Gazette Article by: Maura Rogan
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2004
Rock Hudson: In Winnetka We Called Him Roy
The handsome, leading man of Pillow Talk and more than 70 other Hollywood pictures wasn’t always known as Rock Hudson. Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., was born on November 17, 1925, to Winnetka’s Katherine Wood Scherer, a telephone operator, and Roy Harold Scherer, an auto mechanic. A 1929 phone directory lists the Scherer’s home at 1017 Elm. Young Roy’s parents divorced c.1933, and his mother, along with her parents James and Mary Ellen Wood, cared for him. Katherine remarried c.1935 to Wallace Fitzgerald who adopted Roy and legally changed his name to Roy Fitzgerald. Telephone directories list the Fitzgerald family as moving frequently around the Village. In 1935, they lived in an apartment at 809 Chestnut Court and, from 1936-1939, at 511 Birch (now demolished). Magazine articles written about his life describe school-age Roy Fitzgerald as a very social boy, more interested in fun and mischief than in academics. One account claimed that he never acted in school plays because he couldn’t remember the lines.
The early 1940s brought more uprooting for the Fitzgeralds. In 1940, the family lived at 907 Ash and, in 1941, in an apartment above a store at 918 Linden. A 1942 directory lists Katherine, without Wallace, living at 882 Elm; the couple presumably divorced. Roy Fitzgerald graduated from New Trier in 1944 and became a postal employee in Winnetka. In January 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and trained at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. According to the war service record that he completed, now in the collection of the Historical Society, he served at Glenview Air Base and then, from May 1945 to April 1946, at the Naval Air Base in Samar, Phillippines. In Samar, Roy Fitzgerald worked on planes before being transferred to Public Works and then to Laundry. Upon discharge in May 1946, he arrived in Shoemaker, California, the state that would become his home. The war service record lists his mother as living at 794 Elm and his father, Roy Harold Scherer, as residing in Los Angeles.
Roy Fitzgerald worked as a truck driver, but had bigger plans in mind. Encouraged by his good looks and 6’4” stature, he idled outside Hollywood film studios and sent his photo to film executives. Apparently, he made an impression on an agent, Henry Wilson, who signed him on as a client. Fitzgerald’s teeth were capped and he took lessons in acting, dancing, singing, fencing, and riding. Hollywood legend has it that Wilson changed Fitzgerald’s name to be shorter and more masculine; he selected “Rock” after the Rock of Gibraltar and “Hudson” after the Hudson River. These steps paid off. In 1948, Rock Hudson landed his first role in a movie, the film Fighter Squadron . He had one line “You’d better get a bigger blackboard,” and he nailed it after 38 takes.
Hudson climbed the ladder to fame in the 1950s, making more than 20 films for Universal-International and other studios. While he earned his first lead part in the western Scarlet Angel (1952), his breakthrough role came in 1954 when he costarred with Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession. Two years later, he earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his work in Giant with Elizabeth Taylor and, in 1958, was named “Star of the Year” in Look Magazine. (It was during the mid ’50s that Hudson was in a three-year marriage to studio employee Phyllis Gate and that his mother relocated to California.) Hudson’s 1959 foray into romantic comedies was enormously successful; Pillow Talk led to several more movies with Doris Day in the 1960s, including Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1961). His place was secure as one of Hollywood’s most dashing movie stars of the decade.
The 1970s saw the demise of the studio system and of Hudson as a box office draw. While continuing to act in movies, he turned his energies to the small screen where he top-lined the series McMillon and Wife (1971-77) with Susan St. James. When he appeared as a guest star on Dynasty in 1984, Hudson seemed gaunt and tired. Shortly after, he announced to the media that he was a homosexual and was dying from AIDS. He was the first celebrity to publicly acknowledge that he had the disease, changing forever the perception of the virus. Rock Hudson died on October 2, 1985, having both entertained and, in coming forth with his illness, educated millions of people around the world.