How Hollywood Faced the AIDS Crisis in the '80s

Doris Day Rock Hudson 1985 - P 2014

Doris Day Rock Hudson 1985 - P 2014

Rock Hudson's revelation that he was gay and had AIDS caused "panic" in the industry, says then-SAG president Ed Asner, but it also changed how the world perceived the disease.

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On July 16, 1985, Rock Hudson joined his friend and former co-star Doris Day at a press conference announcing her new show on the Christian Broadcast Network. Emaciated and frail, Hudson was almost unrecognizable. That appearance, and the subsequent revelation that Hudson was gay and had AIDS, became a galvanizing moment in how the world perceived the disease. No longer was it an illness that struck only those on society's fringes; it had ravaged a beloved screen star who for decades had represented the American virile ideal.

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Controversy followed, given that the year before Hudson had shot an episode of Dynasty in which he shared a passionate kiss with Linda Evans, who was unaware of his illness. The revelation caused "panic" in the industry, according to then-SAG president Ed Asner, and Guild rules were modified to require that actors be notified in advance of any "open-mouth" kissing required of them. Hudson died in his Beverly Hills home Oct. 2, 1985, leaving $250,000 in his will to help set up the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), with Elizabeth Taylor as its national chairman.

Like New York, L.A. was among the cities first hit hardest by AIDS, and it was no less instrumental in mobilizing against the burgeoning epidemic. But unlike the angry activists of The Normal Heart, Hollywood, with its love of celebrity fundraising and spiritual healing, took a decidedly less confrontational approach to the crisis. AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), founded in 1982, organized a Studio One benefit featuring Joan Rivers, which raised $45,000. Louise Hay, the best-selling New Age author, led HIV/AIDS support groups known as "Hay Rides." Despite having eschewed more militant tactics, Hollywood's AIDS legacy is a lasting one. APLA has grown into one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the country, while amfAR has invested more than $366 million into AIDS research.