One Year After Heart Surgery, Rock Hudson Is Rolling Again, but His 'Devlin Connection' Is Ailing

updated 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was November 1981, the second month of taping NBC's new detective series The Devlin Connection, and despite his outwardly rugged appearance, Rock Hudson, 57, knew that he was courting disaster. "I was working when I started getting these chest pains," he recalls. "I couldn't catch my breath. I was being my usual compulsive self, too wrapped up in my work, worrying, overeating, smoking [three packs a day] and drinking too much, not getting enough exercise. I was over 50 and ripe for trouble."

Those painful warning signs may have saved his life. Hudson was admitted to L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for an angiogram, during which dyes injected into his heart revealed severe coronary artery blockage, necessitating bypass surgery. "I went to the hospital with feelings of anger," says Hudson. "I didn't want to be bothered with trouble. We'd already shut down production with the writers' strike. Enough already." Fortunately, the six-hour quintuple rerouting, during which a vein from Rock's leg was used to bypass the faulty arteries, was successful. Hudson, after three days in intensive care, a speedy recovery and a 24-day Caribbean cruise, returned to the set in January 1982 to continue production of The Devlin Connection.

A year later the Rock is rolling once again. The weight on his 6'4" frame has dropped to 200 pounds, the same as it was when he was 30, "except I had a 29-inch waist then and now it's 34," he says. "Basically I just feel lots better." Moreover, Rock's mental attitude has undergone a transformation. "I just decided to simplify things," he says, "not to play the Hollywood game of hurry up and wait. Not to take everything so seriously."

That's probably a healthy attitude, considering the negative reception accorded The Devlin Connection, in which Hudson and former male model Jack Scalia, 32, play a father-son team of private eyes. Viewers have been tuning out so fast (the series seems mired near the bottom of the Nielsens) that The Devlin Connection may soon disconnect.

So why is Hudson doing the show? "You know, in the '50s, I looked down on television," he says. "I thought it was beneath me. I was a star. After McMillan and Wife [his 1971-76 hit NBC series with Susan Saint James] I said I'd never do another TV show. But I think as you get older you learn to keep your mouth shut more because you never know how badly you're going to embarrass yourself later." Despite the critical snipings, Hudson doesn't think Devlin is that bad. "The accent is on fun," he shrugs. "Live a full day and solve a crime." But there's a more fundamental reason for Hudson's return to TV. Says Rock simply: "I like to work."

Finding roles hasn't been much of a problem for Hudson since he emigrated to Hollywood after a poor, Depression-era upbringing in Winnetka, Ill. as the son of an auto mechanic and a housewife who divorced when he was 5. Born Roy Scherer (his friends still call him Roy), Rock was reared in a tiny bungalow with 10 relatives. When he was 8, his mother married Wallace Fitzgerald, a hard-drinking former Marine sergeant, but that marriage failed too. A D-plus student but "a hell of a Lindy-hopper," Hudson was drafted into the Navy in 1944. "I was a green 18-year-old with pimples serving as a laundryman on the graveyard shift," Rock recalls.

In 1946, after his discharge, Roy moved to L.A., where he drove a truck and shlepped photos of himself around to various studios. Before long, agent Henry Willson changed Roy's name and his future. Rock made his debut in 1948 as "an extra uniform" in Fighter Squadron, followed by a string of some 30 Universal pictures (highlighted by Magnificent Obsession). Then the 1956 film Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, really launched him. Since Giant, Hudson has become one of Hollywood's most durable leading men, starring in about 30 more movies (including three with Doris Day). He has appeared in several stage plays (Camelot, On the Twentieth Century, I Do! I Do!), in addition to TV shows.

For 20 years Hudson has lived in a $3-million, 10-room stucco Spanish house overlooking Beverly Hills, complete with swimming pool and detached screening room. Divorced from secretary Phyllis Gates in 1958 after a three-year marriage, Hudson remains close friends with several of his leading ladies, such as Elizabeth Taylor, who boards a dog at his home, Doris (Pillow Talk) Day and Susan Saint James, who calls him "my favorite old shoe." Since no woman's name has been seriously linked to Hudson's since his 1958 divorce, rumors that he is gay have surfaced, especially a far-out tale that he and pal Jim (Gomer Pyle) Nabors exchanged "wedding" vows in 1965. Recently, a teasing variation of the rumor appeared in the Harvard Lampoon's Newsweek parody, which announced their "divorce." Hudson offers a customary "no comment."

Right now, his concentration is focused on his new lease on life. Still rich, working and healthy again after last year's ordeal, Hudson confesses to feeling "rather smug about the new me." Most of all, he's exhilarated about the future. "I remember escaping from Winnetka with a sense of expectation that in some way I still have," he beams. "Or maybe I just got it back."

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