William Franklin Beedle Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois, 17 April 1918.
Attended South Pasadena High School and Pasadena Junior College,
Married the actress Brenda Marshall, 1941 (divorced 1971), sons: Peter
1938—stage debut in
at Pasadena Playhouse workshop theater; short Paramount contract and film
; 1942–45—served in U.S. Army: lieutenant;
1945—reentered films with Columbia; 1950s—TV actor and
narrator in documentaries.
Best Actor Academy Award, for
, 1953; co-recipient, Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, Venice
In Santa Monica, California, 12 November 1981.
Prison Farm (Louis King) (as an inmate)
Million Dollar Legs (Dmytryk) (as a graduate); Golden Boy (Mamoulian) (as Joe Bonaparte)
Each Dawn I Die (Keighley) (bit role); Invisible Stripes (Lloyd Bacon) (as Tim Taylor); Our Town (Sam Wood) (as George Gibbs); Those Were the Days (J. T. Reed) (as P. J. "Petey" Simmons); Arizona (Ruggles) (as Peter Muncie)
I Wanted Wings (Leisen) (as Jeff Young); Texas (George Marshall) (as Dan Thomas)
The Remarkable Andrew (Heisler) (as Andrew Long); The Fleet's In (Schertzinger) (as Casey Kirby); Meet the Stewarts (Alfred E. Green) (as Michael Stewart)
Young and Willing (E. H. Griffith) (as Norman Reese)
Blaze of Noon (Farrow) (as Colin McDonald); Dear Ruth (William Russell) (as Lt. William Seacroft); Variety Girl (George Marshall) (appearance)
Rachel and the Stranger (Norman Foster) (as Big Davey); Apartment for Peggy (Seaton) (as Jason); The Man from Colorado (Levin) (as Captain Del Stewart)
The Dark Past (Maté) (as Al Walker); Streets of Laredo (Fenton) (as Jim Dawkins); Miss Grant Takes Richmond (Lloyd Bacon) (as Dick Richmond); Dear Wife (Haydn) (as Bill Seacroft)
Father Is a Bachelor (Norman Foster and Berlin) (as Johnny Rutledge); Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (as Joe Gillis); Union Station (Maté) (as Lt. William Calhoun); Born Yesterday (Cukor) (as Paul Verall)
Force of Arms (Curtiz) (as Peterson); Submarine Command (Farrow) (as Commander White)
Boots Malone (Dieterle) (title role); The Turning Point (Dieterle) (as Jerry McKibbon)
Stalag 17 (Wilder) (as Sefton); The Moon Is Blue (Preminger) (as Donald Gresham); Forever Female (Rapper) (as Stanley Krown); Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges) (as Capt. Roper)
Executive Suite (Wise) (as McDonald Walling); Sabrina (Wilder) (as David Larrabee); The Country Girl (Seaton) (as Bernie Dodd); Miyamoto Musashi ( Samurai ) (Inagaki) (as narrator)
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Robson) (as Lt. Harry Brubaker); Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (Henry King) (as Mark Elliott); Picnic (Logan) (as Hal Carter)
The Proud and the Profane (Seaton) (as Lt. Col. Colin Black); Toward the Unknown (LeRoy) (as Maj. Lincoln Bond)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean) (as Shears)
The Key (Reed) (as David Ross)
The Horse Soldiers (Ford) (as Maj. Henry Kendall)
The World of Suzie Wong (Quine) (as Robert Lomax)
Satan Never Sleeps (McCarey) (as Father O'Banion); The Counterfeit Traitor (Seaton) (as Eric Erickson); The Lion (Cardiff) (as Robert Hayward)
Paris When It Sizzles (Quine) (as Richard Benson); The Seventh Dawn (Lewis Gilbert) (as Ferris)
Alvarez Kelly (Dmytryk) (title role)
Casino Royale (Huston and others) (as Ransome)
The Devil's Brigade (McLaglen) (as Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah) (as Pike Bishop); The Christmas Tree (Terence Young) (as Laurent)
Wild Rovers (Edwards) (as Ross Bodine)
The Revengers (Daniel Mann) (as John Benedict)
The Blue Knight (Robert Butler—for TV) (as Bumper Morgan); Breezy (Eastwood) (as Frank Harmon)
Open Season (Collinson) (as Wolkowski); The Towering Inferno (Irwin Allen and Guillermin) (as Jim Duncan)
Network (Lumet) (as Max Schumacher); 21 Hours at Munich (William A. Graham—for TV) (as Manfred Schreiber)
Damien—Omen II (Taylor) (as Richard Thorn); Fedora (Wilder) (as Barry Detweiler)
Ashanti (Fleischer) (as Jim Sandell)
The Earthling (Collinson) (as Patrick Foley); When Time Ran Out (Goldstone) (as Shelby Gilmore)
S.O.B. (Edwards) (as Tim Culley)
"I'm Old-Fashioned—and This Is Why," in Films and Filming (London), January 1961.
Parish, James, and Don Stanke, The All Americans , New Rochelle, New York, 1977.
Thomas, Bob, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden , New York, 1983.
Quirk, Lawrence J., The Complete Films of William Holden , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1986.
Bradford, Sarah, Princess Grace , Collingdale, 1998.
Current Biography 1954 , New York, 1954.
Drew, B., "Where Has Everybody Gone?," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), February 1977.
Obituary, in New York Times , 17 November 1981.
Obituary, in Maclean's (Toronto), 28 December 1981.
The Annual Obituary 1981 , New York, 1982.
Marill, Alvin H., "William Holden," in Films in Review (New York), February 1982.
Cieutat, M., "William Holden ou le syndrome du vilain américain," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1982.
Cohan, Steven, "Masquerading as the American Male in the Fifties: Picnic , William Holden and the Spectacle of Masculinity in Hollywood Film," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington), January-May 1991.
Schickel, Richard, "William Holden: Best Actor in Stalag 17 ," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Stars (Mariembourg), no. 17, Autumn 1993.
* * *
In the truest sense of a misused phrase, it was impossible to dislike William Holden. Enshrining the philosophy of "Never apologize, never explain," his screen character epitomized the engagingly unreliable drinking pal or feckless nephew to whom one lends money, confident the loan will be neither repaid nor—more importantly—resented. A Holden character seldom descended to self-pity, or flinched from the worst results of rapacity, superficiality, or cowardice. Paradoxically, audiences were convinced by this cordial venality that under the chromium shell hid a good man awaiting rescue, a hero who only needed the right stimulus to make his mother proud.
In 1939, when he slipped into Golden Boy by the back door, after Warner Brothers's refusal to lend Columbia the play's original star, John Garfield, Hollywood had few roles for the uncultured and weak-willed wise guys Holden was later to play with such ease. A flop as Odets's Italian working-class hero, torn between boxing and the violin, Holden marked time in unmemorable Westerns and comedies until Montgomery Clift's last-minute defection from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard gave Holden the sleazy screenwriter role.
His Joe Gillis, an amalgam of Pat Hobby and Sammy Glick, is the faultlessly realized portrait of a Hollywood loser whose ambitions have shrunken to a second-hand Oldsmobile and half a feature credit. But even shot dead and floating in Gloria Swanson's pool, he can still, in a sardonic commentary, view his fate with unconceited irony.
Since writing a part with Holden in mind must have been a scenarist's nightmare, many of his best roles came, like that in Sunset Boulevard , on the rebound. Wilder wanted Charlton Heston for the prison camp profiteer Sefton in Stalag 17 , and favored someone younger for Sabrina until Cary Grant's replacement by Humphrey Bogart dictated an older man for his playboy brother. Yet for both roles he seems the natural choice. Our belief in Holden's unflinching opportunism convinces us that Sefton should be more able than his fellow prisoners to spot the spy in their midst, and as David Larrabee, a thoroughbred stallion permanently at stud among the organdied daughters of Long Island, Holden catches the exact balance of tarnished golden boy and calculating seducer.
Holden was seldom convincing as a man who gave orders. No army would follow an officer so patently protective of his own skin. Nevertheless, he often played such roles: a cavalry captain in Escape from Fort Bravo , a jet pilot in The Bridges at Toko-Ri , an infantry officer in The Devil's Brigade and The Bridge on the River Kwai , and a cop who coped efficiently, if skeptically, with his duty in The Blue Knight. Only John Ford saw more in this character and made him, in The Horse Soldiers , a pacifist military doctor grappling with John Wayne's hard-nosed Civil War raider, a minor milestone in Holden's career.
One of the handsomest men ever to grace a movie screen, the Adonis-like Holden seemed ill-at-ease with his physical perfection, as if it were an impediment to being taken seriously as an actor. As with Robert Taylor and Montgomery Clift, two other stars whose personas were linked to their exquisiteness, Holden seemed less persuasive with the passage of time. With a few graceful exceptions, Holden's work as a character-star from the sixties onward seems curiously uncommitted and unfocused. As a leading man, Holden's key role as Hal, the aging charm boy of Picnic , in which Holden is unforgettable as a self-conscious drifter unable to recapture his college athletics halcyon days. After this overheated Americana in which Holden's sensuous body language underscored by "Moonglow" ignited the libidos of an entire Kansas town, and after that soggy valentine to miscegenation, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing , this star's charisma flickered on the back burner until he reemerged as a noticeably aged, somewhat burned-out leading man.
Still billed above the title, Holden stopped coasting long enough to unleash some staggering achievements in his twilight years. Amidst the raging violence of The Wild Bunch , and the hyperbolic fever of Network , Holden functions as a voice of reason and grounds both of these classic exercises in hysteria in a discernible reality. Ineffably sad-looking, Holden reaches out to the audience in Fedora , The Blue Knight , and Wild Rovers with intimations of his own mortality. In his final film, Blake Edwards's nihilistic black comedy S.O.B. , he could play a one-bottle and two-women-a-day man with complete credibility, but by now the residue of his cocky swagger from Stalag 17 could be viewed as a defense mechanism against loneliness. We could see more clearly that his trademark cynicism was always a pose. In his late career knock-outs, Holden seems to be saying that he was a man who had everything but for whom everything was somehow not enough. Whatever psychological emptiness Holden carried around inside himself, neither a distinguished movie career nor alcoholic marathons could fill the void. On-screen, at least, this tarnished hero could redeem himself by fadeout. His legacy is an unusual one for a major star—an antiheroic presence embraced by filmgoers despite an angles-playing pragmatism that takes a circuitous route from the self-serving to the grudgingly altruistic.
—John Baxter, updated by Robert Pardi