By Scott D. O'Reilly
Holden was Hollywood's golden boy. Among America's leading men during
Hollywood's golden age, Holden combined stunning good looks and sheer acting
talent to a degree few, if any, could match. He drew women to
theatres with his sex appeal, and men who sought to emulate his rugged image.
During select years his box office clout eclipsed even America icons like John
Wayne and Gary Cooper. Certainly few actors could match his range,
as he was equally at home in romantic tearjerkers ("Love is a Many Splendored
Thing"), noir style mysteries ("Sunset Boulevard"), comedies ("Sabrina"), not to
mention the usual assortment of action films, war pictures, and westerns.
William Holden was born William Beedle in Illinois
on April 17th 1918 to prosperous parents. But with the Great
Depression, and the family's good fortune threatened, the Beedles moved to
California where the family took over the fertilizer business that had employed
William's father until the crash of 1929. It was a risky decision,
but a successful one, and the energetic young Holden thrived in California's
mild climate, which perfectly suited his love of athletic activity and the
As a teenager, Holden was surprisingly shy, but his
unusually handsome features made him quite popular with girls. To compensate
for his introverted nature Holden frequently engaged in dangerous stunts. As a result he became quite a natural acrobat, and his innate athletic
ability led him to dream that some day he might join Victor McLaglen's touring
troupe of motorcycle stunt riders.
His family encouraged the young Holden to consider
more practical vocations, and eventually Holden decided to follow in his
father's footsteps in the family business by pursuing a degree in chemistry.
But trip to New York City changed Holden's fortunes when he was discovered
acting in a theatre play by an executive from Paramount. The trip
to New York had been intended as a last fling before Holden settled down the
respectable career his parents expected. But the chance of being in pictures --
not to mention a seven-year contract at $50 a week -- was something the young
Holden couldn't turn his back on.
As a contract player Holden's first roles were small
parts in less than memorable films like "Million Dollar Legs" and "Prison
Farm." But in 1939 he got his chance in the film that effectively launched his
career, "Golden Boy" (1939). Starring opposite Barbara Stanwyck,
Holden plays a musical prodigy who goes onto to become a boxer, and the
seemingly contradictory qualities the role demanded sensitivity and masculine
virility seem precisely the contradictions that made Holden such a magnetic star
throughout his career.
"Golden Boy" was an immediate success, but it was a
success that almost didn't happen. During the early days of filming Holden had
been unusually insecure, and there were serious discussions among the studio
executives about replacing him. It was only thanks to co-star
Barbara Stanwyck, who insisted that if they fired Holden she'd quit too, that
Holden got to make the film that made him a star. But Holden's insecurities
never entirely abated, and the drinking habit that would plague his career, and
eventually end his life, began with his breakthrough film.
Holden's next films took advantage of his
all-American good looks. At nearly six feet tall, and a well-carved physique to
match his chiseled features, Holden could play roles both rugged or refined. His next big film, however, took advantage of his sensitive side, the
classic "Our Town" (1940) based on Thorton Wilders' Pulitzer prize-winning stage
play. Both he and his co-star Martha Scott may have been a few years too old to
convincingly pass for high-school sweethearts, but the earnestness of their
performances, along with a superlative cast that included Thomas Mitchell,
helped the film garner six Oscar nominations. This tale of small
town life in quiet Grover's Corner remains one of the cinema's most rewarding
experiences, and is deservedly regarded as an American classic.
William Holden did not hesitate to enlist in the
army shortly after the U.S. was drawn into WW II. Though Holden never saw
combat, his brother Robert, a flyer stationed in the Pacific, was shot down and
killed, a fact that haunted the older William, who never could accept the fact
that a "frivolous actor," as he called himself, should survive the war while his
serious minded brother should perish.
Despite his ambivalent feelings about acting Holden
returned to his Hollywood career to support his family. Privately he fretted
about the dearth of quality roles he was getting, and he was quite desperate to
be considered for the role of the cynical
in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), a part that Montgomery Clift
inexplicably turned down at the last minute. Holden got the part
in the stylish noir-like dark comedy that revitalized his career and landed him
an Oscar nomination. It would lead to two more pairings with the legendary
Billy Wilder -- first in "Stalag 17" (1953), for which Holden won an Academy
award for best actor, and then in "Sabrina" (1954) opposite co-stars
Bogart and Audrey Hepburn.
Bogie may have wooed and won Audrey over in the
film, where Holden and Bogart played brothers competing for glamorous Sabrina,
daughter of their family's chauffer, but the off-screen outcome was a different
matter. Hepburn was terrified of Bogart because of his tough guy image,
and quickly began a torrid love affair with the sympathetic and debonair
Holden. Hepburn's affair with Holden soon soured, however, when she learned
Holden could no longer have children due to a vasectomy. And when
Hepburn dropped Holden to marry Mel Ferrer just months later Holden was, by all
Holden's infidelity didn't help his marriage to
Brenda Marshal, which was already strained, but on the advice friend Billy
Wilder, Holden began to travel the globe as a way of broadening his horizons and
coping with personal difficulties that fueled his drinking. Holden's travels
eventually took him to Africa where he became an ardent conservationist and
helped established a wildlife sanctuary that bears his name.
During his travels tragedy struck as Holden was
involved in a car accident in Italy. The actor escaped with only minor
injuries, but the other driver was killed, eventually leading to a manslaughter
conviction and the break-up of Holden's twenty-five year marriage.
Holden's drinking problem may have wrecked havoc in
his personal life, but the quality of his acting never seemed to suffer. He led
a brilliant cast and commanded an unprecedented fee for the classic WWII film
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), and was equally effective as the
world-weary gunslinger in Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969).
Near the end of his career he triumphed as the craggy news executive in the
highly acclaimed black comedy "Network" (1976), and he won an Emmy for his
memorable portrayal of an aging police officer in the TV movie "The Blue Knight"
In 1981 death came unexpectedly to Holden at the age
of sixty-three. The very best of his career belonged to Hollywood's Golden Age,
but Holden was still very much in the public eye thanks to a new generation of
blockbuster films like "The Towering Inferno" (1974) and "Damien: Omen II"
(1978). Holden at just finished filming for Blake Edward's comedy
"S.O.B." (1981) when he was found dead his California apartment from a deep cut
sustained while drinking. His friend Cliff Robertson, and co-actor on "Picnic"
(1955), speculates that Holden was too proud to call for an ambulance, rather
than too drunk. In any event, it was a sad ending for a gifted
actor, who all too often used alcohol to overcome the shyness he suffered from
as he brought his many indelible screen characterizations to life.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and
psychology. His work has been published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now,
Intervention Magazine, Think, The New Standard, and The
Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The Great
Thinkers A-Z (Continuum, 2004) and is working on a book called Socrates
in Cyberspace that examines traditional conceptions of the soul in light of
the latest neuroscientific findings. Watch for profiles such as this in
each issue of
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other William Holden Pages:
A Tribute to
William Holden The Golden Boy achieved stardom almost overnight, and was
voted #25 on the American Film Institute's greatest actors list.