William Holden

For other uses, see William Holden (disambiguation).
William Holden

Holden in a publicity photo, 1954
Born William Franklin Beedle, Jr.
(1918-04-17)April 17, 1918
O'Fallon, Illinois, U.S.
Died November 12, 1981(1981-11-12) (aged 63)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Cause of death Exsanguination following a fall
Education South Pasadena High School
Alma mater Pasadena City College
Occupation Actor, wildlife conservationist
Years active 19311981
Political party Republican[1]
Spouse(s) Brenda Marshall (m. 1941–71)
Children 3
Awards Academy Award for Best Actor (1953)
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor (1974)

William Holden (born William Franklin Beedle, Jr.; April 17, 1918 – November 12, 1981) was an American actor who was one of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s through the 1970s. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1953 for his role in Stalag 17, and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in the 1973 television film The Blue Knight.

Holden starred in some of Hollywood's most popular and critically acclaimed films, including such masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, Picnic, and Network. He was named one of the "Top 10 Stars of the Year" six times (1954–1958, 1961), and appeared as 25th on the American Film Institute's list of 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Early life and career

Holden was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois, the son of Mary Blanche (née Ball; 1898–1990), a schoolteacher, and William Franklin Beedle (1891–1967), an industrial chemist.[2] He had two younger brothers, Robert Westfield Beedle (1921–January 1, 1944) and Richard P. Beedle (born 1925). The brothers' paternal great-grandmother, Rebecca Westfield, was born in England in 1817, while some of his mother's ancestors settled in Virginia's Lancaster County after emigrating from England in the 17th century.[2] His younger brother, Robert W. "Bobbie" Beedle, became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and was killed in action in World War II, over New Ireland, a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific, on January 5, 1944.

His family moved to South Pasadena when he was three. After graduating from South Pasadena High School, Holden attended Pasadena Junior College, where he became involved in local radio plays. A version of how he obtained his stage name "Holden" is based on a statement by George Ross of Billboard magazine: "William Holden, the lad just signed for the coveted lead in Golden Boy, used to be Bill Beadle. And here is how he obtained his new movie tag. On the Columbia lot is an assistant director and scout named Harold Winston. Not long ago he was divorced from the actress, Gloria Holden, but carried the torch after the marital rift. Winston was one of those who discovered the Golden Boy newcomer and who renamed him—in honor of his former spouse!"[3]


With Lee J. Cobb (right) in Holden's first starring role in a film, Golden Boy (1939)

Holden's first starring role was in Golden Boy (1939), costarring Barbara Stanwyck, in which he played a violinist-turned-boxer. He was still an unknown actor at the time, while Stanwyck was already a film star. She liked Holden and went out of her way to help him succeed, devoting her personal time to coaching and encouraging him, which made them into lifelong friends. When she received her Honorary Oscar at the 1982 Academy Award ceremony, Holden had died in an accident just a few months prior. At the end of her acceptance speech, she paid him a personal tribute: "I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish".[4][5]

Next he starred with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in the Warner Bros. gangster epic Invisible Stripes later the same year, followed by the role of George Gibbs in the film adaptation of Our Town.[6] 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 Corps during World War II, where he acted in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit. His career took off in 1950 when Billy Wilder tapped him to star in Sunset Boulevard, where he played a down-at-the-heels screenwriter who gets taken in by a faded silent-screen star, played by Gloria Swanson. Holden earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination with the part.[7]

Getting the part was a lucky break for Holden, as the role was initially cast with Montgomery Clift, who backed out of his contract.[8] Swanson later said, "Bill Holden was a man I could have fallen in love with. He was perfection on- and off-screen."[9] And Wilder himself commented, "Bill was a complex guy, a totally honorable friend. He was a genuine star. Every woman was in love with him."[9]

Following this breakthrough film, his career quickly grew in stature as Holden played a series of roles that combined good looks with cynical detachment, including a prisoner-of-war entrepreneur in Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a pressured young engineer/family man in Executive Suite (1954), an acerbic stage director in The Country Girl (1954) with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, a conflicted jet pilot in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a wandering college football star in Picnic (1955), a dashing war correspondent in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), 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. He played a number of sunnier roles in light comedy, such as the handsome architect pursuing virginal Maggie McNamara in the controversial Production Code-breaking The Moon Is Blue (1953), as Judy Holliday's tutor in Born Yesterday (1950), and as a playwright captivated by Ginger Rogers' character in Forever Female (1953).

With Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954)

He co-starred as Humphrey Bogart's younger brother, a carefree playboy, in Sabrina (1954), played by Audrey Hepburn. It was Holden's third film with director Billy Wilder. Holden and Hepburn became romantically involved during the filming, unbeknown to Wilder: "People on the set told me later that Bill and Audrey were having an affair, and everybody knew. Well, not everybody! I didn't know."[9]:174 The interactions between Bogart, Hepburn and Holden made shooting less than pleasant, however, as Bogart originally had wanted his wife, Lauren Bacall, to play Sabrina. While Bogart was therefore not especially friendly toward Hepburn, who had little Hollywood experience, Holden's reaction was the opposite, writes biographer Michelangelo Capua.[10]

Holden recalls their romance:

Before I even met her, I had a crush on her, and after I met her, just a day later, I felt as if we were old friends, and I was rather fiercely protective of her, though not in a possessive way.[11]

Their relationship did not last much beyond the completion of the film. Holden, who was at this point dependent on alcohol, said, "I really was in love with Audrey, but she wouldn't marry me."[12] A few months later, Hepburn met Mel Ferrer, whom she would later marry.[13]

In 1954, Holden was featured on the cover of Life magazine. On February 7, 1955, Holden appeared as a guest star on I Love Lucy as himself. His career peaked in 1957 with the enormous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but Holden spent the next several years starring in a number of films that rarely succeeded commercially or critically. By the mid-1960s, the quality of his roles and films had noticeably diminished. A heavy drinker most of his life, Holden descended into alcoholism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later career

In 1969, Holden made a comeback when he starred in director Sam Peckinpah's graphically violent Western The Wild Bunch, winning much acclaim. Also in 1969, Holden starred in director Terence Young's family film L'Arbre de Noël, co-starring Italian actress Virna Lisi and French actor Bourvil, based on the novel of the same name by Michel Bataille. This film was originally released in the United States as The Christmas Tree and on home video as When Wolves Cry.[14]

Holden in The Revengers (1972)

For television roles in 1974, Holden won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for his portrayal of a cynical, tough veteran LAPD street cop in the television film The Blue Knight, based upon the best-selling Joseph Wambaugh novel of the same name.

In 1973, Holden starred with Kay Lenz in movie directed by Clint Eastwood called Breezy, which was considered a box office flop. Also in 1974, Holden 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. Two years later he was praised for his Oscar-nominated leading performance in Sidney Lumet's classic Network (1976), a 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, he appeared in his second Irwin Allen film, When Time Ran Out, a critical and commercial failure and heavily disliked by Holden himself. Blake Edwards' S.O.B., was more successful. In 1981, Holden was offered the role of Coach Daniel B. Delaney in That Championship Season. He became very depressed when filming was delayed, and drank even more heavily.[15]

Personal life

Matron of honor Brenda Marshall (left) and best man William Holden, sole guests at Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan's wedding in 1952.

Holden was best man at the wedding of his friend Ronald Reagan to Nancy Davis in 1952; however, he never involved himself in politics. While in Italy in 1966, Holden killed another driver in a drunk driving incident. He received an eight-month suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter.[16]

Holden maintained a home in Switzerland and also spent much of his time working for wildlife conservation as a managing partner in an animal preserve in Africa. His Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki (founded 1959) became a mecca for the international jet set.[17] On a trip to Africa, he fell in love with the wildlife and became increasingly concerned with the animal species that were beginning to decrease in population. With the help of his partners, he created the Mount Kenya Game Ranch and inspired the creation of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation.[18] The Mount Kenya Game Ranch works to assist in Kenya with the wildlife education of its youth.[19]

Marriage and relationships

Holden was married to actress Ardis Ankerson (stage name Brenda Marshall) from 1941 until their divorce thirty years later, in 1971. They had two sons, Peter Westfield "West" Holden (born November 17, 1943 – died June 2014) and Scott Porter Holden (born May 2, 1946 – died January 21, 2005). He adopted his wife's daughter, Virginia, from her first marriage. Holden met French actress Capucine in the early 1960s. The two starred in the films The Lion (1962) and The 7th Dawn (1964). They reportedly began a two-year affair, which is alleged to have ended due to Holden's alcoholism.[20] Capucine and Holden remained friends until his death in 1981. She committed suicide a decade later, in 1992, aged 76.[21]

In 1972, Holden began a nine-year relationship with actress Stefanie Powers, which sparked her interest in animal welfare.[22] After his death, Powers set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation at Holden's Mount Kenya Game Ranch.[23]


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. The causes of death were given as "Exsanguination" and "Blunt Laceration of Scalp". There had been rumors that he was suffering from lung cancer, which he held a 1980 press conference to deny. His death certificate makes no mention of any cancer.[24][17] He had dictated in his will that the Neptune Society cremate him and scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. In accordance with his wishes, no funeral or memorial service was held.[25]

President Ronald Reagan released a statement when Holden died saying, "I have a great feeling of grief. We were close friends for many years. What do you say about a longtime friend - a sense of personal loss, a fine man. Our friendship never waned." [26]

For his contribution to the film industry, Holden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1651 Vine Street.[27] He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[28] His death was noted by singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, whose 1987 song Tom's Diner (about a sequence of events one morning in 1981) included a mention of reading a newspaper article about "an actor who had died while he was drinking". Vega subsequently confirmed that this was a reference to Holden.[29]


Year Movie Role Notes
1938 Prison Farm Prisoner Uncredited
1939 Million Dollar Legs Graduate who says "Thank You" Uncredited
Golden Boy Joe Bonaparte
Invisible Stripes Tim Taylor
1940 Those Were the Days! P.J. "Petey" Simmons
Our Town George Gibbs
Arizona Peter Muncie
1941 I Wanted Wings Al Ludlow
Texas Dan Thomas
1942 The Fleet's In Casey Kirby
The Remarkable Andrew Andrew Long
Meet the Stewarts Michael Stewart
1943 Young and Willing Norman Reese
Reconnaissance Pilot Lt. 'Packy' Cummings short film, Uncredited
Wings Up Himself short film
1947 Blaze of Noon Colin McDonald
Dear Ruth Lt. William Seacroft
Variety Girl Himself
1948 The Man from Colorado Capt. Del Stewart
Rachel and the Stranger David Harvey
Apartment for Peggy Jason Taylor
The Dark Past Al Walker
1949 Streets of Laredo Jim Dawkins
Miss Grant Takes Richmond Dick Richmond
Dear Wife Bill Seacroft
1950 Father Is a Bachelor Johnny Rutledge
Sunset Boulevard Joe Gillis Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Union Station Lt. William Calhoun
Born Yesterday Paul Verrall
1951 Force of Arms Sgt. Joe "Pete" Peterson
Submarine Command LCDR Ken White
1952 Boots Malone Boots Malone
The Turning Point Jerry McKibbon
1953 Stalag 17 Sgt. J.J. Sefton Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
The Moon Is Blue Donald Gresham
Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach Tourist cameo, Uncredited
Forever Female Stanley Krown
Escape from Fort Bravo Capt. Roper
1954 Executive Suite McDonald Walling Venice Film Festival Special Award for Ensemble Acting
Sabrina David Larrabee
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto Narrator Uncredited
The Bridges at Toko-Ri LT Harry Brubaker, USNR
The Country Girl Bernie Dodd
1955 Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing Mark Elliott
Picnic Hal Carter Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor
1956 The Proud and Profane Lt. Col. Colin Black
Toward the Unknown Maj. Lincoln Bond
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai Shears
1958 The Key Capt. David Ross
1959 The Horse Soldiers Major Henry Kendall
1960 The World of Suzie Wong Robert Lomax Nominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1962 Satan Never Sleeps Father O'Banion
The Counterfeit Traitor Eric Erickson
The Lion Robert Hayward
1964 Paris When It Sizzles Richard Benson/Rick
The 7th Dawn Major Ferris
1966 Alvarez Kelly Alvarez Kelly
1967 Casino Royale Ransome
1968 The Devil's Brigade Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick
1969 The Wild Bunch Pike Bishop
The Christmas Tree Laurent Ségur
1971 Wild Rovers Ross Bodine
1972 The Revengers John Benedict
1973 Breezy Frank Harmon
1974 Open Season Hal Wolkowski
The Towering Inferno Jim Duncan
1976 Network Max Schumacher Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor
1978 Fedora Barry "Dutch" Detweiler
Damien: Omen II Richard Thorn
1979 Escape to Athena Prisoner smoking a cigar in prison camp Uncredited
Ashanti Jim Sandell
1980 When Time Ran Out Shelby Gilmore
The Earthling Patrick Foley
1981 S.O.B. Tim Culley (Last appearance)
Year Title Role Notes
1955 Lux Video Theatre Intermission Guest episode: Love Letters
I Love Lucy Himself episode: Hollywood at Last
1956 The Jack Benny Program Himself episode: William Holden/Frances Bergen Show
1973 The Blue Knight Bumper Morgan Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
1976 21 Hours at Munich Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber

Box office ranking

For a number of years exhibitors voted Holden among the most popular stars in the country:

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1946 Lux Radio Theatre Miss Susie Slagle's[30]
1952 Lux Radio Theatre Submarine Command[31]
1952 Hollywood Star Playhouse The Joyful Beggar[31]
1953 Lux Radio Theatre Appointment with Danger[32]
1953 Lux Summer Theatre High Tor[33]



  1. Heymann 2009, p. 25.
  2. 1 2 "Ancestry of William Holden", Genealogy.com; retrieved November 13, 2011.
  3. Ross, George. "Broadway: Golden Boy", The Pittsburgh Press, April 12, 1939, p. 23.
  4. video: "Barbara Stanwyck's Honorary Award: 1982 Oscars", Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences via Youtube.com; accessed November 12, 2016.
  5. Robert Osborne, "TCM - Golden Boy" via Youtube.com; accessed November 12, 2016.
  6. Capua 2010, pp. 16–17.
  7. Capua 2010, pp. 54–55.
  8. Monush, Barry. The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors, Applause (2003) pp. 335-336
  9. 1 2 3 Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder: a Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster (2002) p. 147
  10. Capua 2010, p. 78
  11. Capua 2010 p. 79
  12. Capua 2010 p. 77
  13. Capua 2010 p. 82
  14. Capua 2010, pp. 135–36, 141.
  15. Capua 2010, pp. 162–63.
  16. Brown, Andrew M. "When Alcoholics drink themselves to death", The Telegraph, April 7, 2011.
  17. 1 2 Bennett, Bruce. "William Holden's Unscripted Fall From Grace", New York Sun, July 2, 2008.
  18. "The William Holden Wildlife Education Center" website, Mount Kenya Wilderness Conservancy, 2015; retrieved January 24, 2015.
  19. "WHWF History." William Holden Wildlife Foundation, 2010; retrieved January 24, 2015.
  20. Osborne, Robert (host). "The Lion", Turner Classic Movies, November 4, 2012.
  21. Strodder 2000, p. 112.
  22. Capua 2010, p. 165.
  23. Bacon, Doris Klein. "For Love of Bill", People Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 21, May 31, 1982.
  24. Death Certificate of William Holden, autopsyfiles.org; accessed September 28, 2016.
  25. Capua 2010, p. 164
  26. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/17/obituaries/william-holden-dead-at-63-won-oscar-for-stalag-17.html
  27. "Hollywood Star Walk: William Holden", Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2013.
  28. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees", St. Louis Walk of Fame; retrieved January 24, 2015.
  29. Suzanne Vega,Tom's Essay, blogs.nytimes.com, September 23, 2008; retrieved September 27, 2016.
  30. "Lux Star". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 19, 1946. p. 17. Retrieved September 29, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  31. 1 2 Kirby, Walter (November 23, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 48. Retrieved June 16, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  32. Kirby, Walter (January 18, 1953). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 40. Retrieved June 20, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  33. Kirby, Walter (May 31, 1953). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 40. Retrieved June 30, 2015 via Newspapers.com.


With Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (1954)
  • Capua, Michelangelo. William Holden: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-4440-3.
  • Gaines, Virginia Holden and Mike Prcic. Growing Up with William Holden: A Memoir. Newark, Notts, UK: Strategems, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9741304-5-3.
  • Heymann, C. David. Bobby and Jackie: A Love Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4001-6422-6.
  • Phillips, Gene D. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8131-2570-1.
  • Quirk, Lawrence J. The Complete Films of William Holden. Sacramento, California: Citadel Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-8065-0998-3.
  • Quirk, Lawrence J.The Films of William Holden. Sacramento, California: Citadel Press, 1973. ISBN 978-0-8065-0375-2.
  • Strodder, Chris. Swingin' Chicks Of the Sixties. San Rafael, California: Cedco Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 978-0-7683-2232-3.
  • Thomas, Bob. Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0-312-33697-4.

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