no qualms with doing whatever it took to protect his stars, though – even at the expense of others. In Hudson’s case, the agent had to sacrifice the reputations of some of his lesser stars in order to keep his most successful celebrity at the top of the podium. Mark Griffin who wrote a biography of Hudson, All That Heaven Allows, explained how the one-time gossip columnist protected his prize client.
Griffin told NPR, “Rock, at that point, was close to becoming one of the number one box office attractions in the world and was certainly Henry Willson’s most important client. And as the story goes, he may have sacrificed both one of his current clients, Rory Calhoun, and a former client, Tab Hunter. There was suddenly a cover story that exposed the fact that Rory Calhoun had served time, that he had been an ex-con and had been involved with an armed robbery…”
After that, another piece about a Willson client emerged — and it was even more damaging than the one about Calhoun. This time, it exposed actor Tab Hunter for attending, as Griffin described it, “an all-male pajama party that had been broken up by the police.” Of course, there’s no confirmation that Wilson exposed this information — but circumstantial evidence certainly points to him.
Interestingly, Hunter had fired Willson just months before the exposé reached publication, making the timing of the story all the more suspect. Griffin said, “Do we have 100 percent certainty that that’s exactly what happened? No. But I think we can make some pretty good educated guesses that that’s exactly what happened in this instance.”
Willson came up with an insurance policy to protect Hudson’s image, too. He set up the actor’s marriage to a secretary named Phyllis Gates. Their marriage lasted only a few years, but the union was the perfect red herring. Griffin explained, “She was ideal. She had the aura that you would want for a young woman who was going to be married to Rock Hudson. She sort of came with this air of county fairs and church socials about her.”
Not all of Willson’s clients got the same treatment as Hudson, though – and that doesn’t just apply to whether or not the agent exposed their secrets to the public. He had a dark side, one that was explored in Murphy’s Netflix series, Hollywood. Many have said that Willson abused his power as someone who could make aspiring actors into stars.
Murphy told Vanity Fair, “[Willson] would find these young guys who almost all came from horrible home situations — with broken marriages and absent fathers — and take them on as clients… He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men. He would be their manager and make them sexually service him…”
Indeed, most Hollywood insiders knew Willson’s sexuality, and he used it to help add actors to his client list. Specifically, he’d frequent the city’s gay bars in search of the best-looking candidates to make into stars. He gauged their talent on attractiveness first and foremost — and this may well have been in service of his own desires.
Griffin described Willson’s method as “the gay casting couch.” And those who sat on his proverbial sofa confirmed his tactics. Actor Tab Hunter – who eventually came out himself — described his one-time agent’s moves in his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.
Hunter described Willson’s roster of actors as a “stable of young colts.” And the agent supposedly had a very specific method for wooing them into the fold. The one-time heartthrob wrote, “His routine was to wine and dine you… then come on to you. How things developed was up to whomever Henry was pursuing.”
If the actor didn’t reciprocate Willson’s advances, he had a game plan for that outcome, too. Hunter wrote, “If you put the brakes on, Henry used his ‘out’ line: ‘Come on, you know I was only joking.’” For his part, though, Hunter said that he never gave into his boss’s ploys for such behind-the-scenes engagement.
Hunter wrote, “[Willson] had a magnetic personality, but it certainly wasn’t strong enough to lure me onto the casting couch.” But other actors gave into the powerful agent’s advances when given the opportunity for a Hollywood career in exchange. The actor admitted, “Not everybody who wanted [him] to make them a star had such boundaries.”
Others have told similar stories about Willson, including Quentin Tarantino’s dad, Tony. He alleged that the agent had propositioned him in the 1960s as he attempted to become an actor. Specifically, the elder Tarantino told New York Daily News that he had been offered fame, as well as a home, a new car and a fresh wardrobe.
In exchange, Willson had a specific request. He told Tony, “You will treat me like your best girlfriend.” This statement confused the aspiring actor, so the agent clarified. Tony recalled, “He explained in detail what he meant,” making his requirements for sexual favors “very clear.” Similar accounts in a number of books that deal with Wilson only serve to bolster these allegations.
What’s not clear is how Willson and Hudson’s relationship progressed — if it did at all. No one knows for sure if the actor was ever coerced into pleasuring the agent who made him a star. In Murphy’s on-screen rendition of their relationship, the agent essentially forces the future heartthrob to sleep with him.
What we do know is that Hudson and Willson’s professional pairing ended in 1966, by which point he had become an Academy Award-nominated actor (for Giant in 1957). The balance in their relationship shifted, and the one-time aspiring star had the power. And his agent had begun to slip into alcohol addiction and ruin deals for the star, who fired him over the phone.
Willson died of cirrhosis eight years later, alone and impoverished. He had so little money that he was buried without a headstone — ironic for the man who gave so many Hollywood stars their names. As for his most famous protege, Hudson died in 1985 from AIDS, a loss that shone the spotlight on just how grave a disease it was, especially for gay men like him — and for his one-time boss.