Monday, December 20, 2010


William Holden was one of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s. A combination of good looks and acting ability made him a sought after actor. However, personal demons derailed his career in the 1960s and caused him to have a tragic end in 1981.

Holden, eldest of three sons (brothers were Robert and Richard), was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois on April 17, 1918, the son of Congregationalist parents Mary Blanche (née Ball), a schoolteacher, and William Franklin Beedle, Sr., an industrial chemist. Holden's first starring role was in Golden Boy (1939), in which he played a violinist turned boxer. That was 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 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, where he acted in training films. Beginning in 1950, his career took off when Billy Wilder tapped him to star as the down-at-the-heels screenwriter Joe Gillis who is taken in by faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard, for which Holden earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

With Gloria Swanson in Sunset BoulevardFollowing this breakthrough film, he 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), a conflicted jet pilot in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a wandering braggart in Picnic (1955), a dashing war correspondent in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), an ill-fated prisoner in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and a WWII tug boat captain in The Key (1958).

He also 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), as a playwright captivated by Ginger Rogers' character in Forever Female (1953) and as Humphrey Bogart's younger brother, a playboy, in Sabrina (1954), which also starred Audrey Hepburn.

Holden starred in his share of forgettable movies — which he was forced to do by studio contracts — such as Paris When It Sizzles (1964), also co-starring Audrey Hepburn. By the mid-1960s, his roles were having less critical and commercial impact. According to the Los Angeles County Coroner's autopsy report, on November 12, 1981, Holden was alone and intoxicated in his apartment in Santa Monica, California, when he slipped on a throw rug, severely lacerated his forehead on a teak bedside table, and bled to death. Evidence suggests he was conscious for at least a half hour after the fall but 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.

Holden dictated in his will that the Neptune Society cremate him and scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. No funeral or memorial service was held, per his wishes.

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