The Casting Couch; True Story of a Hollywood Predator
The true story of Henry Willson, casting agent whose couch was, for thirty years the only way an actor would get a break.
There really was a predator in Hollywood who demanded sex before taking on a client or sending an actor on a casting call.
We tend envision a Marilyn Monroe type or an innocent girl, tears rolling down her face as she submits.
Although the image is true in some cases, the real predator was Henry Willson, and he went after young men.
Most of the men were gay. But some weren't. However, if one didn't 'cooperate' he really "would never work in this town.'
Willson was born into a prominent show business family in the East. His father, Horace, was vice president of the Columbia Phonograph Company and became president of Columbia Gramophone Mfg. Co. in 1922.
Henry displayed his orientation very early, and his father sent him to Asheville School in North Carolina, where he thought the rough sports and rugged weekend activities such as rock climbing would 'straighten him out'.
It was mutually agreed that Henry would go away, and he went to Hollywood. He didn't go overland. He cleverly booked himself onto a cruise ship on which Bing Crosby and his wife Dixie Lee were traveling. He ingratiated himself into a friendship with Dixie, and she undertook to introduce him to Hollywood elite and secured him a job at Photoplay.
He began writing for The Hollywood Reporter and The New Movie Magazine, then became a junior agent at the Joyce & Polimer Agency.
Horace, wanting to insure that Henry didn't come back, purchased a house for him in Beverly Hills. With his job, his house, and his contacts, Henry Willson became the scourge of Sunset Strip gay bars.
From Junior to Lana
One of his first clients and lovers was Junior Durkin, who was killed in an automobile accident on May 4, 1935. Willson, behaving in a manner which proved Durkin far more than just a client, drew the wrong attention.
To mask his proclivities, Henry searched for a female he could turn into a major star and discovered Lana Turner.
This rocketed him to fame, squelched negative hype. No less than David O. Selznick hired Willson to head the talent division of his newly formed Vanguard Pictures. This gave Willson more credibility, and much more power.
The first film Willson cast was the World War II drama Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, and Shirley Temple.
He placed three of his lovers, Guy Madison, Craig Stevens, and John Derek (billed as
Dare Harris) in small supporting roles.
This proved to the Sunset crowd that Willson could deliver.
Flushed with this power, Henry Willson opened his own talent agency, where he nurtured the careers of his young finds, coercing them into sexual relationships in exchange for publicity and film roles.
Richard Barrios, In his book, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall (2002), wrote, "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, Arthur Gelien was changed to Tab Hunter, and Roy Fitzgerald turned into Rock Hudson."
Creating the Rock
Roy Fitzgerld was a clumsy, naive, Chicago-born truck driver. Willson, in over lust, molded him into one of Hollywood's most popular leading men.
Creating another of his super macho names, Roy became Rock Hudson.
When in 1955 Confidential magazine threatened to publish an expose about Hudson's
homosexuality, Willson disclosed information about two of his other clients; Rory Calhoun's years in prison and Tab Hunter's arrest at a gay party. Willson would do anything to protect Hudson.
It was Willson who organised the marriage of Hudson to his secretary, Phyllis Gates. This killed the rumors.
Although the marriage only lasted three years, (Gates was a lesbian), it was sufficient to end the questions of Rock Hudson's sexuality. Most of Willson's clients married. Some more than once, others fathered children to dispel the question of their orientation.
The end of a scoundrel
For nearly thirty years, Henry Willson exploited young attractive males. Promising stardom
in return for sex, making it clear to Gay and Straight alike that there was only one way to get into pictures.
By the late sixties, Willson was a drug addict, had bouts of alcoholism, paranoia, and weight problems. As his own homosexuality was well known, many of his clients abandoned him
In 1974, unemployed and destitute he 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.