In Netflix’s newest series, Hollywood, Ryan Murphy travels back in time. The show takes viewers back to the final year of what was known as the "Studio System," a time when actors were contract players in Hollywood, and the movie studios controlled Tinseltown. In Murphy’s fantasy of rewriting this era to create a more diverse film industry decades before it would come to pass, he brings to life many real-life figures of the period. But none loom as large as Jim Parson’s Henry Willson. Those who don’t know movie history will certainly find themselves asking: Who was Henry Willson, and what was he like in real life? Warning: Spoilers for Hollywood follow.
Henry Willson was the real-life Hollywood agent who took a shy midwestern boy named Roy Harold Scherer Jr. and turned him into the larger than life paragon of manhood Rock Hudson. But though that’s how fans meet him in the series, it was a long journey to get there.
Willson started as a gossip columnist, first for Variety, then Photoplay, The Hollywood Reporter, and New Movie Magazine. He made the jump to talent scouting with the legendary Joyce & Polimer Agency before branching out on his own. These connections to reporters came in handy (as the show makes clear), helping him pull the levers of the industry to take out rivals and lift his clients. Those clients are a laundry list of who’s who of the period, from hunky beefcake heroes like Robert Wagner and Rory Calhoun to starlets like Rhonda Fleming and Lana Turner.
The series shows Willson as the kind of producer who can make you a star as long as he can do what he wants with you. According to rumors from the period, that was true as well.
In the series, Henry’s experience working on Meg is his saving grace. It opens his eyes to how others see him. And when Rock decides to walk the red carpet, hand in hand with his boyfriend Archie, it makes him realize how detrimental living in the closet is, and how he needs to respect himself for who he is, just like Hudson is doing. By the end of the series, he’s sober, he has a new purpose in life, and he’s creating the first gay love story in a mainstream Hollywood film.
In real life, none of that happened. Willson’s trading off gossip to elevate one client and tear down another finally caught up with him. When rumors of Rock Hudson’s closeted lifestyle threatened to come out, he bargained with the secrets of ex-client Rory Calhoun in exchange. Calhoun’s people didn’t take it lightly. Within a year, a whisper campaign about Willson’s sexuality and behavior turned his life into an open secret. He became a pariah among actors who didn’t want to be associated with someone who was rumored to take only gay clients.
By the time Willson died in 1978 from alcoholism, he was broke and buried in an unmarked grave. Eventually, donations were made, and today his headstone reads "Star-Star Maker."
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