William Holden was a Hollywood leading man who mainly hit his stride during the 1950’s. He was so popular at the time that he inspired J.D. Salinger to name the main character of his novel Catcher In the Rye “Holden Caulfield”. He had a powerful masculine quality that just leaped from the screen and drew throngs of worshipful female fans to see his movies. At the same time, he appealed to men in that he seemed down-to-earth and easy to relate to. His male fans liked him in military-themed films and westerns.
He was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. on April 17, 1918 in O’Fallon, Illinois. He grew up in California, after his parents moved the family to Pasadena. His father was an industrial chemist and his mother was a schoolteacher, so he appears to have had a fairly privileged upbringing.
William started doing theater at the Pasadena Playhouse while he was attending college and it wasn’t long before Hollywood paid attention. Paramount signed him to a contract in 1937 and he made his first screen appearance in 1938 in Prison Farm. His first major role came in 1939 when he played violinist- turned- boxer Joe Bonaparte in the film version of the Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy. His co-star in the movie was established female star Barbara Stanwyck and they remained close friends throughout their lives.
Holden seemed trapped in roles as benign, innocent-all-American-Boy characters until he took time off to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was in a number of training films for the government, giving him a more rugged image and, after returning to motion pictures after the war, his roles improved.
His other movies include Dear Ruth, The Man From Colorado, Rachel and the Stranger, Apartment for Peggy, The Dark Past, Sunset Boulevard, Union Station, Born Yesterday, Submarine Command, The Moon Is Blue, Stalag 17, Executive Suite, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Country Girl, Sabrina, Love Is a Many- Splendored Thing, The Proud and Profane, Picnic, The Bridges at Toki-Ri, The Bridge On the River Kwai, The World of Suzie Wong, the Horse Soldiers, The Wild Bunch, The Devil’s Brigade, Casino Royale, Network, The Towering Inferno, Damien: Omen II and S.O.B.
Holden was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 16 and Network. He won the golden statuette in 1954 for his role as cynical prisoner-of-war Sefton in Stalag 17.
He was married once, to actress Brenda Marshall for 30 years. Their relationship was not particularly stable, however, as “Bill” had numerous affairs and the couple finally divorced in 1971. He finally began to have a more durable relationship with actress Stephanie Powers, who was several years his junior, and the two of them shared a passionate interest in wildlife preservation.
Sadly, Holden could not seem to avoid his own personal demon of alcoholism and it is this addiction that lead to his death. While intoxicated and alone, he slipped on a rug in his apartment and banged his head on a table. By the time he was discovered, he had bled to death.
Although the official date of death for William Holden is given as November 16, 1981, it is more likely that he had passed away at least four days previously.
The picture that I will always remember him in is the 1955 film Picnic. I saw it on late night television when I was a teenager and I was simply mesmerized. In it, he plays drifter Hal Carters, who stops by a dismally dull small town to visit an old college pal (Cliff Robertson), Although he is only there for a Labor Day weekend, he shakes up some things and turns the predictable world of some of the town’s inhabitants upside down, especially the beautiful Madge (Kim Novak), who falls for him and leaves the safety net of her town to follow him to a questionable future in Oklahoma.
Rent the movie, folks, or catch it on TCM when they air it. The dance scene between Holden and Novak will definitely curl your toes. It is William Holden at his absolute best.