A heat wave smothered Marfa, Texas, in 1955 when the production of Giant rolled into town — but it wasn’t just the weather that was steamy. Locals gossiped that the film’s lead actress, Elizabeth Taylor, often wore a negligee to her nightly dinners at costar Rock Hudson’s rented home — located conveniently across the street from her own. Townspeople often drove by and tried to peek over Rock’s fence for a glimpse of the pair talking and drinking together.
It’s likely that Elizabeth and Rock had met before — both were veteran actors by 1955 — but on the set of Giant, they forged a strong friendship that endured 30 years and became a catalyst for good works. “We spent most of the time chatting and laughing and being silly,” Elizabeth said.
It felt good to laugh with Rock. Elizabeth had given birth to her second son, Christopher, a few months before the Giant shoot. She arrived in Texas after a punishing crash diet, suffering from postpartum depression and feeling a strain on her marriage to Michael Wilding. “Rock was very sympathetic. He played practical jokes on set to keep her laughing,” Mark Bego, author of Rock Hudson: Public and Private, tells Closer.
Actor Earl Holliman, who played Elizabeth and Rock’s son-in-law in the film, recalls expeditions with the pair across the border to Ojinaga, Mexico, for mariachi music and margaritas. “We all learned to drink tequila real good,” he said.
Rock and Liz have also been credited with inventing chocolate martinis during their time together. “[One night] the hail was like golf balls. We were running out, getting conked on the head…making chocolate martinis,” recalled Elizabeth.
The actress’ husband, Michael, heard the stories about Elizabeth and Rock’s relationship and paid a visit to the set — apparently, he was one of the few showbiz insiders who didn’t know that Rock was gay. “It was an open secret in Hollywood in those days,” Mark Griffin, author of All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson, explains to Closer. It didn’t stop Elizabeth from telling her husband off. “Elizabeth could be heard really yelling and lambasting Michael for questioning her friendship with Rock,” Griffin says.
It wasn’t just the good times that bonded Elizabeth and Rock so deeply. Both were emotionally devastated late in the production by the car crash death of their Giant co-star, James Dean, on September 30, 1955 — eight days after his role in the film wrapped. He and Rock had not been friends. The older actor, who had come up under the old studio system, looked down on James’ adherence to Method acting, calling him “selfish and petulant,” according to Griffin’s book. But Rock found himself grieving at the senseless loss along with Elizabeth, who had adored the younger actor.
After Giant wrapped, Elizabeth and Rock, who won an Oscar for his role, remained close. He and his wife, Phyllis Gates, were among the guests at her dinner party the night Montgomery Clift crashed his car in 1956. A few years later, Elizabeth helped Rock and his lover, Lee Garlington, plan a secret trip to Mexico. “We had a house on the beach, which Elizabeth always stayed at,” Lee tells Closer. “It was lovely.”
When Elizabeth staged a film comeback in the early 1980s, after her years as the wife of Sen. John Warner were coming to a close, she chose to reunite with Rock on-screen in The Mirror Crack’d. “She’d had enough of the Washington scene and really wanted to spend more time with Rock,” says Griffin. “They probably talked a lot about her marriage and her struggles with substance abuse.”
Just four years later, it would be Rock’s turn to lean on Elizabeth. After noticing a lesion on his neck, the actor consulted his doctor and eventually was diagnosed with AIDS. “Rock understood the implications of having AIDS in those early days. He was calm and hoped for the best,” Michael Gottlieb, the star’s doctor and the immunologist who identified AIDS as a new disease in 1981, tells Closer.
Elizabeth was among the friends Rock shared the diagnosis with. “She had two assistants who were gay and died of AIDS early in the crisis,” says Griffin, who says that Rock’s illness further cemented her determination to raise funds for research and treatment. “She became a friend,” adds Dr. Gottlieb, who today is on the medical team of APLA Health, a nonprofit that serves the LGBTQ community and those afflicted with HIV. “Together we started the American Foundation for AIDS Research.”
Liz remained a constant in Rock’s life until the end. She visited often at his home — and once even ran into Pat Boone and his wife who had come to pray with Rock. “Truly a sight to behold,” actor George Nader, another visitor, confided. “Cleopatra among the Holy Rollers!”
Elizabeth even snuck into the hospital with Dr. Gottlieb to see Rock toward the end. “I picked her up in my old station wagon, and we managed to get in through a loading dock at the back of the hospital,” Dr. Gottlieb says.
Two weeks after her dear friend’s death in October 1985, Elizabeth arranged a private memorial for Rock with 150 guests at his home in Beverly Hills. That night, shortly after 5 p.m., a trumpet sounded. Then a mariachi band — like the ones Rock and Elizabeth discovered while making Giant — began to play for friends, including Carol Burnett, Ricardo Montalban, Robert Mitchum, Angie Dickinson, Glenn Ford and more. “I loved him,” said Elizabeth, who praised Rock as a wonderful friend who “always made me laugh.”
—Reporting by Katie Bruno and Fortune Benatar
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