It was a chaste kiss, even by primetime television standards of the day, but it generated headlines around the world. When guest star Rock Hudson, the square-jawed leading man of yesteryear, locked lips with series star Linda Evans on a February 1985 episode of the soap/drama Dynasty, he was already ill from AIDS but was keeping his diagnosis a secret.
Hudson died at age 59 on October 2, 1985, from complications related to AIDS. Though he appeared in numerous acting roles throughout his Hollywood career, including Giant (1956) alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961) with Doris Day, as well as starring in the TV series McMillan & Wife (1971–1977), it would be his death from the then misunderstood and maligned disease that remains his enduring public legacy.
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Hudson hid his diagnosis
“I’ve got to kiss Linda. What the hell am I going to do?” he reportedly asked his private secretary after receiving the Dynasty script a week before the kissing scene was scheduled to be filmed in late 1984. Diagnosed earlier that year, Hudson had kept the details of his illness a secret, as he had long attempted to keep his homosexuality hidden from his fans. Hudson did not inform Evans or the show's producer Aaron Spelling of the diagnosis.
According to his memoir Rock Hudson, His Story, the actor used multiple sprays and mouthwashes ahead of filming and told his secretary afterward that “the kiss is over with. Thank God.”
Because there was little public information about AIDS, rumors began to circulate that he infected Evans
Hudon's medical condition was revealed to the world following his sudden collapse at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in July 1985, a few months after the episode. He was taken to the American Hospital in Neuilly where it was first reported he was being treated for liver cancer. Other reports began to circulate that he had AIDS and was seeking treatment in France. Within days, a Hudson spokesperson confirmed he was suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and the actor was transported back to the United States for further treatment. He was the first major public figure to openly acknowledge his AIDS diagnosis.
Reports and gossip about Hudson possibly infecting Evans with the disease while on set began to circulate on network TV news broadcasts as well as in tabloid newspapers within a month of his July statement confirming the diagnosis. Public education regarding the disease was then non-existent and the unsubstantiated reports helped fuel rumors about contracting it, even though some medical advisors at the time had stated there was no evidence that AIDS could be transmitted through casual kissing.
As news of his diagnosis spread, so did reports of Evans being hysterical and fearing for her life following the interaction with Hudson, and that she was desperate to get tested for the disease. Dynasty producers soon addressed the reports. “Everything attributed to her — that she’s asking for blood tests, that she’s suing Rock Hudson, that she is panicked — is not true,” a spokesperson for the show declared.
“When we did the scene [Hudson] was very timid with me,” Evans recalled of the kiss during a Lifetime Intimate Portrait episode. “As a result of it, they reshot it because they said it wasn’t passionate enough. And later, when I found out that he had AIDS, I understand how much he tried to protect me.” In retrospect, Evans believes the period to “be a very good time in my life because I got to see who people were,” admitting that some “started staying away from me. People wouldn’t hug me anymore.”
Many rallied behind Hudson during his final months
Evans remained a loyal friend to Hudson throughout his final months, as did former costars Taylor and Day. “I feel very sad that while Rock is struggling for his life this sort of thing is going on,” Evans said during a promotional interview for Dynasty in 1985. “My only concern has been for Rock. He is such a lovely, kind man. … The most valuable thing we can learn from this entire situation with Rock is that we are more well-informed about AIDS and that we don’t get crazy and panic and start assuming things that just aren’t true.”
When Taylor visited Hudson at the UCLA Medical Center following his return from France, she was more worried about her impact on his immune system than her own health, according to People. Hudson’s illness and death galvanized Taylor to do something to help the fight against HIV/AIDS. Appalled by his suffering and the condemnation aimed at those with the disease, in 1985 she joined with a small group of doctors and scientists to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and in 1991 she started her own organization, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Less than a month prior to his death, Hudson was scheduled to attend a performance to help raise money to find a cure for AIDS. Hudson had reportedly purchased $10,000 worth of tickets but was ultimately too ill to be there in person. Instead, he sent a telegram which included the following: “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”