William Holden (born William Franklin Beedle Jr: April 17, 1918 – November 12, 1981) was an American actor who was one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1950s through the 1970s. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1953 for his role in Stalag 17, and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in the 1973 television film The Blue Knight.
Holden starred in some of Hollywood’s most popular and critically acclaimed films, including such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, Picnic, and Network. He was named one of the “Top 10 Stars of the Year” six times (19541958, 1961), and appeared as 25th on the American Film Institute‘s list of 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
Early life and career
His family moved to South Pasadena when he was three. After graduating from South Pasadena High School, Holden attended Pasadena Junior College, where he became involved in local radio plays. A version of how he obtained his stage name “Holden” is based on a statement by George Ross of Billboard: “William Holden, the lad just signed for the coveted lead in Golden Boy, used to be Bill Beadle. And here is how he obtained his new movie tag. On the Columbia lot is an assistant director and scout named Harold Winston. Not long ago he was divorced from the actress, Gloria Holden, but carried the torch after the marital rift. Winston was one of those who discovered the Golden Boy newcomer and who renamed himin honor of his former spouse!”
Holden’s first starring role was in Golden Boy (1939), costarring Barbara Stanwyck, in which he played a violinist-turned-boxer. He was still an unknown actor at the time, while Stanwyck was already a film star. She liked Holden and went out of her way to help him succeed, devoting her personal time to coaching and encouraging him, which made them into lifelong friends. When she received her Honorary Oscar at the 1982 Academy Award ceremony, Holden had died in an accident just a few months prior. At the end of her acceptance speech, she paid him a personal tribute: “I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish”.
Next he starred with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in the Warner Bros. gangster epic Invisible Stripes later the same year, followed by the role of George Gibbs in the film adaptation of Our Town. After Columbia Pictures picked up half of his contract, he alternated between starring in several minor pictures for Paramount and Columbia before serving as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, where he acted in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit. His career took off in 1950 when Billy Wilder tapped him to star in Sunset Boulevard, in which he played a down-at-the-heels screenwriter who gets taken in by a faded silent-screen star, played by Gloria Swanson. Holden earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination with the part.
Getting the part was a lucky break for Holden, as the role was initially cast with Montgomery Clift, who backed out of his contract. Swanson later said, “Bill Holden was a man I could have fallen in love with. He was perfection on- and off-screen.” And Wilder himself commented, “Bill was a complex guy, a totally honorable friend. He was a genuine star. Every woman was in love with him.”
Following this breakthrough film, his career quickly grew as Holden played a series of roles that combined good looks with cynical detachment, including a prisoner-of-war entrepreneur in Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a pressured young engineer/family man in Executive Suite (1954), an acerbic stage director in The Country Girl (1954) with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, a conflicted jet pilot in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a wandering college football star in Picnic (1955), a dashing war correspondent in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), his most widely recognized role as an ill-fated prisoner in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness, a World War II tug boat captain in The Key (1958), and an American Civil War military surgeon in John Ford‘s The Horse Soldiers (1959) opposite John Wayne. He played a number of sunnier roles in light comedy, such as the handsome architect pursuing virginal Maggie McNamara in the controversial Production Code-breaking The Moon Is Blue (1953), as Judy Holliday‘s tutor in Born Yesterday (1950), and as a playwright captivated by Ginger Rogers‘ character in Forever Female (1953).
He co-starred as Humphrey Bogart‘s younger brother, a carefree playboy, in Sabrina (1954), played by Audrey Hepburn. It was Holden’s third film with director Billy Wilder. Holden and Hepburn became romantically involved during the filming, unbeknown to Wilder: “People on the set told me later that Bill and Audrey were having an affair, and everybody knew. Well, not everybody! I didn’t know.”:174 The interactions between Bogart, Hepburn, and Holden made shooting less than pleasant, however, as Bogart originally had wanted his wife, Lauren Bacall, to play Sabrina. While Bogart was, therefore, not especially friendly toward Hepburn, who had little Hollywood experience, Holden’s reaction was the opposite, writes biographer Michelangelo Capua.
Holden recalls their romance:
Before I even met her, I had a crush on her, and after I met her, just a day later, I felt as if we were old friends, and I was rather fiercely protective of her, though not in a possessive way.
Their relationship did not last much beyond the completion of the film. Holden, who was at this point dependent on alcohol, said, “I really was in love with Audrey, but she wouldn’t marry me.” Rumors at the time had it that Hepburn wanted a family, but when Holden told her that he’d had a vasectomy and having children was impossible, she moved on. A few months later, Hepburn met Mel Ferrer, whom she would later marry.
In 1954, Holden was featured on the cover of Life. On February 7, 1955, Holden appeared as a guest star on I Love Lucy as himself. His career peaked in 1957 with the enormous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but Holden spent the next several years starring in a number of films that rarely succeeded commercially or critically. By the mid-1960s, the quality of his roles and films had noticeably diminished. A heavy drinker most of his life, Holden descended into alcoholism in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1969, Holden made a comeback when he starred in director Sam Peckinpah‘s graphically violent Western The Wild Bunch, winning much acclaim. Also in 1969, Holden starred in director Terence Young‘s family film L’Arbre de Nol, co-starring Italian actress Virna Lisi and French actor Bourvil, based on the novel of the same name by Michel Bataille. This film was originally released in the United States as The Christmas Tree and on home video as When Wolves Cry.
For television roles in 1974, Holden won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for his portrayal of a cynical, tough veteran LAPD street cop in the television film The Blue Knight, based upon the best-selling Joseph Wambaugh novel of the same name.
In 1973, Holden starred with Kay Lenz in movie directed by Clint Eastwood called Breezy, which was considered a box-office flop. Also in 1974, Holden starred with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the critically acclaimed disaster film The Towering Inferno, which became a box-office smash and one of the highest-grossing films of Holden’s career. Two years later, he was praised for his Oscar-nominated leading performance in Sidney Lumet‘s classic Network (1976), an examination of the media written by Paddy Chayefsky, playing an older version of the character type for which he had become iconic in the 1950s, only now more jaded and aware of his own mortality. In 1980, Holden appeared in The Earthling with popular child actor Ricky Schroder, playing a loner dying of cancer who goes to the Australian outback to end his days, meets a young boy whose parents have been killed in an accident, and teaches him how to survive.
During his last years, he appeared in his second Irwin Allen film, When Time Ran Out, a critical and commercial failure and heavily disliked by Holden himself. Blake Edwards‘ S.O.B., was more successful. In 1981, Holden was offered the role of Coach Daniel B. Delaney in That Championship Season. He became very depressed when filming was delayed, and drank even more heavily.
While in Italy in 1966, Holden killed another driver in a drunk-driving incident. He received an eight-month suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
Holden maintained a home in Switzerland and also spent much of his time working for wildlife conservation as a managing partner in an animal preserve in Africa. His Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki (founded 1959) became a mecca for the international jet set. On a trip to Africa, he fell in love with the wildlife and became increasingly concerned with the animal species that were beginning to decrease in population. With the help of his partners, he created the Mount Kenya Game Ranch and inspired the creation of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. The Mount Kenya Game Ranch works to assist in Kenya with the wildlife education of its youth. Within the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, is the Mount Kenya Conservancy which runs an animal orphanage as well as the Bongo Rehabilitation Program in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service. The orphanage provides shelter and care for orphans, injured and neglected animals found in the wild, with the aim of releasing these animals back into the wild whenever possible. The conservancy is home to the critically endangered East African mountain bongo, and aims to prevent its extinction by breeding.
Marriage and relationships
Holden was married to actress Ardis Ankerson (stage name Brenda Marshall) from 1941 until their divorce 30 years later, in 1971. They had two sons, Peter Westfield “West” Holden and Scott Porter Holden. He adopted his wife’s daughter, Virginia, from her first marriage with actor Richard Gaines. During the filming of the film Sabrina (1954), costar Audrey Hepburn and he had a brief but passionate affair. Holden met French actress Capucine in the early 1960s. The two starred in the films The Lion (1962) and The 7th Dawn (1964). They reportedly began a two-year affair, which is alleged to have ended due to Holden’s alcoholism. Capucine and Holden remained friends until his death in 1981.
In 1972, Holden began a nine-year relationship with actress Stefanie Powers, and sparked her interest in animal welfare. After his death, Powers set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation at Holden’s Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
According to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s autopsy report, Holden was alone and intoxicated in his apartment in Santa Monica, California, on November 12, 1981, when he slipped on a rug, severely lacerating his forehead on a teak bedside table, and bled to death. Evidence suggests he was conscious for at least half an hour after the fall. He likely may not have realized the severity of the injury and did not summon aid, or was unable to call for help. His body was found four days later. The causes of death were given as “exsanguination” and “blunt laceration of scalp”. Rumors existed that he was suffering from lung cancer, which Holden himself had denied at a 1980 press conference. His death certificate made no mention of any cancer. He had dictated in his will that the Neptune Society cremate him and scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. In accordance with his wishes, no funeral or memorial service was held.
When Holden died, President Ronald Reagan released a statement, saying, “I have a great feeling of grief. We were close friends for many years. What do you say about a longtime friend – a sense of personal loss, a fine man. Our friendship never waned.”
For his contribution to the film industry, Holden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1651 Vine Street. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. His death was noted by singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, whose 1987 song “Tom’s Diner” (about a sequence of events one morning in 1981) included a mention of reading a newspaper article about “an actor who had died while he was drinking”. Vega subsequently confirmed that this was a reference to Holden.
Box office ranking
For a number of years exhibitors voted Holden among the most popular stars in the country:
- 1954 7th (US)
- 1955 4th (US)
- 1956 1st (US)
- 1957 7th (US)
- 1958 6th (US), 6th (UK)
- 1959 12th (US)
- 1960 14th (US)
- 1961 8th (US)
- 1962 15th (US)