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William Holden Profile
Remind Me

William Holden Profile

He started out as Hollywood's golden boy, one of the handsomest actors ever to appear on film. After years of lighthearted roles, he burst into solid dramatic work with Sunset Boulevard (1950), then gracefully moved into character roles as craggy men of character. By the time William Holden died in 1981, he had grown into Pete Martin's description of him, "When you look at him, the map of the U.S. is right there on his face."

The former William Beedle came from a wealthy Midwestern family, but that didn't ease his way to the top. His first major film role was as the slum boxer who'd rather play violin in Golden Boy (1939). When his inexperience proved all too evident during the first days of shooting, director Rouben Mamoulian considered re-casting the role, but co-star Barbara Stanwyck fought for him and spent extra time rehearsing with him so that she could smooth out his rough edges.

The result was a triumphant starring debut, but it also typed Holden in what he called "Smiling Jack" roles. For the next decade, most of it at Paramount Pictures, he specialized in brainless leading men who stood around while the other actors got to do the dirty work. There were exceptions, of course, like his critically acclaimed performance as George Gibbs in the film version of Our Town (1940), or the gritty hard-luck farmer who almost loses mail-order bride Loretta Young to wandering farmhand Robert Mitchum in Rachel and the Stranger (1948). The latter film is further distinguished by the chance it gave its non-musical stars to sing on screen.

But the real breakthrough came when Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray passed on the leading role in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. As the washed-up screenwriter who becomes the kept man of faded silent star Gloria Swanson, Holden demonstrated a flair for cynicism and an emotional depth few would have suspected form his earlier roles. The same year, he brought his new, tougher image to bear as a crusading newspaper columnist who liberates the brain of gangster moll Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, a bit hit that brought Holliday the Oscar® for Best Actress.

Throughout the '50s, Holden's popularity and box-office pull grew steadily. He had received his first Oscar® nomination for Sunset Boulevard, then won the Academy Award for his performance in yet another Billy Wilder film, Stalag 17, in 1953. Equally at home in a variety of genres, he moved effortlessly from serious dramas like those two films to romantic comedies such as Sabrina (1954), with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, to westerns Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) with John Wayne. He more than held his own in the all-star drama Executive Suite (1954), featuring such high-powered names as Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters. His performance as the voice of reason and honor on the board of a major corporation pointed to the independent American characters he would play in later life.

Holden's financial future was set by his performance and profit participation in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), one of the decade's biggest hits. Its success made it possible for him to slow down in later years, as Hollywood production began to taper off, and focus on select roles in films he really cared about. It also gave him time to indulge in his great offscreen love, wildlife preservation, and the game preserve he kept in Africa.

From the late '60s, each new film featuring Holden was a major event. He scored one of his greatest performances ever in the trendsetting western The Wild Bunch (1969), from director Sam Peckinpah, then returned to the saddle for the cult classic Wild Rovers (1971), co-starring Ryan O'Neal. In 1976 he earned his third Oscar® nomination as the network news head fighting the medium's commercialization in Network (1976). His final role marked a return to the Hollywood cynicism that had made him a dramatic star, as the director who shepherds producer/friend Richard Mulligan through the madness of S.O.B. (1981).

by Roger Fristoe