Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Henry Willson

Henry Willson with Shirley Temple in 1945.

During the 1950s, Hollywood talent agent Henry Willson (1911-1978) was responsible for discovering and manufacturing careers of a stable of handsome, but not necessarily talented, movie stars, who became known as “beefcake” actors. His roster included Rock Hudson (born Roy Scherer), Tab Hunter (Arthur Kelm), Guy Madison (Robert Moseley) and Troy Donahue (Merle Johnson), men born with far too pedestrian names, willingly rechristened by the fertile imagination of Willson. Ditto Yale Summers, Rad Fulton and Race Gentry.

He provided fan magazines and other media outlets with a steady stream of his male “stars” photographed with as little clothing as possible. Rarely was there evidence of so much as a shirt. He was able to get right to the point, and his business card read: "If you're interested in getting into the movies, I can help you. Henry Willson. Agent." For those who fell for his come-on, Willson heightened the lure with comments such as, “You are already a star. Now it’s up to me to let Hollywood know.”

Willson, who grew up in New York City (Forest Hills), was reared in the underbelly of Hollywood. While still in high school he went to Broadway shows and wrote about them for Variety. His first major Hollywood job, as a talent scout for David Selznick, included duties of procuring women for his employer. Once out on his own, Willson could fully realize his homosexual fantasies by dealing in the beefcake trade. Indeed, many say that Willson “invented” the beefcake trade, which was pretty much defined as pure male beauty, undiluted by talent.


Try to keep a straight face as you read this photo caption: “Calling All Girls: Whistle-bait in the beefcake brigade. Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall do some prowling of their own!” Hollywood insiders knew that both Tab and Roddy were gay, although deeply closeted at the time.

Unfortunately, many of his clients were also objects of Willson’s hands-on lechery, taking the casting-couch technique to new heights. He also had an unfortunate habit of insinuating himself into the lives of his clients, something for which any talent agent would be fired today. There exists a photo of Henry at home at the breakfast table with the maid serving Guy Madison, dressed in his sailor’s uniform. It was a publicity shot for a story about how Guy stayed at Henry Willson’s house when on shore leave. Madison’s only complaint was how the bed at Henry’s was too big and too soft. Really. Save that thought – we’ll get back to Mr. Madison.

Yet Willson exacted a tremendous influence over Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s. He could also project a genuine and even paternal side, not to discount his success in discovering bona fide talent (Natalie Wood, Rhonda Fleming, Gena Rowlands and Lana Turner). Shirley Temple talked about going to Henry’s house, where they enjoyed having séances together. She recalled that Henry served hot dogs and was like a dear uncle to her.



From left to right:
Jack Warner, Natalie Wood, Henry Willson, Phyllis Gates and Rock Hudson. Gates, Willson's secretary, entered into an arranged marriage to Rock Hudson for two years, to deflect persistent rumors of Hudson's homosexuality (the rumors were all true). Phyllis, by the way, was lesbian, and she and Rock never had a physical relationship.

Fortunately, Willson’s instincts led him to exercise caution in some instances. He wouldn’t take liberties with an actor the likes of John Gavin or others who hailed from moneyed, high society families. Henry was more apt to molest the naïve, off-the-bus types who would do anything to see their names in lights. And often did. Henry favored inexperienced actors who needed a father figure. He fixed their teeth, bought them clothes,  taught them how to speak, even which fork to use. He yanked handsome truck drivers off the street and dazzled them with dinners at the finest restaurants, pointing out the stars at other tables, then telling them he could make them a movie star – quickly followed by a hand on the knee. Incipient acting talent was entirely optional.

As time went on, however, Willson’s reputation as a notorious homosexual adversely affected his professional life, as more and more of his clients distanced themselves from his agency for fear they’d be labeled homosexual themselves, which was the kiss of death to many a Hollywood career – witness William "Billie" Haines and George Nader (entries in sidebar). As a result, Willson’s final years were spent in poverty; he was accepted as a charity case at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, where in 1978, Willson died from cirrhosis of the liver.

In his heyday, however, Willson was drunk on his own power, proving adept at publicity stunts and manipulation of his clients’ careers. When Confidential magazine was about to out Rock Hudson as gay, Willson arranged Hudson’s marriage to one of his own secretaries, Phyllis Gates. Willson traded dirty secrets about some clients to tabloid reporters in exchange for silence about others, and it was known that he employed off-duty LAPD officers to intimidate would-be blackmailers.

Rock Hudson, like his agent/mentor Willson, was seldom discreet. While nearly every actor and actress liked the always affable Rock Hudson, others in the know used their insider knowledge of his sexual orientation to taunt him. Hudson had to sell his favorite sailboat, which he piloted on many a weekend over to Catalina Island, because vandals kept spray painting “faggot” and “queer” on the bow. This, during the time Rock Hudson was voted the number one box office star in 1957.

Willson’s life, achievements and scandals are recounted in Robert Hofler’s tell-all book, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (2006, available in e-reader formats).

Now, back to Guy Madison, one of Willsons’ handsomest clients, and a completely manufactured Hollywood star. His story is typical of a Willson-discovered beefcake actor. Robert Moseley (1922-1996) was a former California lifeguard working as a telephone lineman when he answered his nation’s call by enlisting in the Coast Guard at the onset of WWII. During a weekend leave in 1943 Moseley attended a broadcast of a Lux Radio Theater program, where he was spotted by Henry Willson, then a talent scout for David O. Selznick. Selznick was looking for an unknown to play a sailor in a cameo role in a new film, Since You Went Away. Willson spotted the spectacularly handsome soldier among the audience and thought he looked terrific in his uniform. Turns out he looked even better without it.

With no experience, training or ambition to be an actor, Moseley was signed as an extra. He completed his scene while on a weekend pass and returned to duty. When the big-budget war epic was released in 1944, Selznick’s studio received thousands of fan letters for the unknown actor. Three minutes of on-screen time had in fact elicited 43,000 pieces of fan mail. Willson thought Robert Moseley too lackluster a name, so he created the more tantalizing moniker Guy Madison, who thus joined Henry’s stable of male stars whose physical appeal transcended lack of talent.

So long as he kept his shirt off, Madison’s public was more than happy to buy tickets to his movies. His unselfconscious screen persona, shy smile and mind-altering good looks delivered him to the very peak of the 1950s beefcake craze. His wooden acting, however, sent him straight into the arms of television, where he became a household name as the star of The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, a startlingly successful TV series that ran from 1951 to 1958.

You might want to know that subsequent lack of work led Madison to Europe, where he starred in a string of spaghetti westerns and B-grade German adventure films for ten years. But any more text in this post would deprive space better taken up by photographs of one of the all-time most photogenic entertainment stars. Need an eye-candy fix? Watch a Guy Madison movie. If for nothing else, we owe the lecherous Henry Willson for the discovery of "pretty boys" the likes of hearth-throb Guy Madison. So here we go:





Genetic evidence that beauty is inherited, as revealed in this photo of Madison's only son Roberto (born 1967 in Rome), who is today a major star of Italian television:


15 comments:

  1. In his days of brilliance Guy Madison was so handsome!

    Your blog is fantastic!

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  2. Just watched an old movie with Guy Madison.Till the end of time...Loved it.

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  3. I loved "Since You Went Away" and remember the sailor that befriended two of the leads (Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones). He did a good job there! I didn't connect the dots and realize that it was Guy Madison.

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  4. I just found out about Willson. I had no idea all these young men had to pay so dearly for success. Great blog. Thanks for the information

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  5. I knew Henrey Willson. He had a lot of personal problems, it is true. However, nobody forced those actors to sign with him. Given the great careers they had, they probably would not have changed a thing. Also, many of them were already gay before they met him. He made a lot of money for the studios, and his actors. I felt sorry for him as he was having a lot of difficulties making a living, He eventually lost his Bel-Air home and became a charity case. A sad ending for one of the giants of the movie industry. What is even sadder is the fact that the ones whose careers he made were nowhere in sight when he needed them!

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    1. I appreciate your sensitive comment about Henry Wilson. While the 70's was a difficult time to be gay and out, the 40's were impossible. On the advise of a lawyer friend, I dodged many similar opportunities in the 70's while in the military and college out of pure fear and closetedness and regret doing so. I admire his courage and the "stable" of actors he pulled together.

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    2. Sadly, isn't that always the way

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  6. Ron, I didn't know Henry, but as a 17 year old in Hollywood I certainly knew men like him. He is reported to have used his position to take advantage of young men. Yes, some got careers in return, but a user is a user, and if he ended up with the short end of the stick, perhaps he should have been a little more fiscally conservative while the bucks were rolling in. It seems to me his "sad ending" was of his own making, and if none of his "discoveries" were there to lessen his burden, perhaps that has something to do with his dealings with them when they were small and he seemed so very, very big. Been there, done that, and all I have to say is Karma is indeed a bitch.

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    1. You got it, Henry Wilson was very "nice" to me at first, but when I wouldn't "put out" for him, his actors, producer, director "buddies" & friends, I was labeled "uncooperative"! Hmm, I wonder why? I soon learned the real price of fame in Hollyweird & the price was just too high for a pretty moral Catholic kid from the sticks! What you said is so true! That's why now when I see all these left wing young & old celebrities hawking on thing, person or another, I "KNOW" what they had to do to get to where they are & I laugh @ their hypocrisy, not to mention their stupidity! Remember who controls all media & it all started in the late 1800's with cinema & is continuing, figure it out folks! Haaa. I just happened on this website looking up a movie star I saw on TCM cable, boy, what a find, think I wandered on it one time before, we'll see. Happy reading (especially between the lines! Haaa.) folks. Strange, but, oh, so very true! If only middle class, so called "normal" America knew what really goes on with the socalled media, it's stars, peoples!

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  7. vhougasian@ aol.comNovember 17, 2015 at 9:02 PM

    I met Henry Willson in 1957 with Santiago at Frascati's on Laurel Canyon and Sunset blvd. Across the street from Schwabs Famous Drug store. We celebrated Rock Hudson's Birthday that year and my birthday also. Mine was the 14th and Rock was the 17th. I happened to be a part of it due to being invited through my friend Santiago. It was a great evening. Rock was living at the Voltaire at the time. He invited Santiago and I to come for lunch one day. When we arrived it happened he had a singing lesson at 20th that day. I did meet up with Rock again when he was in San Francisco in 20th Century Musical. He welcomed me backstage and we talked for a few minutes regarding our celebration in 57' This was in 80'. He remembered me. That was very special. He took a liking to Santiago and I because we were from Pasadena and his mother worked in Arcadia. He was a terrific guy. Not the least caught up in Hollywood. Very sincere. A truly good hearted person. I liked Henry Willson too. What is said about him and how he treated us was totally different. He was very respectful to me and Santiago and of course Rock was also. I glad I share Rock with you on his Birthday.

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  8. I find it truly fascinating to learn about the backdoor dealings (pun intended) of old Hollywood. Fame, sex, power, it's all there.

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  9. Yep, I knew Henry Wilson too! I was working @ a very famous restaurant in Beverly Hills & living in a big old style mansion ar the top of La Brea & Hollywood Bvd., where they met, a Bill Hastens owned it, was an actor & Head chef @ the most popular place in Hollywood, it was called PJ's on Sunset Blvd., strip if I remember correctly! I was sunbathing in back of the Mansion, or place I lived & all of a sudden this guy stopped his car & ran over to me, handed me a card & said you are the most beautiful boy I have ever seen! Yeah, sure I thought, then he said you are a cross between Tyrone Powers & Victor Mature, Tyrone for the face & Victor for the body! Well, being 20, just outta the service, slaving over a hot grill to make ends meet, I was intrigued when he said I'll make you the biggest movie star in the world! But, I didn't know what that would intail, I was just a kid, naive to the ways of the world, especially Hollyweird & the perverted creeps that did & do still control it, different faces, same creepy game for any good looking well built, guy or girl! If you don't "play" you don't work in that flesh eating town. Just finished reading a book by Scotty Bowers & relived many parts of my life! I lasted 7-8 years in Hollyweird & had to leave before it ate me up & spitted me out too! It's a vicious circle & meat market of the world! There is much more I could say, but, like Scotty did in 2013, I'm writing a book too & it will verify Scotty's account of events, plus some added names & stories too, of certain people, JFK prior to being President one of them, MM being another! Remember, I was a cook, chef & owner of restaurants & saw a lot if "activities" prior to leaving Hollyweird after 7-8 years of?

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  10. Guy Madison turned out to be a good actor, he was not always "wooden." Check out his performance opposite Jean Simmons in Hilda Crane, sometime. Or in the Anthony Mann film, The last Frontier. He won a Golden Globe for his western TV series. He was not a "soldier" as you stated. https://navy.togetherweserved.com/usn/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=521818

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