Film star Rock Hudson is suffering from the deadly disease AIDS and has known it since last year, according to a spokeswoman in Paris. The news, released yesterday morning after days of contradictory reports, has startled the public and drawn nationwide attention to the illness.
The revelation of a celebrity as an AIDS sufferer has also galvanized the gay community, where AIDS is of intense concern.
"Everybody knew that he hadn't been feeling well, but nobody knew it was as severe as this," said Dale Olson, Hudson's Los Angeles publicist.
The 59-year-old actor was hospitalized Sunday after collapsing at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Early reports said that he was being treated for inoperable liver cancer and other ailments.
Yesterday, spokeswoman Yanou Collart said Hudson's symptoms and signs of the AIDS virus had disappeared, but that doctors at the American Hospital were studying "abnormalities in [Hudson's] liver."
Collart said Hudson himself decided to make public the nature of his illness.
Experts in the United States were quick to point out that no cure exists, though several experimental drugs have apparently been able to keep the suspected AIDS virus from reproducing itself. Collart, a friend of the actor, said that Hudson "doesn't have any idea how he contracted AIDS . . . Nobody around him has AIDS."
AIDS, a usually fatal illness that destroys the body's natural immune system, has most often struck homosexuals, abusers of injectable drugs and, to a lesser degree, recipients of blood and blood products. Hudson had a heart bypass operation four years ago and has long been rumored to be gay.
Hudson was reportedly diagnosed as having AIDS a year ago and, according to the office of Hudson's Beverly Hills physician, Rexford Kennamer, was in Paris for a second visit to the Institut Pasteur, which has pioneered in research into the causes and treatment of AIDS.
There is no word on the expected length of Hudson's stay in the Paris hospital. "As far as I know he will remain there for the time being," said Olson. "I don't know how much longer . . . I'm told that he's feeling much better and that he's talking and simply feeling much better." Olson said that Hudson's condition remains stable.
For gay activists, the news about Hudson seemed to promise increased awareness of the disease. Lenny Giteck, editor of The Advocate, the only nationwide gay news magazine, said, "We are . . . saddened that [Hudson's] celebrityhood seems to have made a difference. On the other hand, this may be what it takes to bring increased funding to AIDS research."
Albert Ogle, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Hollywood, Calif., said, "What is significant this time is that a public figure is involved. Finally people may begin to believe that the problem of AIDS is as terrible as it is . . . The issue is that somebody in public life has AIDS. In this sense, this is a breakthrough."
The San Francisco Chronicle published a story on Wednesday quoting various sources in that city's gay community who said that it was well known there that Hudson was gay and that they had encouraged him to make his homosexuality public.
San Francisco author Armistead Maupin, who is openly gay, said in a phone interview yesterday that he met Hudson with friends in San Francisco in 1976.
"I spoke to him in 1976 about coming out because I felt that he was a true American success story and that his visibility as a gay person would mean a lot toward clearing up misconceptions the American public has about homosexuality. I have enormous respect for him . . . He's the same kind of hero for me that he is for my mother -- only in an entirely different way."
Maupin said that when he suggested that Hudson go public, "He seemed kind of fascinated and horrified at the same time. I wanted him to do it because he was a big hero to me and I thought that he would be a big hero to a lot of other people."
Maupin, who described Hudson as "a social friend," saw him several times in San Francisco and was a guest several times at Hudson's home in Los Angeles where the actor, according to Maupin, "has a gay extended family that's been an enormous support." Maupin said he has not been in contact with Hudson since 1981.
In Los Angeles, publicist Olson was asked if Hudson was a homosexual, and said, "There have been rumors to that effect for many years. But our relationship has been purely business and the subject has never come up. Hudson is a very private person."
In Hollywood, where first reports of Hudson's illness were greeted by an outpouring of affection and concern, public comments were guarded. A longtime Hudson friend, actor Jim Nabors, "has decided not to make a statement," said his manager, Barbara Demeicki. Linda Evans, who costarred with Hudson in the TV series "Dynasty," had no comment. According to Joshua Baser, an associate of Evans' theatrical management agency, "She does not want to get involved in this." A spokesman for actress Susan Saint James, who costarred with Hudson in the popular television series "McMillan and Wife," said that Saint James would take no phone calls on Hudson. Carol Burnett, who appeared with Hudson in several stage plays and television programs, was inaccessible. Her publicist, Rick Ingersoll, said Burnett would have no statement.
One publicist, promised anonymity, said, "One of the reasons people don't want to talk about this issue is that it is so ghoulish. What can one say? Rock Hudson has so many friends and admirers here in town. He's a very well-liked man."
"I feel sadness anytime anyone is diagnosed," said Newton Dieter, director of the Gay Media Task Force and a consultant to "Dynasty," which features a gay character. "My hope would be that the general public would recognize that this is a disease that could hit anyone and hopefully that will help us in the battle to get more money to find a cause and find a cure."
Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo said his 13th district, which includes Hollywood, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Echo Park, "has more openly gay and lesbian people than any other district" and also more reported cases of AIDS than any other Los Angeles district. The AIDS Project LA reports that about 30 percent of the AIDS cases they see come from Woo's district.
"There's a strong feeling within the gay community that the disease of AIDS is being pigeonholed as a gay issue and does not need to be treated seriously . . . " said Woo. "I think the disclosure by Rock Hudson and just the acceleration of reports of people that city council people know are dying of AIDS will change that perception. So, I would say that unfortunately Hudson's diagnosis is helpful -- in broadening the perception and showing that it's a general public health hazard."
Hudson's illness has also stirred interest in AIDS research.
In France, Hudson was reportedly treated with an experimental drug called HPA-23, which is currently unavailable in the United States.
"The company that manufactures HPA-23 has just begun to file with the FDA to have the drug tested in the U.S.," said Jerome Groopman, a major researcher in AIDS and the chief of hematology-oncology at New England Deaconess Hospital, Harvard Medical School. "Certainly in the next two or three months, we will see clinical trials where you actually get the drug and treat patients under careful observation." Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler said yesterday that she has approved regulations designed to speed the development of new medicines, including research on drugs that may help combat the epidemic of AIDS.
HPA-23, like several other drugs that are being tested against AIDS, works by blocking the enzyme -- called reverse transcriptase -- that the virus found in AIDS needs to reproduce itself.
As of last week, AIDS had struck 11,871 people in the United States and claimed 5,917 lives since 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, and a specialist in the treatment of AIDS victims, said yesterday that "our approach here to AIDS therapy is two-pronged. First is to develop and test antiviral agents that can directly suppress the AIDS retrovirus.
"In addition to that, since the AIDS virus has as its effect a destruction or diminution of the immune response, one of the other approaches is to try to reconstitute the response."
The most complete way to do that, Fauci said, is by bone marrow transplants. And to test the hypothesis, he and his colleagues will perform such operations on three sets of identical twins being followed by the government researchers. In each case, one twin has AIDS and the other is healthy.
NIH and other AIDS researchers in this country are also testing antiviral agents called suramin and ribavirin; they are also experimenting with alpha-interferon. These are similar in action to the French drug.
It was only about a year ago that researchers here and in France identified a virus known technically as HTLV-III/LAV, which appears responsible for the syndrome.