Retro Actor Spotlight: William Holden

William Holden Centennial

Giving Classical Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight

Now Featuring: William Holden

I do not think I am alone in acknowledging that I first became aware of William Holden when learning details about his death. Though he did not die in an overly gruesome or tragic fashion, his passing was unexpected and the circumstances of both how he died and the discovery of his body were troublesome. Often times, we hold movie stars in an untouchable reverence like they are superhuman, being able to escape mortal dangers and live on forever. Someone as handsome, bright, talented and sensitive as Holden should have been destined to leave this world in a more honourable fashion, worthy of an incredibly popular and beloved Hollywood star. He was a unique presence; one that is certainly missed to this day.

Coming to terms with his unfortunate demise, I was able to fend off negative thoughts and focus on his films. Let me tell you that it did not take long to enjoy his performances and even develop a crush on him. William Holden is indeed one of the finest actors that the silver screen ever produced, stemming from his days in Classic Film up to his later roles in more contemporary pictures. Four of his films are on the AFI 100 Greatest Films: Sunset Boulevard, The Wild Bunch, The Bridge on the River Kwai & Network. He worked with the greatest directors in the business and left behind a legacy that will always shine bright.

 

William “Bill” Franklin Beedle, Jr. was born in O’Fallon, Illinois, on 17 April 1918. He was the oldest of three sons, born in a loving and unified nuclear family that insisted upon a strict upbringing in order to instil values. They eventually moved to Pasadena, California, where Bill would remain until leaving for Hollywood. Beedle, Sr. had been an Olympian and made it so that all of his three boys participated in gymnastics which resulted in Bill becoming a sort of daredevil, doing dangerous tricks and stunts for friends that are still infamous to this day. It was also in his nature to act as the ringleader amongst his brothers, often instigating mischief. Though he sang in the church choir and was very active in different activities, Bill remained very much of a loner and had trouble being accepted in the wealthier, snobbish Pasadena social scene. He also had difficulty in maintaining good grades in school, struggling whilst studying Chemistry in university. There was a lot of pressure for him to follow in his own father’s footsteps and become a scientist. Luckily for Bill, he was scouted by a talent agent and immediately signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures before a screen test could even be made. The contract was bargained in such a way that it split Bill’s responsibilities between Paramount and Columbia Pictures equally. At the time, Bill Beedle, Jr. was a mere 21-years-old.

Holden looking strikingly similar to his good pal Robert Mitchum

With no official acting credit to his name, the now William Holden was unprecedentedly given a leading role in the 1939 film Golden Boy opposite Barbara Stanwyck, who immediately took to him. Using her ample star power, Stanwyck started coaching him and teaching him about the trade. In turn, a great friendship developed between the two, with Holden nicknaming her “Missy”. Work came steadily in the next several years although Holden was given non-varying roles mostly as a romantic comedy leading man. His social life was in full bloom and he was one of the most eligible bachelors in Hollywood. Despite his public dalliances being relatively drama-free, then Columbia President Harry Cohn feared eventual publicity and took the initiative to rent a penthouse at the Chateau Marmont where Holden and fellow actor Glenn Ford could discreetly continue to sow their oats.

Mr. & Mrs. William Holden

In 1944, Holden wed actress Brenda Marshall and a few years later, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during World World II, becoming the first married star to do so. After his service was over, he returned to films in the same types of roles as before much to his dismay. He was loaned out to RKO in a film called Rachel and the Stranger opposite Robert Mitchum and Loretta Young. It was not until he was cast in Paramount’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard that he was able to break-out of his usual mould though the studio had been extremely wary of taking the risk in casting Holden. The gamble paid off and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He did not win that year but his career was gaining momentum and he was quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest stars. Regularly appearing in the Top 10 of lists naming moviegoers’ favourite actors and actresses, Holden won the 3rd annual Star of the Year Award in 1956. By the time 1957 rolled around, his joint Paramount/Columbia contract was finished, leaving him a free agent. Holden decided on a new direction for his career and his family.

William Holden, Best Actor 1953 for his role in ‘Stalag 17’ – posing with Best Supporting Actress Donna Reed for ‘From Here to Eternity’

Over time, Holden became increasingly frustrated with how Hollywood stereotypically portrayed other countries and people of the world. Moreover, he could not understand their unwillingness to change their stance and stop their factory cut-out fabrications. Holden was well-travelled, mostly thanks to his profession, and had been opened up to many different cultures and parts of the world. The Holden family moved to Switzerland in 1959. There, he continued making European-based films which was something that a number of actors (Farley Granger, Ava Gardner, Van Johnson, and so on) did once television became more of a competitive threat to feature length films. He eventually moved back to the United States on a more permanent basis after his 1974 divorce that ended his 30 year marriage though he continued to maintain a residence in Switzerland. Success once again rang at Holden’s door with the 1976 film Network, for which he received his third nomination for Best Actor. His last role was in the 1981 Blake Edward’s-directed film S.O.B. opposite Julie Andrews.

An older William Holden

During the filming of ‘Network’

 

Here’s looking at you, Bill

  • Had 2 sons with wife Brenda Marshall: Peter and Scott, in addition to adopting her daughter from a previous marriage, Virginia.
  • Nicknamed “The Golden Boy”.
  • Was considered the boy-next-door, “Smiling Jim” type.
  • Was insecure about his stardom and being a movie star.
  • Had a terrible addiction to alcohol and tried many times to get help by checking-in to private clinics.
  • Travelled on average 100,000 miles per year and took many colour stills during his trips.
  • Founded a wildlife conservation in Kenya; Considered Africa to be a mystical attraction.
  • Was close friends with Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Cliff Robertson and Ronald Reagan, among others.
  • Thought that Sunset Boulevard was his best picture and personal performance.
  • Felt that his Oscar win for Stalag 17 was a consolation prize for not having won for Sunset Boulevard.