A hard man was good to find: meet the monster who created Rock ...

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A hard man was good to find: meet the monster who created Rock Hudson

How Henry Willson turned farm boys into film stars and inspired a sleazy drama set in post-war Hollywood

Tim Robey

Among the many fictional players grasping at fame in Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s new drama about the film business in post-war Los Angeles, one real-life character stands out. His name was Henry Willson, a high-profile agent played in the series by Jim Parsons as a star-maker extraordinaire — and rapacious sexual predator.

Willson’s major achievement was to establish the leading man status of one Roy Fitzgerald, the Illinois sailor boy he took under his wing in 1947 and sculpted, piece by piece, into the matinee idol we know as Rock Hudson. He was neither the first nor the last starry-eyed nobody whom Willson would exploit to feed both the era’s demand for beefcake pin-ups and his own insatiable libido. But he was the only one who became a real hit, America’s most bankable male star in the late 1950s, before the Willson brand became hopelessly tarnished.

When Fitzgerald, a 1,95m delivery boy nervously trying his luck in a new tweed suit, first knocked on the door of his office, the unattractive, nerdy-looking Willson had already been working for a few years as chief talent scout for Gone with the Wind producer David O Selznick, who was some way on the downward slope from his glory days. The way Hollywood plays it, Willson sees instant potential in Fitzgerald’s hidden vulnerability, then seals the deal by insisting on oral sex...

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