'Hollywood' Character Henry Willson's Story Is Real and Super Tragic
Ryan Murphy's newest show is a reimagining of what post-World War II Hollywood would have been like if people of color and queer folks were given the same opportunities as straight white people. The show, literally titled Hollywood, introduces viewers to real-life characters such as movie stars Rock Hudson (played by Jack Picking) and Vivien Leigh (Katie McGuinness). One particular character people are fascinated by is Henry Willson, a Hollywood talent agent.
Was Henry Willson real?
Henry Willson (portrayed by Jim Parsons) was, in fact, real, and he had a really wild, sad story. Before managing famous actors like Lana Turner, Guy Madison, Robert Wagner, and Rory Calhoun, Henry started out as a gossip columnist for Variety magazine and also wrote for Photoplay. He moved on to writing for The Hollywood Reporter and New Movie Magazine before he eventually started working as a junior agent for the Joyce & Polimer Agency and then Zeppo Marx. Years later, he started up his own talent agency, where he was very successful — for awhile.
In Hollywood, we learn that Henry had super unethical ways of "helping" his clients. He was known for showing up at gay bars in Hollywood and scouting for attractive young men who he thought might have potential for stardom. Hollywood shows him being manipulative to budding actors and pushing them into sexual relationships in exchange for fame and success. Rumor has it, he also had connections to the mafia.
Henry was known for covering up controversies and bad press by distracting journalists with Red Herrings, like using other actors' secrets and dirty laundry in order to sway the media's attention away from something more damaging. When actor Rock Hudson's career hit a snag when people discovered he was a closeted gay man, Henry sold actor Rory Calhoun's secrets. Rory was a former client of Henry's — and Henry knew that Rory had spent some time in prison.
All of this led to his downfall when his tendency for taking on mostly gay men as clients (he also represented straight men and women, too), people stopped hiring him. It was also discovered that Henry himself was gay, and this, sadly, damaged his reputation even more.
After Henry lost more and more business, his wealth and magnitude in the Hollywood scene suffered tremendously. He also had alcohol and drug addiction issues which may or may not have had something to do with his deteriorating mental health. Eventually, Henry resorted to receiving financial assistance and housing from Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, where he lived until his death in 1978 at age 67. He died of cirrhosis, and because he had no money left, he was buried in an unmarked grave in North Hollywood.
Although his demise was incredibly sad, it can be argued that his appalling behavior brought on many of his problems. These days, if you do want to visit his grave, you might have a hard time finding it. It eventually did get a headstone — it reads "Star - Star Maker." You can learn more about Henry by reading his biography, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson.
Hollywood premieres on Netflix May 1.