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WILLIAM HOLDEN

By Scott D. O'Reilly

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William Holden 1950's Paper PremiumWilliam 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 outdoors.

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 William Holden Best Actor Oscar Winner Stalag 17gigolo 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 Humphrey 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 accounts, devastated.

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" (1974).

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.
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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 The 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.