Netflix debuted a new series Friday, May 1 called Hollywood, which is Ryan Murphy’s first Netflix series after signing a five-year deal with the streaming service in 2018. Hollywood tells the story of a group of filmmakers and aspiring actors in the Golden Age of Hollywood (post-World War II) as they encounter bias against people of color, Jewish people, and homosexuals and try to shake up the system from within.
One of the main characters is cutthroat agent Henry Willson, played by The Big Bang Theory alum Jim Parsons. Since the show is populated by both fictional characters and real-life entertainers, fans may be wondering if Willson was a real person (or based on a real person).
The answer is that he was 100 percent real and, by all accounts, he was as ruthless in real life as he is portrayed as on the show. Here’s what we know about him.
Warning: Heading one is spoiler-free; heading two contains light spoilers for the show; heading three contains major spoilers for the show.
Willson Made Roy Fitzgerald Into Star Rock Hudson
Willson (pictured above, left) is largely credited with kicking off what is known as the “beefcake” craze of Hollywood in the 1950s, starting with Rock Hudson, whose real name was Roy Fitzgerald and who is played by Jake Picking on the show.
The book “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson” by Variety reporter Robert Hofler “chronicles Willson’s maneuvers to sidestep the FBI’s investigation into Hudson’s sex life; the agent’s use of off-duty L.A.P.D. cops and Mob ties to scare off Hudson’s blackmailers; Hudson’s “arranged” marriage to Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates; as well as Hudson’s affair with a Universal Pictures vice-president to help secure starring roles.”
Willson is also credited with launching the career of Julia Jean Turner, whom he renamed Lana Turner and turned into a huge star.
Willson’s Story about Trent Durkin is True (Mostly)
On the show, Willson extorts sex from Fitzgerald in exchange for being his agent, but eventually, he realizes that he cares about Fitzgerald’s career in a way he hasn’t cared about anything in a long time.
At that point, Willson tells Fitzgerald a story about losing the love of his life, Trent “Junior” Durkin, which is actually a true story — except for the part about Willson being there.
“[Junior] and I, we were inseparable. We lived together. Junior wanted to be a movie star and I wanted to be the one who made that happen. One night, he was killed in a car crash. I cradled his body and I kissed him and I told him I loved him, but he was already gone. And something in me just broke,” says Willson on the show.
There was, in fact, a terrible accident on May 4, 1935, outside San Diego, California. Durkin, fellow child star Jackie Coogan, Coogan’s father John, foreman of the Coogan ranch Charles Jones, and screenwriter Robert Horner were returning from a hunting trip when a car coming toward them from the opposite direction forced Jackie off the road. The car plunged down an embankment at 70 mph and everyone was killed but Jackie.
Jackie and Durkin had been friends since starring together in Huckleberry Finn in 1931. Incidentally, Jackie’s grandson is Keith Coogan, star of Adventures in Babysitting and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
Anyway, Willson was not at the scene of the accident, but it was common knowledge that he and Durkin were living together at the time of Durkin’s death and they were rumored to be lovers.
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for the final few episodes of Hollywood.
Willson Met a Sad End
On the Netflix show, Willson becomes involved in producing Meg, the film at the heart of the story, and in the end, he undergoes treatment for his alcoholism, apologizes to Fitzgerald for the way he treated him, and finds love with someone new (someone his own age).
In real life, Willson struggled with addiction all of his life. His clients started to distance themselves from him after his homosexuality became public knowledge and he eventually died of cirrhosis in 1978.
The book revealed that Willson was so broke he couldn’t even afford a headstone, so he was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery near the Burbank airport. But a year later, a headstone was donated that had “Star Maker” inscribed on it.
Hollywood season one is available now on Netflix.