"My life has been backwards," Rock Hudson says, regarding his second double J&B and soda and everyone in its immediate vicinity with a certain mellowness. "When I was in my 20s - I call those the dark ages - I did not go out. I didn't have any fun. I studied my tail off trying to learn what this thing is they call acting. Now, past 50, I'm out to have fun."
Fun at this particular moment translates as sitting at the bar of the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn, hard by Shady Grove where Hudson opened last night with a star turn as King Arthur in "Camelot."
And though he is very much the just slightly aging matinee idol, complete with open shirt, wavy hair and a blandly resonant, terribly soothing voice, it's Hudson's size that is most striking. He's 6 foot 4, big enough to have been called "The baron of Beefcake" in his heartthrob days, for co-star Jane Wyman to have called him "The Great White Hope," and when he walks into a room, he seems as much like a former all-pro linebacker as anything else.
"There is an interesting air of polished confidence about Rock Hudson, something of the calm after the storm, as if the worst has already happened. He has in fact survived some of the harshest reviews ever to befall mortal man - a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fellow in London said one of his dance routines "could only be equalled if Yogi Bear danced Fred Astair" - only to find that the masses, especially women of a certain age, blithly continue to go crazy over him. He is hardly, to use his own phrase, "one of those critic's darlings where the audience goes 'pffuf.'"
Yet there has been something puzzling abotu Hudson's success. A 1970 Motion Picture Herald survey had him tied for third place with Gary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor in a list of the '60s top moneymakers, but as one critic has commented. "Of all the actors who were box office champs, he must be considered the least individual, the least positive." Perhaps this itself is the secret, perhaps his non-threatening nature is the very essence of his appeal, but Hudson himself absolutely refuses to speculate.
"A mirror is the biggest liar there is, you never see yourself as others see you," Hudson says. All he personally needs to know is that "I have always wanted to act, always, and I'm pleased to report I'm an actor." His career, as he describes it, seems very much a case of The Little Engine That Could.
For when Hudson says always, he means always, back to the days when he was a toddler in Winnetka, Ill., watching his mother play the piano for silent movies. "I've told this story so many times it sounds like a lie," he begins, "but if you can imagine the mentality of a 6, 7 or 8-year-old kid, I didn't have a bicycle. I wanted one, I saw a picture where Jackie Cooper had a bicycle, and I figured being an actor was the only way to get one."
Other stories have grown up around Hudson's entrance into acting, stories about him being discovered while delivering mail to an agent's doorstep, but he bristles at their very mention.
"No way, that's such a lie," he says. "First of all, nobody's discovered. Everybody likes a Cinderella story - What's more boring than saying I went out on interviews, applied for the job and got it. That's not good copy."
The mailman story is one of Hudson's legacies from his days as just about the last of the big, studio-promoted stars, the days when one newspaper called him "the latest rooster to be specially-bred for the Hollywood barnyard, coddled in a tray labeled He-Man (Romantic.)" Hedda is gone, Louella is gone, even some of the studios are gone, but Rock Hudson remains, to tell us what it was like.
He remembers working a lot, six-day weeks and all that, even making an incredible eight pictures in one year. He remembers learning by doing in a string of dreadful B-pictures, of days when "as green as I was, playing a nightclub doorman or something, the key grip would come up to me and say, 'Stand 6 inches to the left and you'll get a better light.'" But most of all he remembers the endless publicity tours, what he calls "the studio push."
"I'd go on these long, exhausting, 25-city tours, meeting the press all over the country, talking about myself all day long every day for a month and a half, and I really had nothing to say. 'Do you like records?' 'Yes.' 'Do you like steaks?' 'Yes.' 'Do you sleep in the nude?' 'Yes.' All the dumb questions, and I wasn't sophisticated enough to handle the other questions. People would ask 'What's going to happen next' and I'd say 'How the hell do I know?'"
Yet bad as that was, there is a still harsher heritage, one that Hudson still talks about with more than some bitterness. They went and changed his name.
"It was changed for me, it wasn't easy then and it still isn't," he says shortly. "They did it because it was done in those days, they told me Roy Fitzgerald was too long for a marquee. I was 22, young and a hick, so I agreed." The problem was, he is sure, that "the name became a hurdle. Nobody with a name like mine could possibly act."
So Rock Hudson continues to have to grapple with reviews that tend to treat him as a joke. Most of these he passes by, but, he admits with kind of a John Wayne look, "There's a couple of people I'd like to meet. Like that idiot in London who said I wasn't as bad as he heoped I'd be. British critics can be awfully cruel just for cruelness' sake."
Yet for all this about the only regret Hudson has about his career is that he didn't attend USC as he'd originally planned when he came out to California. Asked about unfulfilled ambitions, the only thing he can think to say is, "I'd love to go to college and, I don't know, study something, maybe landscape architecture." And for the first time all afternoon Rock Hudson allows himself, a shy, boyish, totally charming grin.