William Holden - Mondays in April
Our TCM Star of the Month for April, William Holden, followed in the footsteps of Gary Cooper and James Stewart as an all-American hero, although he eventually added an edgy presence and cynical humor to the prototype. Holden seldom played an out-and-out rogue, and even as ruffian, huckster or playboy he could convince audiences that he was on the side of the angels. Because of his natural manner and subtle style, director Billy Wilder called him "the ideal motion picture actor." TCM celebrates Holden's impressive career with 34 of his movies, ranging from his star debut in Golden Boy (1939) to his final film appearance in S.O.B. (1981).
Born a century ago as born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. on April 17, 1918 in O'Fallon, Illinois, Holden was the son of an industrial chemist and a schoolteacher. The oldest of three boys, Holden moved with his family to Pasadena, CA while still a child, eventually attending high school and junior college there. He performed in school plays and local radio dramas before being spotted by a Paramount talent scout at the Pasadena Workshop Theatre. In 1938, he signed a six-month contract at the studio for a weekly salary of $50.
Holden had played only a couple of uncredited bit parts when he was cast by director Rouben Mamoulian in the plum part of Joe Bonaparte in the Columbia Pictures film version of Clifford Odets' play Golden Boy (1939). The role of the young boxer with dreams of becoming a famous violinist had been coveted by such other up-and-coming actors as John Garfield, Alan Ladd and Tyrone Power. Holden, who trained as a boxer and curled and dyed his blond hair to look Italian, always credited leading lady Barbara Stanwyck with coaching him through the role and helping him succeed in it.
Columbia renamed the young actor William Holden and bought half his contract from Paramount. Through the 1940s, with time out for service as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he would alternate between the two studios in mostly minor films, occasionally performing on loan-out to other companies. He proved himself an attractive and amiable leading man, usually cast in what he called his "Smilin' Jack" persona.
At Warner Bros., Holden supported George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in Invisible Stripes (1939), while United Artists put him in the role of George Gibbs in the film version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1940). Back at Columbia, Holden starred in two Westerns: Arizona (1940), with Jean Arthur and Texas (1941), with studio stablemate Glenn Ford. For Paramount, Holden filmed the service musical The Fleet's In (1942).
After the war, Holden resumed the pattern of moving from studio to studio. His Paramount films of the period included the popular comedy Dear Ruth (1947, TCM premiere). In 1948, Holden enjoyed two big successes on loan-out: the RKO Western Rachel and the Stranger, costarring Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum; and the 20th Century-Fox comedy-drama Apartment for Peggy, with Jeanne Crain and Edmund Gwenn.
At Columbia, Holden reunited with pal Glenn Ford for the Western drama The Man from Colorado (1948), and he seemed to enjoy his comic romp opposite Lucille Ball in Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). He entered the 1950s with Father Is a Bachelor (1950), a mild comedy in which he plays a vagabond who adopts a family of children.
Then came the Paramount film that changed everything: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder's sardonic film noir about an aging Hollywood actress (Gloria Swanson) and the screenwriter who becomes her kept man (Holden). Montgomery Clift had originally signed to play this meaty role but withdrew at the last minute, allowing Holden to step in, revitalize his career and win his first Academy Award® nomination as Best Actor. Under Wilder's direction, the latent cynicism in the Holden personality had at last been allowed full expression.
The 1950s marked Holden's peak of popularity as a hard-edged romantic hero. In Columbia's Born Yesterday (1950), a bright adaptation of the stage comedy, Holden was teamed with Judy Holliday, who won a Best Actress Oscar® for her role. After Force of Arms (1951) and Boots Malone (1952), came Holden's career peak in Billy Wilder's black comedy Stalag 17 (1953). For his role of the brash wheeler-dealer among a group of American GI's in a German prison camp during World War II, Holden won great acclaim including a Best Actor Oscar®. Holden was among the top ten box-office stars of the years 1954-58 and in 1956 was named No. 1.
Holden's early experience in lightweight comedies stood him in good stead for such vehicles as Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953). He reported to MGM for two films: the Western Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) and the all-star boardroom drama Executive Suite (1954), which reunited Holden with his old friend and champion, Barbara Stanwyck. Romantic drama was the order of the day for two films: Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), opposite Jennifer Jones; and Picnic (1956), opposite Kim Novak. Toward the Unknown (1956) was an aviation drama for Warner Bros.
Another high point in Holden's career came with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), David Lean's epic account of British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp, who build a bridge in the Burmese jungle as an exercise in morale-boosting. Holden, in fine prickly form, plays the U.S. Navy commander who sees the folly of the enterprise. Again, an Oscar® was taken home by a costar - Alec Guinness as the obsessed Colonel Nicholson.
Holden finished out the '50s with The Horse Soldiers (1959), a John Ford Western with John Wayne that brought its two stars the highest fees paid to film actors up to that time. At the beginning of the 1960s, Holden announced that "My blueprint is to make one very important picture per year - one that is artistically satisfying to me but successful at the box office."
In The World of Suzie Wong (1960), which had been a popular novel and a play, Holden stars as a world-weary American painter who settles in Hong Kong and begins a tempestuous affair with a local prostitute/model (Nancy Kwan). He appeared in The 7th Dawn (1964), an adventure set on a Malayan rubber plantation; Alvarez Kelly (1966), a Civil War Western; and The Devil's Brigade (1968), a WWII drama.
The prestigious film Holden had been hoping for finally came in the form of The Wild Bunch (1969), a violent yet compelling Sam Peckinpah Western about a gang of over-the-hill outlaws, with Holden heading a distinguished cast of character actors. Time magazine offered the opinion that he "hadn't done such good work since Stalag 17."
With his weathered looks, Holden himself headed into character-actor territory in the 1970s with films including Wild Rovers (1971), in which he plays an aging cowboy. He won a Best Actor Emmy Award for the TV drama The Blue Knight (1973), as a police officer facing retirement. In 1976, he enjoyed a dynamic role in Network, Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant satire of the television industry. This film brought Holden his third and final Best Actor Academy Award® nomination, with the Oscar® itself going to three of his cast mates: Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and Peter Finch in a posthumous win.
Holden's final film appearances came in The Earthling (1980, TCM premiere), in which he plays a dying man on a final adventure in the Australian outback; and Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), a mordant comedy about the movie industry in which Holden is a burned-out film director.
In addition to his acting career, Holden was a businessman, so successful in his ventures that associates nicknamed him "Golden Holden." He was also a conservationist with a passion for the preservation of wildlife in Africa. He married actress Brenda Marshall in 1941; the couple had three children and divorced in 1971. He had a long-term relationship with actress Stefanie Powers, who set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in 1982 at a game ranch owned by Holden at Mount Kenya.
In 1981, Holden died alone in his apartment in Santa Monica, California, after falling and striking his forehead on a bedside table. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
by Roger Fristoe