Born William Franklin Beedle Jr. on April 17th, 1918, William Holden became one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s and is probably my favourite actor from that era.
After graduating from high school he became involved in local radio plays and by the late 30s was appearing in a number of uncredited roles in films at Paramount.
He got his big break in 1939 when he changed his surname to Holden after the assistant director on the big film he was going to work on was divorcing actress Gloria Holden.
The film was Golden Boy which also starred Barbara Stanwyck in which he played a violinist turned boxer. The film has dated now but it propelled him into leading roles in the early 1940s which was cut short when he was called up into the US Air Force where he acted in training films – somewhat quite different to Lee Marvin’s WWII experiences from last weeks post.
After the war he resumed his film career which was proving rather unremarkable until he landed the part of the down-at-heel screenwriter taken in by a faded silent film actress in Billy Wilder’s magnificently scathing drama of Hollywood in Sunset Blvd. (1950). It’s in my top 20 favourite films of all-time.
Holden was exceptional in a role he would make his own in the coming years playing a self-loathing cynical lead. He also helped set up in having Gloria Swanson delivering one of THE all-time great lines in movie history.
In the same year he also played opposite the superb Judy Holliday in the wonderful comedy Born Yesterday, and for the next few years he was on a golden run with hit after hit.
In 1953 he won the Best Actor Oscar in Stalag 17, again directed by Billy Wilder, for his outstanding portrayal as the enterprising and unsympathetic cynic who barters openly with the German guards for various luxuries. This mixture of drama and comedy was quite unusual for the time and still stands as one of the best POW films ever made.
Other films he starred in during this period included Sabrina, The Country Girl, The Bridges At Toko-Ri and Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.
Although a little old for the main role in 1955s Picnic he bought a sensual air to his role as the wandering vagrant, never better exemplified in this lovely scene where he dances with Kim Novak’s character.
Holden then starred in David Lean’s The Bridge On The Rover Kwai which was a huge financial and critical success.
By the 1960s Holden was becoming less interested in his films and became more involved as a managing partner in an animal preserve in Africa where he fell in love with the wildlife and created the Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
In 1969 he has a great role as the outlaw leader Pike in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked superb western The Wild Bunch, and was one of many stars featured in 1974’s The Towering Inferno.
Two years later he gave his last great leading performance in Network as the world-weary TV news division president; and two years after that he had another good role in the Billy Wilder film Fedora.
An alcoholic for most of his life, Holden died on November 12th, 1981, aged only 63, when he bled to death in his apartment after cutting his forehead from slipping on a rug while drunk and hitting a bedside table.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.