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
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).
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: