William Holden (1918-1981)

William Holden
William Holden
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William Holden was an American actor who became one of the biggest box office draws of the 1950's. He was nominated three times for the Best Actor Academy Award winning it once in 1954 for his performance as the cynical sergeant in 'Stalag 17'. His first major film role at age twenty-one, was in the boxing drama 'Golden Boy' in 1939 and that nickname stuck.

He was an exceptionally handsome young actor and much of his early career was spent playing charming, romantic leading men and daring heroes in often-formulaic adventure fare. After years of fairly lightweight movies he burst into more serious dramatic work with Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard' in 1950, then gradually moved into more colorful character roles. Holden was never less than a captivating, witty screen presence, the kind of actor who seems clearly destined for stardom. On the AFI's list of Greatest Screen Legends he was named number 25.


William Holden was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. on April 17th, 1918, the eldest of three sons, in O'Fallon, Illinois. The family was wealthy and when William was three his father bought a fertilizer business in South Pasadena, California, where the young Holden thrived in the sunshine which perfectly suited his love of sports and the outdoors.

After High School, Holden studied chemistry at Pasadena Junior College, intending to join the family business. He became involved in local radio plays and began appearing at the Pasadena Playbox Theater where he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout who signed him up to a seven year contract.

Hollywood Actor

His first movie role was an uncredited appearance in 'Prison Farm' in 1938 but the following year he became a star, seemingly effortlessly, by virtue of his starring role in 1939's 'Golden Boy'. Playing opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Holden plays a musical prodigy who is also a boxer, and the role required a rare combination of sensitivity and masculinity. Barbara Stanwyck helped him and spent extra time rehearsing with him for the difficult part and the result was a triumphant starring debut.

A new leading man had very much arrived but his next big film, in 1940, displayed his sensitive rather than his rugged side, with a critically acclaimed performance in the classic 'Our Town' with Martha Scott. Holden's fledgling career was then interrupted by World War II during which he served as 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps, taking part in training films.

Hollywood Star

On his return to Hollywood, he alternated between Paramount and Columbia in several minor studio pictures before his career was reborn in 1950 when he earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who is taken in by silent-screen star Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson in the stylish 'Sunset Boulevard'. The same year, he had another success as a crusading newspaper columnist who liberates gangster's moll Judy Holliday in 'Born Yesterday', a hit which brought Holliday the Oscar for Best Actress.

Three years later Holden himself won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the prisoner-of-war businessman in 'Stalag 17'.

He stayed popular through the 1950's, comfortably appearing in a variety of genres ranging from dramas such as 'Executive Suite' in 1954, with Fredric March and Barbara Stanwyck, to romantic comedies like 'Sabrina' also in 1954 or Westerns such as John Ford's 'The Horse Soldiers' in 1959 with John Wayne. During the decade he appeared for five consecutive years in the Quigley list of the top ten box office stars and actually topped it in 1956.

Some of his movies since then have withstood the test of time, such as 'Love is a Many Splendored Thing' in 1955, and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' in 1957, whereas many have been largely forgotten over the decades. For instance in 1954 he appeared in 'The Country Girl', and 'The Bridges at Toko-Ri', and in 1955 'Picnic', all of which were well received at the time but which have been all but ignored since.

Holden's success during the 1950's, particularly in movies such as 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', where he had profit participation, allowed him to slow down in later years, and to pick and choose roles in films he really cared about. It also gave him time and money to indulge in his great passion off screen which was wildlife preservation in Africa, and the game preserve which he founded in 1959, the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

The quality of his acting remained high although he made significantly less films after 1960. He allowed a darker side of the male psyche to creep into his acting, particularly as he grew older. He was unforgettable as the world-weary gunslinger in Sam Peckinpah's western 'The Wild Bunch' in 1969 and he continued with Western success in the cult classic 'Wild Rovers' in 1971, co-starring with Ryan O'Neal. He won an Emmy for his memorable performance in the TV movie 'The Blue Knight' in 1974 and near the end of his career came one of his greatest triumphs, playing the defeated network news producer fighting the medium's commercialization in 'Network' in 1976, which earned him his third Academy Award nomination. His final role saw him in the cynical type of role that had originally made him a star, as the director in a film-within-a-film, the Golden Globe-nominated 'S.O.B' in 1981.


True admirers of the actor probably respond more profoundly to the deeper Holden of his later films. In his most memorable performances, Holden displays a deep sadness, a sense of insecurity and self-loathing beneath the masculine magnetism.

In retrospect, the complexity behind these roles could perhaps be linked to the inner distress Holden experienced in his personal life: he was significantly debilitated by alcoholism; numerous marriage-wrecking infidelities - with, rumor has it, some of Hollywood's leading ladies of the time including Audrey Hepburn; and self-doubt regarding his abilities.

He married actress Ardis Ankerson (stage name Brenda Marshall) in 1941 and they divorced 30 years later, after many separations. They had two sons and he adopted his wife's daughter from her first marriage. The cause of their final split in 1966, 5 years before the divorce, was a car accident in Italy when Holden killed another driver in a drunk driving incident for which he received an eight-month suspended sentence.

Holden was a good friend to Ronald Reagan and was best man at Reagan's wedding to Nancy Davis in 1952.

William, Holden died on November 12, 1981 from head injuries incurred after a bout of heavy drinking when he slipped on a rug. He badly lacerated his forehead on a bedside table, and bled to death. No funeral or memorial service was held, as Holden had wished.

William Holden Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Stalag 17 (1953)
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Best Actor ... Network (1976)

William Holden Filmography

Prison Farm (uncredited)
Million Dollar Legs (uncredited)
Golden Boy
Invisible Stripes
Our Town
Those Were the Days!
I Wanted Wings
The Fleet's In
The Remarkable Andrew
Meet the Stewarts
Young and Willing
Blaze of Noon
Dear Ruth
Variety Girl
The Man from Colorado
Rachel and the Stranger
Apartment for Peggy
The Dark Past
Streets of Laredo
Miss Grant Takes Richmond
Dear Wife
Father Is a Bachelor
Sunset Boulevard
Union Station
Born Yesterday
Force of Arms
Submarine Command
Boots Malone
The Turning Point
Stalag 17
The Moon is Blue
Forever Female
Escape from Fort Bravo
Executive Suite
The Country Girl
The Bridges at Toko-Ri