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Happy Birthday, William Holden!

William Holden was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois on April 17, 1918. He was the first of three sons of Mary Blanche (née Ball), a schoolteacher, and William «Bill» Franklin Beedle, Sr., an industrial chemist. The Beedle family had been living in America for four generations; they emigrated from England in the early 19th century, settling in a farming community in Ohio, before moving to O'Fallon in 1812. Bill and Mary met while they were both students at McKendree College and were married in a modest ceremony a few days after graduating, in the spring of 1917. The very religious Mary was proud that her family was related to Martha Ball, George Washington's mother. In addition, her father was cousin to Senator Warren G. Harding, who later became the 29th President of the United States in 1921. «The Beedles are a cocktail of Irish, British and German blood mixed in an American shaker. [...] I am the great-great son of one of the founders of our fatherland,» Holden proudly admitted years later about his ancestors.

William Holden in 1930
In the early 1920s, doctors strongly advised Bill to leave the harsh weather of Illinois and move to a warmer place to ease his chronic lung condition. In 1922, a year after Mary gave birth to a boy named Robert, the family moved to Monrovia, a small rural town twenty miles east from Los Angeles. Eighteen months later, Mary welcomed her third son, Richard, and began dedicating herself completely to being a full-time mother. Nicknamed «Billy» to distinguish him from his namesake, the eldest of the Beedle offspring grew up a very vivacious and outgoing child, gifted with a strong curiosity that left little time for his studies. At the tender age of five, he insisted on being called «Bill» like his father, who would teach his three sons tumbling, physical training and boxing in his spare time. 

In the early days of the Great Depression, Bill Sr. somehow managed to maintain the prosperity of his business, allowing the family to move to the affluent neighborhood of South Pasadena. Changing residence did not please young Bill, who soon became a reckless and rebellious boy, even getting into dangerous situations with his friends. Despite his undisciplined behavior, he was a very happy, outgoing teenager with a subtle sense of humor and extraordinary athletic skills. He also one of the most popular students at the South Pasadena High School, where he played the clarinet, the drums and the piano, sang in the boys choir and joined the basketball and football teams.

During summer vacation of 1936, a few weeks before enrolling in Pasadena Junior College as a chemistry major, Bill decided to take a cross-country road trip from California to New York City. He visited many locations along the way, but the place that fascinated him the most was New York, particularly the lighted marquees of Broadway. He watched so many plays and Broadway shows that he became stage struck. Upon his return to the Pasadena Junior College, he took a course in radio drama and began acting in several radio plays for the local station. During his sophomore year, while he was singing in the college's a cappella choir Bill was spotted by local amateur director Robert Ben Ali, who offered him in a small role in Manya, a play he had just written about Marie Curie and her family. Bill played Eugène Curie, Marie's 80-year-old father-in-law, for which he had to go through long and heavy make-up sessions, where a white wig and beard were applied.

William Holden aged 14
On opening night at the Playbox Theathre, Bill caught the attention of Milton Lewis, who was assistant to Paramount's head of talent, Arthur Jacobson, and was in the audience looking for fresh faces. Impressed by Bill's voice and manner, Lewis approached the young man after the show and invited him to stop by Paramount Studios the following day for a screen test. Bill, however, declined the invitation, saying that he had a chemistry test and could not miss it. «Oportunity knocks only once, Beedle,» Lewis told him. «This time, it'll have to knock twice,» said Bill. Jacobson was amused by «the little chemist» and asked Lewis to contact Bill again and invite him for a screen test the day after the exam. A few days later, in the spring of 1938, Bill arrived on his motorbike at Paramount for his audition.

Bill's first screen test was not very satisfactory; his theatrical mannerisms did not appeal to Jacobson, who nevertheless gave him a script to take home and study. Although studio executives were not overly impressed with his second performance, Bill managed to pass to test and was subsequently offered a contract with Paramount. Before he could begin work, however, a name change was required. Apparently, Terry DeLapp, head of publicity at Paramount, thought Bill's last name sounded «too much like an insect or like a toothpaste.» Bill proposed a long list of names, among them Washington, as a tribute to his distinguished ancestor. DeLapp suddenly remembered that he had just been on the telephone with a friend, William Holden, editor at the Los Angeles Times. He immediately called Holden and asked to borrow his name for a new actor. The journalist made no objections and William Franklin Beedle, Jr. thus became William Holden.

I wanted to be the best motion picture actor in the world. My heroes were Fredric March and Spencer Tracy. There were my ideals. I used them as a kind of goal for myself. I had enough of the extrovert in me to want that kind of recognition.
(William Holden)

«The Golden Circle» in 1939. William Holden is third
 from the left on the bottom row.
Every day for several months, including weekends, Bill reported to Paramount, filling all his available time with acting and speech classes, being photographed for promotion, taking part in any sort of publicity in order to be noticed by someone and finally get a part. One day, he was invited to a formal lunch along with twelve of Paramount's other promising young players. It was announced that they now all belonged to «The Golden Circle,» a new publicity stunt from Paramount to promote the studio's future stars. The group included Ellen Drew, Louise Campbell, Betty Field, Judith Barrett, Joseph Allen, William Henry, Joyce Matthews, Janice Logan, Susan Hayward, Evelyn Keyes, Robert Preston and Patricia Morrison. In 1939, they were sent out on personal appearance tours, including one for Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific.

After uncredited roles in Prison Farm (1938) and Million Dollar Legs (1939), Bill was finally given his first big break when Paramount loaned him out to Columbia Pictures to play Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy (1939), based on the Clifford Odets play young Italian-American torn between his passion for the boxing ring and his love for the violin. Bill was personally chosen by director Rouben Mamoulian from a group of 65 of the nearly 5000 young hopefuls who auditioned for the part. Columbia head Harry Cohn was not pleased with Mamoulian's decision and even considered firing Bill, but Barbara Stanwyck, his co-star, insisted that he be retained. Bill would thank Stanwyck for saving his career for the rest of his life.

With Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy
[Golden Boy] was my starting point. I don't think anybody had as much determination and ambition as I had the day I stared making this movie. Then, one day in 1939, I went to the opening of Golden Boy and saw my name up on the marquee. There was my name in lights. And I suddenly knew that it didn't mean a damn thing to me. It's been that way ever since.
(William Holden in 1961)

Bill followed Golden Boy with roles in Invisible Stripes (1939), a crime film with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and the Best Picture nominee Our Town (1940), a costume drama co-starring Martha Scott. After Columbia acquired half of his contract from Paramount, he alternated between appearing in several minor films for both studios, before serving in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Bill was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit, where he acted in a few documentary shorts and training films, including Wings Up (1943), narrated by Clark Gable.

After the war ended, Bill continued to work steadily on film throughout the remainder of the decade, appearing in an assortment of genres to various degrees of success. He starred, for instance, in the romantic comedy Dear Ruth (1947), opposite Joan Caufield; the western Rachel and the Stranger (1948), which was RKO's biggest moneymaker of that year; the psychological thiller The Dark Past (1948); and the comedies Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949) and Dear Wife (1949), which reunited him with Caufield. Fun bit of trivia: J. D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, stated that he created the name of the novel's protagonist, Holden Caufield, when he saw a movie theatre marquee displaying the the names of the lead actors in Dear Wife.

With Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
Bill's breakthrough role came when director Billy Wilder cast him alongside Gloria Swanson in the noir Sunset Boulevard (1950). He played Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter who gets drawn into the fantasy world of Norma Desmond (Swanson), a faded silent film star with dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. Although it was not a box-office hit, Sunset Boulevard was praised by critics upon its release and received eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bill, who was finally able to establish himself as a reputed actor. That year, he also appeared with Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday in George Cukor's hugely successful Born Yesterday (1950), in which he played a journalist hired by an uncouth mobster to educate his brassy girlfriend.

Following two years of appearing in unimpressive films, including Michael Curtiz's Force of Arms (1951) and William Dieterle's Boots Malone (1952), Bill re-teamed with Wilder in Stalag 17 (1953), the story of a group of American airmen held in a German POW camp during World War II. Bill played J .J. Sefton, a cynical sergeant whom his fellow prisoners suspect is an informant working with the Germans. Co-starring Don Taylor and Otto Preminger, Stalag 17 was a massive critical and commercial hit, earning Bill the Oscar for Best Actor, the first and only of his career. 

With Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
After the success of Stalag 17, Bill became a major box-office star and one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. The mid-1950s were arguably the best period of his career, as he appeared in a series of well-received films that showcased not only his good looks, but also his versatility as an actor. He played a handsome architect in pursuit of virginal Maggie McNamara in the Code-breaking romantic comedy The Moon is Blue (1953); Humphrey Bogart's idle playboy younger brother in the Audrey Hepburn vehicle Sabrina (1954), Bill's third collaboration with Wilder; an acerbic stage director who falls in love with Grace Kelly in the drama The Country Girl (1954); Kelly's conflicted jet pilot husband in the Korean War drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954); a dashing war correspondent involved in an ill-fated romance with Jennifer Jones in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955); and a wandering college football star in Picnic (1955). The last two films were both nominated for Best Picture at the 28th Academy Awards and appear in the AFI list of the top 100 greatest love stories in American cinema.

Bill next appeared opposite Deborah Kerr in George Seaton's The Proud and Profane (1956), before director David Lean signed him in what became one of his best-remembered pictures, the World War II epic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Co-starring Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins, the film was based on Pierre Boulle's novel of the same name, whose largely ficticious plot was inspired by the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-1943. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the highest grossing film of 1958 and garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, eventually winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

In The Horse Soldiers
In the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s, however, Bill's career suddenly began to decline. Although he continued to work steadily, the quality of his roles and films (most of which were war dramas) diminished considerably and rarely succeeded either commercially or critically. Some of the pictures he made during this period include Carol Reed's The Key (1958), with Sophia Loren; John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959), co-starring John Wayne; Richard Quine's The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964), the latter of which reunited him with Hepburn; Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps (1962), with Clifton Webb and France Nuyen; Edward Dmytryk's Alvarez Kelly (1966), with Richard Widmark; Casino Royale (1967), starring David Niven as the original James Bond; and Andrew V. McLaglen's The Devil's Brigade (1968), with Cliff Robertson and Vince Edwards.

Bill made a comeback when director Sam Peckinpah cast him alongside Ernest Borgnine in the epic Western The Wild Bunch (1969), wherein he delivered a strong and convincing performance as an aging outlaw looking for one final score before his retirement. Although controversial because of its graphic violence, the film was highly acclaimed upon its release and, decades later, it was included by the AFI in its list of the top 100 greatest productions in American motion picture history. The Wild Bunch was also notable for its intricate, multi-angle, quick-cut editing, using normal and slow motion images, a revolutionary cinematic technique at the time.

With Faye Dunaway in Network
After roles in such films as Blake Edwards' Wild Rovers (1971) and Clint Eastwood's Breezy (1973), both critical and commercial failures, Bill's career was given another boost when he appeared in the action thriller The Towering Inferno (1974), featuring an all-star ensemble cast led by Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Produced by the «Master of Disaster,» Irwin Allen, the film was a critical success and the biggest moneymaker of that year, receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

Following The Towering Inferno, Bill starred alongside Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), a satirical black comedy-drama about a fictional television network struggling with poor ratings, in which he played Max Schumacher, the news division president. Like its predecessor, Network was a critical and financial success, garnering ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bill, the last in his career.
After Network, Bill starred in only six more pictures until his death in 1981, none of them noteworthy. These included Fedora (1978), his fourth directed by Billy Wilder; When Time Ran Out (1980), another disaster film produced by Irwin Allen, which reunited him with Paul Newman and Ernest Borgnine; and The Earthling (1980), wherein he played a man dying of cancer who decides to return to his birthplace in the Australian Outback. His last screen appearance was in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. (1981), a bitter satirical comedy about Hollywood that was perhaps a fitting finale for an actor who cared little for the industry.

A heavy drinker most of his life, Holden had descended into alcoholism in the 1960s and 1970s. On November 12, 1981, while intoxicated, he slipped on a throw rug and hit his head on the sharp edge of a teak nightstand in his luxury condo bedroom in Santa Monica. According to the coroner's report, the wound on the right side of his forehead was over two inches long, penetrating to the skull. At the age of 63, the solitary Bill was not aware of the severity of his injury and did not call for help. He reclined on the bed for a few minutes, trying to stop the bleeding with tissues, before rolling onto the floor in agony, where he quickly died. His body was found four days later by an intimate friend, Pat Stauffer. After the news of William Holden's death leaked to the media, Billy Wilder said, «To be killed by a vodka bottle and a night table. What a lousy fade-out to a great guy.»

William Holden (1918-1981)
For me, acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it.

The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel (2004)
William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010)
The New York Sun article


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