Actor. Born William Franklin Beedle (professionally known as William Holden), on April 17, 1918, in the farming community of O’Fallon, Illinois. Holden spent his childhood in Monrovia, California, a rural suburb of Los Angeles, where his father started a fertilizer business. At the age of 18, Holden traveled to New York City, where he developed a penchant for stage acting. Upon his return to California, he joined a drama club and began performing at the Pasadena Community Playhouse.
While performing, Holden caught the attention of a talent scout who signed the 20-year old to a seven-year contract with Paramount Studios. With striking features and a sensual voice, Holden was invited to join an elite corps of promising young actors called the Golden Circle—a group that included Susan Hayward, Robert Preston, and Patricia Morison and was aggressively promoted by the studio. Holden’s first film credits included bit parts in the dramas Prison Farm (1938) and Million Dollar Legs (1939). Later that year, he landed the demanding lead role opposite Hollywood veteran Barbara Stanwyck in the gritty sports drama Golden Boy. Based on the award-winning play by Clifford Odets, Golden Boy was a story of greed and manipulation in the life of young boxer Joe Bonaparte.
Following an auspicious debut, Holden spent the next few years in a series of character roles, most notably that of George Gibbs in Our Town (1940). The following year, at the onset of World War II, he enlisted in the United States Army. When he returned to acting, he struggled to find suitable film work. After two frustrating years, Holden was cast in Blaze of Noon and Dear Ruth (both 1947). The following year, he landed a promising role as a GI struggling to adapt to postwar life in Apartment for Peggy. In 1949, after Montgomery Clift relinquished the part, Holden was cast as the opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis in director Billy Wilder’s scathing satire Sunset Boulevard. Costarring Gloria Swanson, the film was rewarded with eleven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Holden), and Best Actress (Swanson).
In 1953, Holden won an Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a callous colonel in Wilder’s caustic World War II comedy Stalag 17. The following year, he reunited with Wilder for the romantic comedy Sabrina, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. After the film’s release, Holden traveled abroad and spent the next few years in Europe and Asia. While living in Japan, he starred opposite Grace Kelly in the film adaptation of James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954). Over the next few years, Holden’s credits included such memorable films as The Country Girl (1954), Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic (both 1955), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
In 1959, while visiting Africa, Holden developed an interest in wildlife preservation, a cause that he championed by purchasing 2,000 acres in Kenya with the intention of creating a protected animal reserve. In 1964, Holden traveled to France to film the romantic comedy Paris-When It Sizzles with Audrey Hepburn. Now in his fifties, Holden continued to command lead roles, starring opposite Ernest Borgnine in Sam Peckinpath’s revisionist Western The Wild Bunch (1969), with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno (1974), and with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall in Network (1976).
In 1980, Holden retreated to his wildlife preserve in Kenya, but briefly returned to Hollywood to star in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981). On November 16, 1981, Holden was found dead in his Santa Monica apartment; his death was attributed to a forehead injury sustained from a fall while intoxicated.
In 1941, Holden married actress Brenda Marshall, with whom he had two sons. In 1967, he was convicted of manslaughter after colliding with another car while speeding down the Italian Autostrada; he was given an eight-month suspended sentence. Shortly thereafter, Marshall and Holden divorced. Holden has also had relationships with costars Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, as well as actress Stefanie Powers.
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