William Holden began working in Hollywood as a piece of beefcake. But when he got the roll of Joe Gillis opposite Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd (1950) the world found out he not only looked good, he could act.
William Holden (1918 – 1981) won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1953 for his role in Stalag 17. Holden starred in some of Hollywood’s most popular and critically acclaimed films, including Sunset Blvd (1950), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Sabrina (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Wild Bunch (1969), Picnic (1955), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Network (1976).
Living in Pasadena, Holden was spotted by a talent scout from Paramount Pictures in 1937 while playing the part of an 80-year-old man. Holden’s birth name was William Franklin Beedle, Jr. His last name was changed to Holden by an agent that was still in love with his ex-wife. The ex-wife was Gloria Holden who starred in Dracula’s Daughter (1936).
Holden had two uncredited roles before his first starring role in Golden Boy (1939), in which he played a violinist-turned-boxer. Next he starred with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in the Warner Bros. gangster epic Invisible Stripes later the same year. 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 for the First Motion Picture Unit. 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 Blvd. (1950), for which Holden earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Following this breakthrough film, his career quickly grew in stature as he played a series of roles that combined good looks with cynical detachment. These roles include a prisoner-of-war entrepreneur in Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. To me this is one of his greatest roles and one of the greatest movies of all times.
A pressured young engineer/family man in Executive Suite (1954), a conflicted jet pilot in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a carefree playboy in Sabrina (1954), his most widely recognized role as an ill-fated prisoner in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness, a World War II tug boat captain in The Key (1958), and an American Civil War military surgeon in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959) opposite John Wayne.
His career peaked in 1957 with the enormous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai. By the mid-1960s, the quality of his roles and films had noticeably diminished.
In 1969, Holden made a comeback when he starred in director Sam Peckinpah’s graphically violent Western The Wild Bunch, winning much acclaim. Five years later, he starred with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the critically acclaimed disaster film The Towering Inferno, which became a box office smash and one of the highest grossing films of Holden’s career. He was also praised for his Oscar-nominated leading performance in Sidney Lumet’s classic Network (1976), a prescient examination of the media written by Paddy Chayefsky, playing an older version of the character type he had become iconic for in the 1950s, only now more jaded and aware of his own mortality.
In 1980, Holden appeared in The Earthling with popular child actor Ricky Schroder, playing a loner dying of cancer who goes to the Australian outback to end his days, meets a young boy whose parents have been killed in an accident, and teaches him how to survive. During his last years, Holden also appeared in his second Irwin Allen film, When Time Ran Out, a critical and commercial failure and heavily disliked by Holden himself; his final film, Blake Edwards’s S.O.B. (1981), was more successful and a Golden Globe-nominated picture.
In 1972, Holden began a nine-year relationship with actress Stefanie Powers, which sparked her interest in animal welfare. After his death, Powers set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation at Holden’s Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
According to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s autopsy report, Holden was alone and intoxicated in his apartment in Santa Monica, California, on November 12, 1981, when he slipped on a rug, severely lacerated his forehead on a teak bedside table, and bled to death. Evidence suggests he was conscious for at least half an hour after the fall. It is probable that he 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 had 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.
For his contribution to the film industry, William Holden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1651 Vine Street.
1939 Golden Boy
1940 Our Town
Those Were the Days!
1941 I Wanted Wings
1942 The Remarkable Andrew Meet the Stewarts
1943 Young and Willing
1947 Blaze of Noon
1948 The Man from Colorado
Apartment for Peggy
The Dark Past
1949 Streets of Laredo
1950 Father Is a Bachelor
Sunset Blvd (1950)
1951 Force of Arms
1952 Boots Malone
The Turning Point
Stalag 17 (1953)
Escape from Fort Bravo
1954 Executive Suite
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
1955 Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
1956 The Proud and Profane
Toward the Unknown
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958 The Key
1959 The Horse Soldiers
1960 The World of Suzie Wong
1962 The Lion
1966 Alvarez Kelly
1967 Casino Royale
1968 The Devil’s Brigade
1969 The Wild Bunch
1971 Wild Rovers
1972 The Revengers
1974 The Towering Inferno
1980 The Earthling
Free Sweet Science (Boxing) eBook
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.