Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past

Confidential magazine published a cover story about film star Rory Calhoun’s juvenile criminal past that was based on information provided by his own agent, Henry Willson. Willson made a deal with the magazine so that it would not publish a story about actor Rock Hudson being gay.

Summary of Event

In 1955, film star Rory Calhoun, who had been born in Los Angeles in 1922, was at the peak of his career. His agent was Henry Willson, who also represented film star Rock Hudson, whose career was rising faster than that of Calhoun. Willson found out that Confidential magazine
Confidential magazine was on the verge of publishing an article claiming that Hudson was gay. Willson, who was himself also gay, approached the magazine to attempt to make a deal: If Confidential would cancel the Hudson story, he would give editors information about Calhoun’s juvenile criminal past. The deal went through. The cover story, “Movie Star Rory Calhoun: But for the Grace of God, Still a Convict,” ran in the May, 1955, issue of Confidential with a photograph of film-star Calhoun featured next to a smaller mug shot of Calhoun from 1940, when he had been arrested as a teenager for second-degree burglary. [kw]Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past, Scandal Magazine Reveals (May, 1955)
[kw]Calhoun’s Criminal Past, Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory (May, 1955)
Calhoun, Rory
Willson, Henry
Hudson, Rock
Confidential magazine
Calhoun, Rory
Willson, Henry
Hudson, Rock
Confidential magazine
[g]United States;May, 1955: Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past[00970]
[c]Publishing and journalism;May, 1955: Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past[00970]
[c]Hollywood;May, 1955: Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past[00970]
[c]Public morals;May, 1955: Scandal Magazine Reveals Actor Rory Calhoun’s Criminal Past[00970]

Rory Calhoun.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Calhoun had begun appearing as an uncredited actor in films during the early 1940’s, with the backing of actor Alan Ladd and agent Sue Carol (who had also discovered Ladd). By the late 1940’s, Calhoun was starring in low-budget films and, with Massacre River (1949), began working in Westerns, the genre for which he would become best known. During the 1950’s, he added romantic comedies such as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1955) to his credits. Then his past caught up with him.

The Calhoun exposé, written by Rushmore, Howard Howard Rushmore, describes the actor as being “Tall for his age with heavy shoulders and a wicked punch, a kid of 19 with an Irish grin and an Irish name.” It continues, “You know him as Rory Calhoun!” The five-page article shows that his arrest record as a teenager included Calhoun’s use of several names (Timothy Durgin, Francis Norton, Francis McCown, and Jack Raine). His record shows that he had been in juvenile court three times at the age of thirteen for burglary and possession of firearms. His rap sheet includes car theft at the age of fourteen, robbery at fifteen, and transporting a stolen car across a state line, a federal charge, at seventeen. He escaped several times from incarceration and was deemed incorrigible by authorities. He was sentenced to a juvenile facility, where he was to stay until he was twenty-one years old; he was then sent to San Quentin as an adult to serve twenty years on the federal charge.

Confidential’s real target had been Rock Hudson. The magazine had even offered a bounty for evidence that Hudson was gay. Hudson had been discovered by Willson, who was well known for turning good-looking young men into beefcake film stars, matinee idols, and sex symbols. He also represented Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, John Saxon, Robert Wagner, Guy Madison, and other leading men of the 1950’s. Willson had a talent for using the fan press to promote his clients. When it seemed that Hudson’s homosexuality was about to surface, Willson arranged a Marriage;Rock Hudson[Hudson] marriage Marriage;and homosexuality[homosexuality] between Hudson and Phyllis Gates, Willson’s secretary. At this time in Hollywood, accusations of homosexuality would doom any leading man’s acting career.

Calhoun’s longest time behind bars, more than three years, had been at El Reno Federal Reformatory in Oklahoma. “At El Reno,” Rushmore writes in his exposé, Calhoun had “slugged a gangster [and] sent him to the hospital.” Calhoun, “the ’agitator,’ was sent to the ’hole’ for eight days. From here he went to the ’lockup’—no smokes and half rations for 42 days. . . . And then he met Father Kanaly, John J. John J. Kanaly.”

John J. Kanaly, the reformatory priest, told Calhoun that he was not as tough as he looked, but he invited the nineteen-year-old prisoner to accompany him to the boxing ring in the reformatory’s gymnasium. “That day Rory learned there was a man who could lick him,” the article continues. “He also learned enough about boxing to win 10 out of 12 bouts against professional fighters who were serving time in El Reno, bouts staged by the priest.”

Eventually, the priest helped turn Calhoun’s outlook around. The future actor was facing a longer sentence at San Quentin for previous convictions once he completed his juvenile sentence, but California court officials eventually dropped the charges. According to the article, Calhoun felt that his own prayers, inspired by the priest, had something to do with the charges being dropped. At the age of twenty-one, Calhoun walked out of prison. He went to work at an ironworks plant, worked at a logging camp, and then became a forest ranger after he was offered the job the head ranger. Calhoun had even told the ranger about his criminal past. A few years later, while horseback riding in a Los Angeles park, he became acquainted with Ladd—and the rest was history.

As it turned out, the Calhoun exposé proved not to be greatly damaging to the young actor-to-be. Rather, the article told the story of a youth who had befriended the wrong people and made bad choices but who nevertheless managed to turn his life around. The Confidential article included a photo of Calhoun with his wife, actor Lita Baron, whom he married in 1948. The article reveals that Calhoun had confided his past to Baron before their wedding, and then quoted her as saying, “You were a bad boy, weren’t you? . . . When do we get married?” The magazine even tracked down Father Kanaly, who is quoted as well.

Tim Durgin [Calhoun’s name as a prisoner] was good with his fists, all right. But, more important, goodness emanated from him. I had faith in Tim—Rory Calhoun, that is. His transformation to a respected place in the world is a great personal satisfaction to me.

Calhoun divorced Baron in 1970. In 1971, he married Sue Rhodes, with whom he remained until his death in 1999, at the age of seventy-six.


Because the Confidential exposé had no ill effect on Calhoun’s career—some say that it solidified his “bad-boy” image—the impact of its publication is more about its “failure” as a scandal piece than about its revelations of an actor’s criminal past. The impact of the Confidential piece, and the story of how it came to be published, also reveals the amount of fear that existed among agents and actors in Hollywood that an actor’s homosexuality or bisexuality would become public knowledge and would, thus, end his or her career.

Calhoun survived the story. He continued making films—more than eighty—and appeared in about one thousand television shows, including his own series The Texan, which ran on CBS in 1957 and 1960. He also produced and wrote screenplays and diversified into other businesses as his acting career wound down. He was awarded two stars, one for film and the other for television, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Calhoun’s final film was Pure Country (1992), the story of a country music star (played by George Strait) who opts out of the bright lights to return to his roots. He was listed sixth in the cast by that time. He also made a number of Westerns, some horror movies, and two films about a high school girl who moonlights as a prostitute (Angel, 1984, and Avenging Angel, 1985), in which he played an old-time cowboy actor called Kit Carson who comes through with unexpected heroics in both pictures.

Willson, who had been one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, began to lose his reputation after the deal with Confidential leaked out. He spent himself into bankruptcy and ended up in a home for indigent entertainment-industry folks. He died there at the age of sixty-seven.

Hudson’s career, unlike Willson’s, moved forward. The “secret” that Confidential did not expose in 1955 came out three decades later, during the 1980’s, when Hudson became the first public figure to announce that he was suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). He took a leading role in bringing attention to and raising money to fight the disease. He died from AIDS-related complications in 1985. Calhoun, Rory
Willson, Henry
Hudson, Rock
Confidential magazine

Further Reading

  • Calhoun, Rory. The Man from Padera. Canoga Park, Calif.: Major Books, 1978. Calhoun’s stage play. He also wrote several screenplays, including The Domino Kid (1957), which he adapted as a paperback novel, and wrote for his television series, The Texan (1957-1960).
  • Hofler, Robert. The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. An inside look at the workings of the Hollywood star system of the 1950’s, focusing on Willson’s activities as an agent developing such stars as Hudson, Calhoun, Hunter, and Donahue.
  • Hudson, Rock, and Sara Davidson. Rock Hudson: His Story. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007. Written at Hudson’s request and with his cooperation. Discusses his image as a masculine actor who also was gay and closeted.

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