Few famous actors are as all-American as William Holden. One of the biggest Hollywood stars of his day, Holden’s handsome features seduced everyone around him. Underneath his pretty face, however, was a man with a troubled life, who constantly struggled with the demons of addiction. Needless to say, Hollywood’s “golden boy” hid many dark secrets beneath his perfect exterior.
The tiny town of O’Fallon, Illinois welcomed the birth of William Franklin Beedle Jr.—known to us as William Holden—on April 17, 1918. Holden grew up surrounded by his close-knit family and grew to be a lively young boy that was constantly on the move. His life in O’Fallon was idyllic, but perhaps a bit boring. That boredom suddenly broke when a family emergency changed his life forever.
Although Holden’s dad was a strong fellow, he suffered from a chronic lung condition. On the advice of doctors, Holden’s dad moved to California, where the warmth and sun would do him good. Of course, he took his entire family with him. This was a dream come true for five-year-old Holden, who thrived in the bustling streets of California.
What Holden didn’t know was that his dream was about to turn into a nightmare.
In 1930, Holden’s family faced a crisis. Holden’s dad, after years of working in a lab that exposed him to a concoction of dangerous chemicals, contracted pneumosilicosis. With his dad bedridden, Holden became the head of the family. He made sure his younger siblings got up in time for school and had dinner ready to go by the time his mom got home.
Only three things kept him going while under the weight of his new responsibilities.
During these tough times, Holden's few escapes included the Boy Scouts, athletics, and, to his surprise, acting. Not only did Holden have a voice that instantly captured everyone’s attention, but he learned the scripts for his school plays faster than anyone else. Unsurprisingly, the teachers always chose him for the lead roles. This early and promising start to acting didn’t keep Holden out of trouble, though.
In 1931, Holden’s family moved to affluent South Pasadena. Although Holden’s family wasn’t poor, they didn’t have the wealth of their upper-class neighbors—something that set Holden apart from other kids. Holden began acting out for attention—and some of the stunts he pulled were downright outrageous: He walked along a telephone line that was 12 feet off the ground, and even walked along the railing of Suicide Bridge—on his hands!
Something needed to change before Holden really got himself into trouble.
In 1938, Holden’s life changed when he caught the eye of Milt Lewis, a talent scout for Paramount. At the time, Holden was acting as an elderly man in a play for the Pasadena Community Playbox. Thrilled by the “old man’s” acting, Lewis went backstage, expecting to see an elderly gentleman—only for 20-year-old Holden to greet him. Shocked by Holden’s talent, Lewis decided to offer him the opportunity of a lifetime.
Lewis invited Holden to Paramount Studios for an audition. As soon as Holden began reading the script, he put Lewis under a spell. The talent scout described his voice as, “the voice of a mature man, warm and resonant, rising from deep within him". Paramount executives offered Holden a position as a contract player for seven years, and thus, Holden’s life as an actor began.
The rest of his career wouldn’t go this smoothly, however.
Paramount grouped Holden with a bunch of other talented young actors, and dubbed the group “The Golden Circle". Paramount frequently sent Holden and the Golden Circle members out to attract press attention, but it meant sharing the spotlight, making it difficult for Holden to attract attention to himself. After taking on two small roles in 1939, Holden was desperate to push his acting career forward. Soon, that opportunity came to him on a silver platter.
That same year, Columbia Pictures was in desperate need of a leading man for their upcoming movie, Golden Boy. They launched a public campaign searching for their perfect lead, and, by chance, the director, Rouben Mamoulian, happened upon a screen test that included Holden. Intrigued by Holden’s screen presence, Mamoulian asked Paramount to send Holden over for a meeting…But Holden didn’t exactly make a great first impression.
Holden walked into the Columbia Pictures office, practically quaking in his boots. He impressed Mamoulian, but when it came time for him to meet the president of Columbia, Harry Cohn, Holden nearly ended his career right there. When Cohn asked Holden if he could act, Holden answered, “I’m not sure". Luckily, his endearing honesty and good looks won Cohn over.
Now Holden just needed to prove himself on set, but that was easier said than done.
Holden’s rigorous filming schedule for Golden Boy began. Since the role required Holden to know how to box and how to play the violin, his days consisted of relentless, endless lessons. He woke at six in the morning every day for his lessons, and on most days, he didn’t get to sleep until well past midnight. Even a studio worker admitted that Columbia was “really taking advantage of him".
The stress definitely didn’t help him stay cool in front of the cameras either.
During the first three days of filming, Holden failed to impress most of his fellow cast members. Only two people really believed in him: Mamoulian, and his co-star, veteran actress Barbara Stanwyck. In fact, when Holden’s amateur acting caused Cohn to contemplate firing the poor guy, Stanwyck straight-up told Cohn that if he fired Holden, she would leave as well.
Thanks to Stanwyck’s patience, Holden improved, and his efforts were not in vain.
Golden Boy turned Holden into an overnight sensation. His boyish charm and good looks made him the perfect leading man. Girls, in particular, flocked to him, and happily accompanied him everywhere he wanted to go—which, of course, included the bedroom. While his growing fame should have boosted his confidence, Holden never really felt comfortable with acting. Eventually, this led him down a very dark path.
Even as Holden secured more starring roles, which included Invisible Stripes in the same year he filmed Golden Boy, Holden remained a nervous wreck before he got on movie sets. To calm himself, Holden turned to drink. It wasn’t a ton at first—just a bit to take the edge off his nerves—but it was enough to make sure he glowed with confidence on set.
But his career wasn't all nerves and booze. Eventually, his acting career led him straight to the girl of his dreams.
As Hollywood’s up-and-coming leading man, Holden had his pick of the most beautiful ladies around. The one that finally captured his heart, however, was the beautiful actress, Brenda Marshall. Holden first met Marshall while working on Invisible Stripes, but held back on asking her out since she was still technically married and had a kid of her own.
Holden couldn’t get her out of his head after first laying eyes on her, though, and three months later, he finally cracked.
After three months of dreaming about Marshall, Holden finally asked her out. Much to his delight, Marshall accepted, and she was the perfect woman for him. He pushed her to officially divorce her husband so they could start a life together, which, of course, she eventually did. In July of 1941, Holden suggested that they elope in Las Vegas—but this adventure nearly ended in disaster.
Due to his filming schedule and his desire to keep his wedding plans hush-hush, Holden ended up missing his own wedding! Filming for The Remarkable Andrew went two hours past schedule; by the time he and his fiancé arrived in Las Vegas, the minister they booked was long gone. Holden and Marshall had to beg the minister to carry out the ceremony in their tiny hotel room.
Just as they were about to start their lives together, however, a huge problem arose.
Around this time, WWII rocked the lives of everyone in the United States, and that included Holden’s as well. Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the nation, Holden enlisted, leaving his new wife behind and putting his acting career on hold. After filming three more movies between 1941 and 1942—The Fleet’s In, Meet the Stewarts, and Young and Willing—Holden left for the airbase near Fort Worth, Texas. It ended up being one of the worst experiences of his life.
Being a celebrity, Holden wasn't called to combat duty as he’d hoped; instead, he spent his days starring in endless rounds of rallies, talent shows, and training films. Holden felt guilty; he wanted to put his life on the line, like his brother. Things only got worse from here on out. On January 4, 1944, Holden learned that enemy fire had downed his brother’s plane in the South Pacific.
The guilt of it nearly destroyed him, and it haunted him even after his service ended.
In September of 1945, Holden eagerly returned to his acting career. He took a lot of pride in being a family man, eventually adopting his wife’s daughter from her first marriage. After that, the happy couple went on to have two more sons. But there was still something eating at him. All the while, Holden couldn't let go of one heartbreaking truth: He lived out an incredibly charmed life while his brother was never coming back.
This might’ve explained Holden’s next strange and unexpected decision.
At his behest, Holden’s wife retired as an actress, making him the sole breadwinner in the family. There was one major problem with this: His wife made five times more than him! Tragically, Holden’s dream of supporting his family through acting began to fall apart. There were simply no roles for him. He became increasingly irritable, isolating himself from his friends and unable to face their questions.
11 months later, however, his luck finally changed.
The acting jobs trickled in..but slowly. The first film he appeared in after finishing his service was Blaze of Noon, but it was his following film, a romantic comedy called Dear Ruth, that helped re-establish him as a desirable lead. All the while, Holden continued to struggle with his reliance on alcohol, something that his co-star in Rachel and the Stranger, Loretta Young, pointed out to him.
It also didn’t help that Holden’s roles were getting increasingly challenging.
Holden soon got the chance to act in The Dark Past in 1948, but this film required him to really stretch his acting chops. Instead of being the handsome lead, Holden needed to convince movie-goers that he could believably play a ruthless killer. For Holden, who usually acted in Westerns and romantic comedies, this was a huge challenge—one that he almost couldn’t overcome.
During the filming of the movie, his co-star, Lee J. Cobb inadvertently shattered Holden’s confidence. Every morning, Cobb arrived at the studio, picking apart each line of the film and complaining that the film was a complete disaster. Thanks to his daily morning tirades, Holden gradually lost faith in his own abilities. Only one person kept Holden from falling apart completely.
That person’s name was Nina Foch, a fellow cast member. Seeing how Holden was barely hanging on, she began inviting him to her dressing room every morning to give him a pep talk. Slowly, Holden gained his confidence back, and it showed; many reviewers noted how Holden gave his character a surprising amount of depth. Thanks to this, Holden felt ready for another big change, but it led him down a ruinous path.
By this time, Holden felt ready to look for a bigger house for his new family. He moved his family to a house by Toluca Lake and forked over $100,000 for the house—well over $1 million in today’s money. Needless to say, Holden could barely afford his new home. To make matters worse, his next two films, Streets of Laredo and Miss Grant Takes Richmond, flopped.
Holden needed to find a film to save him from the financial hole he'd dug himself into.
In 1950, Holden’s luck took a turn for the better when director Billy Wilder asked him to take the lead role in Sunset Boulevard. The script excited Holden. Finally, he'd get the chance to take on a role that wasn’t all about his good looks. At the same time, the thought of failing to deliver a great performance terrified him. In the end, he shouldn’t have worried over whether or not he could live up to the role; in fact, Holden ended up going above and beyond.
During one scene in Sunset Boulevard, Holden needed to kiss his co-star, Gloria Swanson. During the second take, Holden kissed Swanson…and didn’t stop, even when Wilder yelled “Cut!” He only stopped when his wife, who dropped by to visit him, yelled “Cut!” from behind the camera. It wasn’t a good look for Holden, and it foreshadowed the tragic path that his relationship with his wife was about to take.
When Sunset Boulevard came out in theaters, it proved to the world that Holden wasn’t just a pretty leading man; he was a true actor, who could take on complicated characters and bring them to life. The film truly catapulted Holden to fame, but it came with a cost—his wife. Jealous of Holden’s sudden stardom and the loss of her own, Holden’s wife took every opportunity to knock him down a peg—and the cracks in their marriage began to show.
Sunset Boulevard, and Holden’s performance in the film, impressed everyone so much that they nominated him for an Academy Award. This should’ve been a joyous occasion for all, except for two issues: first, he didn’t win, and second, his wife spent the evening making passive-aggressive comments about how José Ferrer, who took the award home, deserved the win over Holden.
Their relationship was headed for disaster.
While Holden’s relationship hit some major road bumps, his career moved along much more smoothly. His next film, Born Yesterday, not only gave him another boost in popularity, but it also gave him the opportunity to befriend his co-stars, Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford. Holden and Crawford got particularly close, due to one thing they had in common: their hatred for Paramount’s president, Harry Cohn.
As Holden’s acting career took off, he grew more and more wary of Cohn’s attempts to control his career. When Holden realized that he and Crawford shared a similar distaste for Cohn, the two became fast friends. They spent their time together finding various ways to annoy Cohn, which usually consisted of getting sloshed on Paramount’s dime. Cohn couldn’t afford to fire Holden, though—and for one important reason.
Simply put, Holden had become incredibly successful—a worthy investment. Although the next few films he worked on didn't have the impact of Sunset Boulevard, Holden still managed to do reasonably well. However, Holden wasn’t one to settle for “good enough,” and so, he decided to put everything on the line for his next film.
While Holden was on a publicity trip in New York City, Wilder, the same director that worked with Holden on Sunset Boulevard, invited him to work on a film adaptation of a Broadway play called Stalag 17. Holden was skeptical at first; he went to see the play himself and was so bored that he admitted to walking out during the first act.
Wilder convinced Holden to read the film’s version of the script. After reading it, Holden’s opinion did a complete 180.
Not only did Holden find Wilder’s version of Stalag 17 to be much more exciting, but he was especially intrigued by the part he was offered. Holden’s character, Sefton, was always center stage and in the spotlight. Not only that, but Holden’s character would be a scruffy, rough-and-tumble anti-hero, the opposite of the affable, handsome young men he had been playing as of late.
Holden threw himself into the role, but it got him into some major trouble.
While Holden was usually professional and friendly, his personality changed during Stalag 17. In an attempt to stay in character, Holden spent most of his time being withdrawn and dour. One day, Holden got a little too into character, and ended up yelling at the entire crew for being too noisy, shocking everyone—including himself!
Still, his method acting proved to be wildly effective and he turned in a great performance. However, while on set, he got a little too confident.
As Holden’s confidence grew, he relaxed—so much so that he got a bit frisky on set. He began wooing a beautiful actress he was working with on Stalag 17 and eventually invited her to his dressing room for an afternoon romance. This turned out to be a mistake. That same afternoon, his wife dropped by to visit him. Luckily for him, his wife had no idea that he'd cheated on her,
Of course, Holden's infidelity, along with what happened next, did nothing to keep their relationship afloat.
When Stalag 17 was released in 1953, it was a resounding success, so much so that Holden finally won an Academy Award for his work the following year. Unfortunately, history repeated itself when Holden’s wife, once again, insulted his success, causing Holden to get so angry that he ended up crashing his car on the way home. With his relationship falling apart, Holden began looking for other ways to fill the hole in his heart.
With an Oscar under his belt, Holden began earning a pretty penny from his acting jobs. In 1953, his work in The Moon Is Blue earned him a whopping $600,000, and he was still getting film offers left and right. While this was all well and good, his relationship with his wife was still on the rocks, so it wasn’t long before he strayed again.
This time, it happened during the filming of Sabrina, and the actress that captured his heart was none other than Audrey Hepburn.
During Sabrina, Holden fell hard for Hepburn. Later, he recalled, “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". Eventually, Holden got down on one knee and asked Hepburn to marry him, but in a surprise twist, Hepburn refused.
There was something that Hepburn wanted that Holden just couldn’t give her.
According to rumors, Hepburn wanted to have children of her own. Holden, having had a vasectomy, was no longer able to have children. Shortly after Sabrina completed filming, their affair fizzled out. Feeling guilty over this dalliance, Holden began to rely even more on drinking. And although he hid his domestic troubles well from the public, his relationship with his wife was already crumbling.
In 1954, Holden appeared in The Country Girl and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. In both films, he worked with a beautiful actress named Grace Kelly and soon fell head-over-heels in love with her. He began having an affair with her, but soon, Confidential magazine found out about it and ran an article about their illicit tryst. The article caused some damage to his career, but it didn’t stop him from taking things a step further with his new lady love.
In private, Holden and Kelly carried on with their affair, while publicly denying having a relationship with one another. Soon, Holden wanted more and asked Kelly for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately for Holden, this plan fell through. You see, Kelly was deeply religious, and Holden, in his own words, refused to “let any church dictate what I could do with my life".
Instead, Holden concentrated on his career, which led to his next big blockbuster.
One of Holden’s biggest pictures was 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film was a huge commercial success, and Holden made over $2.5 million from the film. At the time, this was one of the best deals ever for an actor to score. Now richer and more famous than ever, Holden began taking more and more film roles abroad. Eventually, he moved his entire family to Switzerland.
Needless to say, the move didn’t improve his relationship with his wife.
In the early 1960s, Holden left for Africa to film The Lion. This time, his female co-star was a French actress named Capucine. Unsurprisingly, Holden fell in love, and when his wife found out, she was angry. During one of his wife’s visits to the set in Africa, the two argued fiercely, which the crew guessed was due to his affair with the beautiful Capucine.
When filming for The Lion finished, Holden buried his guilt in the worst possible way.
Holden, who had to put a pause on drinking due to contracting hepatitis, went on a drinking binge. On top of that, he took any excuse he could to avoid being home, leaving his wife and kids behind for long periods of time. The emotional and physical strain began to take its toll on him, so much so that it started to affect his behavior on set.
Holden’s next few films struggled at the box office. Paris When It Sizzles, which came out in 1964, was especially rife with problems caused by Holden’s drinking. During production, a very tipsy Holden attempted to climb into Audrey Hepburn’s second-floor dressing room, but lost his grip and fell when he reached her window.
It was only by some miracle that Holden walked away from the fall alive—but he wasn’t quite so lucky for his next film.
During The Seventh Dawn, Holden’s onset shenanigans increased ten-fold. He once again starred alongside Capucine, and this time, he didn’t bother hiding his affair. Holden’s drinking also went off the rails. This led to a horrifying moment for Holden: his excessive imbibement caused him to collapse. They rushed him to Lausanne hospital in a semiconscious state, where both his wife and Capucine watched over him.
When Holden awoke, he had devastating news for his wife.
Holden told his wife that their marriage was over. He was done with romance, including the one he had with Capucine. He spent the next several years concentrating on his other interests—straightening out his health and reviving his film career. It wasn’t until 1972 that Holden found his next conquest, an actress named Stefanie Powers.
But even with a romance in the works, he never truly shook off his drinking problem. In the end, the bottle was his Achilles heel.
On November 12, 1981, after years of recognition for his successful films and charity work, Holden lost his life in the most heartbreaking way imaginable. While intoxicated in his apartment, Holden slipped on a rug and hit his head on a bedside table—but that wasn't the most disturbing part. According to forensic evidence, the actor remained conscious up to half an hour after the accident. While still aware and breathing, William Holden bled to death on the floor of his home.
Many grieved his passing, including his good friend, President Ronald Reagan. In accordance with Holden’s will, they cremated his remains and scattered his ashes into the Pacific Ocean with no fanfare whatsoever.
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