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(Ironically, even the straight stars of Ang Lee’s award-magnet drama of gay sheepherders found it wise to carefully protect their images by taking strategic counter-roles, Jake Gyllenhaal playing with guns as a butch marine in ).
While certain high-profile producers and directors are now out and presumably proud, more than a few gay actors and their handlers are still saddled with problems that Willson would recognize.
They could also try to improve their luck by hanging out at Henry Willson’s regular weekend pool parties, attended by key studio players like gossip columnist Mike Connolly, bodybuilder Steve Reeves (, with Selznick and Bud Lesser) as “all pit bull and no poodle.” A Beverly Hills detective tells Hofler that “You didn’t mess with Henry Willson,” considering his established ties with enforcers and scandal containers.
At his service was an entire infrastructure of fixers: no one wanted to mess with Fred Otash, for instance, a “leg breaker for the LAPD,” or shadowy lawyer Harry Weiss, useful for “massaging the arrests of homosexuals in the city of Los Angeles,” though his preternaturally speedy arrival at the station house aroused suspicions of his collusion in the arrests, especially since he and partner Lud Gerber owned gay clubs, steam baths, and even an escort service.
You’re better looking than any movie actor here.” Moving closer, to advance the intimacy, he would confide: “You are a star.
(Hofler quotes a callow Rock Hudson marveling to Look magazine that in his acting class “we used to do whole scenes from plays and scripts.” Whole scenes.) Willson’s distinctive (and enduring) contribution was concocting catchy names for his beefcake stable, often with a comically hypermasculine ring, a sense of trying too hard or insisting too strongly.Merle sounded like I ought to go out in the farmyard and do the chores.” This name game became a form of branding that Willson enjoyed since “everyone knew that I had named them,” never mind the widespread mockery. One major Hollywood power broker, Lew Wasserman, said, “When I became a talent agent for MCA, the word ‘agent’ was synonymous with ‘pimp’.” According to the author, Henry “often advised his clients to sleep with an executive or influential director” and not only gay clients.The ever irreverent Hofler digs up some choice suggestions from comedian Kaye Ballard: “Grid Iron, Cuff Links, Plate Glass, and Bran Muffin.” His father a Columbia Records executive, Willson was raised on prosperous Long Island, got started by supplying gossip for Variety, then moved west in 1933, at the height of conservative protests against the film industry’s perceived immorality (resulting in enforcement of the Production Code a year later, arguably the price of repealing Prohibition), and just in time to witness a homophobic campaign waged by The Hollywood Reporter. Selznick trusted Willson’s eye to scout out male talent, but Henry could not persuade his boss to sign Montgomery Clift or openly gay director James Whale, let alone the Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini. One reporter observed, “It was amazing what some heterosexual men would do to get a career in Hollywood.* * * His business card read: “If you’re interested in getting into the movies, I can help you. He steered actresses through Hollywood’s career hoops too, like Lana Turner, Rhonda Fleming, and Gena Rowlands, but Willson earned his sobriquet of “fairy godfather of Hollywood” through his single-minded focus on newly arrived young hunks on the Sunset Strip, with whispered enticements like, “You could be a star …. Most famously, he took the gangly young Roy Scherer, got his teeth fixed, dubbed him “Rock Hudson,” and used his clout to provoke a major studio build-up for the ex-mailman from Winnetka, Illinois.