By Lee Smith
It promised to be a quiet afternoon of old friends reminiscing.
Rock Hudson and Doris Day, the screen team of late ’50s-early ’60s comedies, were reuniting to publicize a TV series on pets for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Day, a staunch animal rights advocate, had come out of retirement as the program’s host, and her favorite co-star had promised to be her first guest.
Hudson ran late for the July 15, 1985, press conference, but he shocked Day and reporters when he finally appeared. The once handsome movie star looked ravaged — he was scarily thin, moved slowly and acted much older than his 59 years.
Less than a week later, the actor collapsed in a hotel lobby in Paris, where he’d gone to make a desperate last bid for medical treatment. Images of the ailing Hudson with the bubbly, still vibrant Day soon ricocheted around the world once the public learned the symbol of ’50s manhood had contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, which media reports said was “most prevalent among homosexual men and intravenous drug users.” A spokeswoman for the star confirmed his illness that July 25.
“There was something about Hudson’s diagnosis that seemed to strike an archetypal chord in the American consciousness. For decades, Hudson had been among the handful of screen actors who personified wholesome American masculinity; now, in one stroke, he was revealed as both gay and suffering from the affliction of pariahs,” the late Randy Shilts wrote in his best-selling chronicle of the crisis, “And the Band Played On.”
“Doctors involved in AIDS research called the Hudson announcement the single most important event in the history of the epidemic, and few knowledgeable people argued.”
Thousands had already died of the disease by the mid-’80s, but the revelation about movie royalty suddenly made people aware of “children with AIDS who wanted to go to school, laborers with AIDS who wanted to work, and researchers who wanted funding,” Shilts noted.
U.S. press coverage of the epidemic tripled once the news broke, according to the 1989 book “Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media.”
By the time “Doris Day’s Best Friends” aired that fall, Hudson was dead, becoming the first major celebrity casualty of AIDS-related causes on October 2, 1985. Thirty years later, his death remains a crucial moment in the epidemic — and its impact a key part of his legacy.