Celeste Holm (1916-2012)

Celeste Holm
Celeste Holm
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Celeste Holm was an American Oscar winning actress who had a long and successful career in movies, theater and television. She won an Academy Award for her performance in 'Gentleman's Agreement' in 1947 and was nominated twice more for her roles in 'Come to the Stable' in 1949 and the immortal 'All About Eve' in 1950. She was an accomplished singer as well as an actress and one of her best remembered performances is her show-stopping "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" duet with Frank Sinatra, in 'High Society' in 1956.


She was born Celeste Holm on April 29, 1917 in New York City. Her Norwegian-born father was an insurance adjuster whose company worked for Lloyd's of London and her mother was an artist and author. The young Celeste travelled with her family around Europe, attending schools in Holland and France until enrolling at the University High School for Girls in Chicago where she first got her taste for acting by performing in a number of school productions. On graduation she attended New York's City College and studied drama, singing and dancing at the University of Chicago with the early ambition of becoming a ballerina. She finished her education in Paris at the Sorbonne.

Celeste began her acting career in 1936 with a stock company in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania where she gained valuable theatrical experience and later in the same year she was invited to join a touring production of 'Hamlet', understudying the part of Ophelia. The beautiful and talented young girl was beginning to be noticed and in 1937 she joined another company, touring with a production of 'The Women' (later to be a hit 1939 movie with Joan Crawford playing Celeste's role.)

Her New York debut followed in 1938, in a costume drama called 'Gloriana' and the following year her major breakthrough came with her first Broadway role in the Pullitzer Prize-winning play, 'The Time of Your Life'. She followed this success with a string of roles in various short-lived productions during the early 1940s including 'The Return of the Vagabond' in 1940, 'Eight O'Clock Tuesday' and 'My Fair Ladies', both in 1941 and a number of seasonal stock productions. She received good critical reviews for her performance in 'Papa is All' in 1942 and the following year came the turning point in her career, when she was chosen to perform in the first ever production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!'.

In the show Celeste played the comic role of Ado Annie and from the start she played to packed houses, becoming famous for her show stopping song "I Cain't Say No". 'Oklahoma!' soon became the most influential musical of the time and Celeste found that she was becoming much in demand.


In 1944 she played the lead role in 'Bloomer Girl', a musical effectively built around her. The show had good reviews and healthy box office returns and Celeste began to be courted by the big Hollywood studios. She signed a seven year contract with 20th Century-Fox, effective from 1945, giving her time to first entertain the troops with the USO in wartime Europe. Her first movie was in a well received supporting role in 'Three Little Girls in Blue' in 1946, followed by 'Carnival in Costa Rica' in 1947.

Also in 1947 she made the leap into the ranks of major stars when she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as fashion editor Anne Dettry in 'Gentlemans Agreement' - the only acting Award out of the film's eight nominations. It was a no nonsense study of anti-semitism in American society, and won the Best Picture Oscar.

Celeste wanted to build on this success with carefully chosen roles in quality movies but found that Fox was unable to find movies which would further her career. Not for the last time she discovered that being a highly intelligent and attractive blonde did not guarantee appropriate parts. Her performances in 'Road House' and 'The Snake Pit' in 1948 were critically praised, and she received a second Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a nun opposite Loretta Young in 'Come to the Stable' in 1949, but the roles were small and she felt that her talents were being underused and under appreciated by the studio. She made a significant and unforgettable contribution to Joseph Mankiewicz's 'A Letter to Three Wives' in 1949, providing the seductive voice of Addie Ross, but, although an essential part of the plot of a successful movie, she never appeared on screen. She tried to cut short her contract with Fox and was suspended by the studio for refusing roles offered to her which she felt were unsuitable.

The 1950's

She was brought back at the insistence of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz in mid 1950 to appear in his sublime production of 'All About Eve'. Again she played a supporting role, as Karen Richards, Bette Davis's friend and confidante, and again her talent and professionalism gained her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, losing out to Josephine Hull in 'Harvey'. 'All About Eve' was a smash hit and is still regarded as one of the best movies ever made.

Celeste, however, had by now decided that her future lay in the theater rather than the cinema and shortly after the première of 'All About Eve' she bought out the remainder of her Fox contract and began to concentrate on stage acting.

In 1950 Celeste appeared on Broadway in 'Affairs of State', followed in successive years by 'The King and I' and 'Anna Christie'. She also appeared for a short time with Robert Preston in 'His and Hers' in 1954. Nor did she ignore the new medium of television during this time. Beginning in 1950 as a guest actress in 'All Star Revue' she made frequent TV appearances in programs such as Lux Video Theater from 1951 to 1953 and then briefly had her own show, 'Honestly Celeste!' in 1954.

She accepted some film roles from the middle of the decade, including two movies with Frank Sinatra, 'The Tender Trap' in 1955 and then the classic 'High Society' in 1956, as part of a high quality cast with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly as well as Sinatra. It was a famous movie success and marked the high spot of her movie career.

After this brief return to film, Celeste continued her television career with appearances in episodes of Goodyear Television Playhouse and Zane Grey Theatre in 1957. The following year she returned to the Broadway stage in 'Third Best Sport' and then 'Interlock' in which she played her entire part from a wheelchair.

For the rest of her career Celeste continued to divide her talents mainly between the theater and television, appearing only sporadically on the big screen and never again reaching the heights of the mid 50's. In 1960 she appeared on Broadway in 'Invitation to the March' and in 1968 she won the Sarah Siddons Society Award for her performance in the title role of 'Mame'. During the 1960's she appeared frequently on television in series such as 'Dr Kildare', 'The Fugitive' and 'The FBI' and in television movies such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1965 and 'Meet Me in St Louis' in 1966. Her film work at this time consisted of smaller roles in two comedies, 'Bachelor Flat' in 1961 and 'Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding' in 1967.

Later Career

For the remainder of her career Celeste continued to make regular appearances on stage and television. On stage she played the title role in 'Candida' in 1970 and performed in a one-woman play off-Broadway called 'Paris Was Yesterday' in 1980. She made her only appearance in Britain at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1981 in a production of 'Lady in the Dark' and she appeared in many TV series including 'Nancy' from 1970 to 1971, 'Captains and the Kings' and 'Colombo' in 1976, 'Backstairs at the White House' in 1979 and 'Falcon Crest' in 1985.

Her movie career continued with a much praised appearance as Aunt Polly in the film musical 'Tom Sawyer' in 1973, 'Bittersweet Love' in 1976 and 'The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover' the following year. She had one more great film success ten years later with her appearance in the hit 1987 comedy 'Three Men and a Baby'. This was her last film role apart from a cameo appearance in 'Still Breathing' in 1997, 'Alchemy' in 2003 and 'Driving Me Crazy' in 2012 shortly before her death.

Celeste did not let old age prevent her from continuing her television work. During the last decades of her life she appeared in many programs including the 'Christine Cromwell' series in 1989 and 1990, 'Cheers' in 1992, 'Promised Land' for three years from 1996 and 'The Beat' in 2000.

Although Celeste was diagnosed with Alzeimers Disease in 2002, she continued working and toured with her one woman show, "An Intimate Evening with Celeste" during which she gave readings and told stories about her film career.


Celeste was an active fund raiser for a number of charities including UNICEF, The Actors' Fund, the Creative Arts Rehabilitation Center (as president), and the National Health Association.

She married five times. Her first marriage was in 1938 to movie and television director, Ralph Nelson with whom she had one son, Ted Nelson, who became a well known computer pioneer and innovator. The couple divorced in 1939.

Her second marriage was in 1940 to Francis Davies, ending in divorce in 1945. Her third husband was Schuyler Dunning, an airline executive, The marriage lasted from 1946 to their divorce in 1952 and produced one son, Daniel.

Celeste's fourth and longest marriage was to actor Wesley Addy from 1961 to his death in 1996. In 2004 Celeste married her fifth husband, Frank Basile, an opera singer and waiter who was 46 years younger than the 87 years old Celeste. The marriage sparked a bitter and expensive legal battle between Celeste and her two sons, who alleged that Basile was manipulating Celeste for financial gain. Eventually, Basile settled for inheriting one-third of Celeste's estate, upon her death.

In her last years, Celeste's health deteriorated markedly including skin cancer and a collapsed lung. In June 2012 she was admitted to Roosevelt Hospital in New York where she suffered a heart attack. She was allowed to convalesce at home but suffered complications. Celeste Holm died on July 15, 2012. She was aged 95 years.

Celeste Holm Academy Awards

One win
Best Supporting Actress ... Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... Come to the Stable (1949)
Best Supporting Actress ... All About Eve (1950)


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Celeste Holm Filmography

Three Little Girls in Blue
Carnival in Costa Rica
Gentleman's Agreement
Road House
The Snake Pit
Chicken Every Sunday
A Letter To Three Wives (uncredited)
Come to the Stable
Everybody Does It
Champagne for Caesar
All About Eve
The Tender Trap
Bachelor Flat
Hailstones and Halibut Bones (voice)
Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding!