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Dale Olson, Veteran Hollywood Publicist, Dies at 78

Dale Olson 2009 - P 2012
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Dale Olson

UPDATED: He represented Rock Hudson during the actor’s public battle fighting AIDS in the mid-'80s.

Dale Olson, the veteran Hollywood entertainment publicist who represented Rock Hudson during the actor’s public battle with AIDS, died Thursday in Burbank after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

Olson was head of the motion picture division of public relations giant Rogers & Cowan for 18 years before he resigned in August 1985 to establish his own firm. He started his career in Hollywood in 1956 as West Coast editor of Boxoffice magazine and then worked as a reporter and reviewer for Daily Variety, where he helped found the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

Olson then joined famed indie production company the Mirisch Corp. as publicity director; his first assignment was for In the Heat of the Night (1967), which won five Oscars, including best picture. He would head more than 150 movie campaigns, including launching the Rocky, Superman, Rambo and Halloween franchises.

Born Feb. 30, 1934, in Fargo, N.D., Olson represented the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Laurence Olivier, David L. Wolper, Gene Kelly, Tony Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Walter MatthauJames Whitmore, Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Rod SteigerDoris Roberts, Diana Rigg, Marion Ross, Peter Ustinov, Robert Blake, Diane Ladd, Jean Stapleton, Dyan Cannon and Sally Kirkland and such organizations as the Center Theater Group of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Producers Guild of America.

He served on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences public relations coordinating committee and executive committee for more than 20 years, and he chaired the committee for three years.

Hudson was diagnosed with HIV in June 1984 but told the public he had inoperable liver cancer. It was not until July 25, 1985, while in Paris for treatment, that the handsome leading man announced he was losing a battle with AIDS. He died Oct. 2, 1985, becoming the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness. He was 59.

Olson visited the actor every day throughout his illness, then devoted much of his time to AIDS awareness and fund-raising by becoming an Actors Fund Trustee. The organization works to help entertainment professionals in need.

“I learned about AIDS through Rock -- the devastation of AIDS through Rock -- which motivated me to be more active on a hands-on basis with AIDS,” Olsen told the Actors Fund blog in March 2011.

Just after Hudson’s death, Olson announced he was going to launch the Rock Hudson Foundation for AIDS Relief. But when actress Elizabeth Taylor -- a great friend of Hudson’s -- decided to start the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Olson threw his support behind her, realizing Taylor ultimately could raise more money.

On July 12, MacLaine presented Olson with the Actors Fund Medal of Honor, the highest award given by the fund.

“He was not only an ace publicist but also a true friend to me and to so many in need in our industry,” the actress said Thursday. “A great, loyal and generous man. Thank you, Dale.”

Said actor-singer and Actors Fund chairman Brian Stokes Mitchell: “This is great loss for the Actors Fund. Dale was a staunch advocate for this organization, and I’m personally humbled by his commitment and dedication. When the HIV/AIDS crisis devastated the entertainment community, Dale was among the first to speak out for those suffering and in need. His work led to programs and services that bring comfort and relief for thousands of our clients every year across the country. I speak for everyone at the fund when I say he will be sorely missed.” 

As a member of the West Coast Housing Committee for the Palm View Residences in West Los Angeles -- which offers affordable housing for entertainment industry professionals living with HIV/AIDS -- Olson announced its groundbreaking in 1998, placed numerous articles and opened the building with a gala hosted by Steiger and Bea Arthur.

In November 2004, the Actors Fund dedicated the lobby of its Los Angeles offices to Olson and fellow publicist Eugene Harbin, his spouse of more than 30 years. Harbin survives him.

Services and memorials will be scheduled in the coming weeks. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Actors Fund.