Henry Willson Was Just As Seedy In Real Life As He Is In 'Hollywood'

Jim Parsons as Henry Willson in Netflix's 'Hollywood'

Ryan Murphy's revisionist Hollywood features a combination of real-life figures and fictional composites, and Jim Parson's character, Henry Willson, is one of the former. Just as depicted in the show, he was a Hollywood agent interested in male actors who had star potential but little to no training. He essentially created movie star Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking in the show), and was also known for his unsavory business practices.

In The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, author Robert Hofler described Willson as a "beefy, tough-talking, chronically phobic, arch conservative homosexual." Most of Willson's clients were nicknamed "Henry's boys," and his aim was to pluck small town boys out of obscurity and turn them into stars.

As Hofler explained to NPR, Willson wasn't interested in people like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, or James Dean. "These were people with Broadway experience who came to Hollywood with a certain cache and a great deal of power, actually. What he wanted was to pick up people off the street," he said. "Most of these people had no acting experience; what they did have was that they were extraordinarily good looking, and for the most part they were 'personalities'."

Hofler continued that Willson favored clients who looked "very clean cut" because he was conservative, and that he "took the soldiers and sailors coming out of World War II" and fashioned them into buff celebrities. He preferred men who had a much more macho look than the industry was used to at the time, and would enforce this by teaching his clients how to walk and talk so they didn't come off as effeminate. The way Hollywood's Willson snaps at Roy to fix his posture is true to real life, and Willson really did have Roy get sick and scream to lower his vocal register.

According to Rock Hudson biographer Mark Griffin, Willson's bad reputation was pretty widely known — including that he asked his clients for sexual favors, just as he does in Hollywood's second episode. Willson started out in the business of writing fan magazines, which likely gave him "an insider glimpse as to how to sell someone to the public," Griffin said.

Though history often paints Willson as the villain, Griffin thinks that he could also be supportive of his clients. "A lot of these actors — for example, Guy Madison was a sailor, and Rory Calhoun was an ex-con, and Rock was a truck driver ... they didn't have any legitimate experience, and they were brought into the business simply because, in the beginning, they were so photogenic and so handsome and marketable that way."

Parsons, too, developed a degree of sympathy for his character. "He ended up destitute because he'd used every resource he had to get his clients to the place that he wanted them to be and that they wanted to be," the actor explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "Paying for clothes, paying for lessons, paying for teeth — and so as nasty and weird and slimy as he could be at times, I felt for him when I read he died penniless in a Styrofoam coffin."