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Henry Willson (July 31, 1911 – November 2, 1978) was an American Hollywood talent agent who played a large role in popularizing the beefcake craze of the 1950s. He was known for his stable of young, attractive clients, including Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Chad Everett, Robert Wagner, Nick Adams, Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, Mike Connors, Rory Calhoun, John Saxon, Clint Walker, Doug McClure, Dack Rambo, Ty Hardin, and John Derek. He discovered Rhonda Fleming walking to Beverly Hills High School, brought her to David O. Selznick's attention, and helped groom her for stardom, and was instrumental in advancing Lana Turner's career.
Willson was born Henry Leroy Willson into a prominent show business family in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. His father Horace was the vice-president of the Columbia Phonograph Company and advanced to the presidency when the company was renamed in 1922 as the Columbia Gramophone Manufacturing Company. Willson came in close contact with many Broadway theatre, opera, and vaudeville performers, and Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Fred Stone numbered among the family friends once they moved to Forest Hills, an upscale neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.
Concerned about his son's interest in tap dance, the elder Willson enrolled Henry in the Asheville School in North Carolina, where he hoped the school's many team sports and rugged weekend activities, such as rock climbing and backpacking, would have a positive influence on the boy. He later attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, spending weekends in Manhattan, where he wrote weekly gossip columns for Variety.
In 1933, Willson migrated to Hollywood via a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. On board he cultivated a friendship with Bing Crosby's wife Dixie Lee, who introduced him to the Hollywood elite and secured him a job with Photoplay, where his first article was about newborn Gary Crosby. He began writing for The Hollywood Reporter and The New Movie Magazine, became a junior agent at the Joyce & Polimer Agency, moved into a Beverly Hills home purchased by his father, and became a regular at Sunset Strip gay bars, where he wooed young men for both professional and personal reasons. One of his first clients (and lovers) was Junior Durkin, whose career was cut short by an automobile accident on May 4, 1935, in which Durkin was killed.
Willson joined the Zeppo Marx Agency, where he represented newcomers Marjorie Bell, Jon Hall, and William T. Orr. He was introduced to Hollywood High School student Judy Turner in 1937, whom he renamed "Lana Turner" and got cast in small roles, finally introducing her to Mervyn LeRoy at Warner Brothers. In 1943, David O. Selznick hired Willson to head the talent division of his newly formed Vanguard Pictures. The first film he cast was the World War II drama Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, and Shirley Temple. He placed Guy Madison, Craig Stevens, and John Derek (billed as Dare Harris) in small supporting roles.
Willson eventually opened his own talent agency, where he nurtured the careers of his young finds, frequently coercing them into sexual relationships in exchange for publicity and film roles. In his book, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall (2002), Richard Barrios writes, "Talent agent Henry Willson... had a singular knack for discovering and renaming young actors whose visual appeal transcended any lack of ability. Under his tutelage, Robert Mosely became Guy Madison, Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr. was renamed Ty Hardin, Arthur Gelien was changed to Tab Hunter, and Roy Scherer turned into Rock Hudson. So successful was the beefcake aspect of this enterprise, and so widely recognized was Willson's sexuality, that it was often, and often inaccurately, assumed that all of his clients were gay." Suzanne Finstad confirms that "Some of the would-be actors Willson represented were heterosexual, but a disproportionate number were homosexual, bisexual, or 'co-operated' with Willson 'to get gigs,' in the observation of Natalie [Wood]'s costar Bobby Hyatt..." "If a young, handsome actor had Henry Willson for an agent, 'it was almost assumed he was gay, like it was written across his forehead,' recalls Ann Doran, one of Willson's few female clients."
His most prominent client was Rock Hudson, whom he transformed from a clumsy, naive, Chicago-born truck driver named Roy Scherer into one of Hollywood's most popular leading men. The two were teamed professionally until 1966. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an expose about Hudson's secret homosexual life, and Willson disclosed information about Rory Calhoun's years in prison and Tab Hunter's arrest at a gay party in 1950 in exchange for the tabloid not printing the Hudson story. At his agent's urging, Hudson married Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates in order to put the rumors to rest and maintain a macho image, but the union dissolved after three years.
Later years and death
In his later years, Willson struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, paranoia, and weight problems. Because his own homosexuality had become public knowledge, many of his clients, both gay and straight, distanced themselves from him for fear of being branded the same. In 1974, the unemployed and destitute agent moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, where he remained until he died of cirrhosis of the liver. With no money to cover the cost of a tombstone, he was interred in an unmarked grave, in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, in North Hollywood, California.
- Ferber, Lawrence. "Oh, Henry Oh, Henry: The pretty boys and dirty deeds of Hollywood agent Henry Willson The pretty boys and dirty deeds of Hollywood agent Henry Willson", Gay and Lesbian Times, November 17, 2005. Accessed June 18, 2009. "During his youth in Forest Hills, N.Y., Willson was close to his father, a man who both enabled his showbiz obsession and hindered his personal development."
- Stern and Ian McKellen, Keith (2009). Queers in History. Dallas, Texas. p. 493. ISBN 978-1933771878.
- Suzanne Finstad, Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood (2001), p.140.
- Henry Willson at Find a Grave - unmarked
- Richard Barrios, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall (2002).
- Robert Hofler, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. Carroll & Graf, 2005, ISBN 0-7867-1607-X