In the 1940s, Alan Ladd became one of the most prominent names in Hollywood. A man who, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t born to be a star. Ladd’s path to stardom was anything but smooth sailing. Battered and bruised, both physically and mentally, Ladd still managed to take Hollywood by storm, leaving behind a legacy that is as tragic as it is impressive.
1. He Had A Traumatizing Childhood
Tragedy struck the Ladd household early on. In 1917, at four years old, Ladd experienced loss far too soon. He watched his father, who he shares a name with, collapse and succumb to a heart attack, leaving behind Ladd and his mother to fend for themselves. For the future actor, this event marked the first tragedy in a life full of struggle and uncertainty.
2. He Burned His House Down
From then on, disasters hit Ladd’s family one after the other. Soon after losing his father, like a scene straight out of a children’s PSA, Ladd burned down their apartment building while playing with matches. His mother had no choice but to take her son and move away, setting off on a journey that would leave Ladd with startling repercussions.
3. His Impoverished Childhood Haunted Him
Ladd’s early childhood was full of migration from one place to the other, and the conditions were absolutely grueling. His family decided to move to California in the early 1920s in search of a better life. Ladd recalled as an adult how he was always hungry as the family couldn’t even afford food on the road. In fact, the journey was so traumatizing that he likened it to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Sadly, this was just the beginning. His new home only promised more heartache.
4. His Classmates Gave Him A Mean Nickname
As the new kid in town, Ladd struggled to fit in at school. He fell a few grades behind due to his family’s move. Moreover, despite being the oldest kid in class, he suffered from malnourishment and had the smallest build. Therefore, his classmates came up with a mean-spirited nickname for him: They decided to call him “Tiny,” and incessantly taunted his physical appearance.
This would become an issue for him again later, but during his school days at least, Ladd had one silver lining to hold on to.
5. He Almost Became An Olympic Athlete
Things started looking up for Ladd during high school…for a short while, at least. At 16, his body was in better shape and he was winning awards for swimming and diving, prompting him to try out for the Olympics. Alas, during practice, Ladd suffered a head injury that knocked the ambition out of him and he quit the sport.
But even as Ladd struggled with the grim hand he’d been dealt, failing in sports led him straight to his destiny.
6. His First Entertainment Industry Job Was Triggering
After waving goodbye to his swimming career, Ladd managed to secure a job as a grip at Warner Bros. Unfortunately, his bad luck struck again. Soon after starting work, he fell off a scaffold and injured himself. This accident immediately brought back the traumatic memories of his swimming debacle, and as such, he quit the gig immediately.
However, he didn’t turn his back on the entertainment industry entirely. Instead, he decided to try his hand at acting.
7. He Lacked Something Crucial For A Film Star
Despite his talent, motion picture studios turned Ladd down because of his looks. His blonde hair and light skin didn’t translate well on camera, with Universal Pictures even citing that he was “too blonde.” To Ladd’s dismay, they dropped him only six months after signing him. Still, if there was one thing he had in spades, it was unrelenting determination.
To better his chances in the field, he set his sights on acting school. Having cultivated a thick skin, Ladd dove straight into the heart of the entertainment industry…at his own peril.
8. His Acting Teacher Didn’t Believe In Him
After a lot of struggle, and money borrowing, Ladd managed to go to acting school. Yet, much like his early school days after moving to California, his experience was depressing. His acting teacher said he was too quiet and that his voice was too high. Nonetheless, even with the odds stacked against him, Ladd found a way to stick to the acting world like glue.
He took all of the harsh criticism and ran with it. They said his voice was too high? Well, he’d just have to change that.
9. He Turned Criticism Into Motivation
Ladd’s hard work on his voice kick-started his acting career. Despite his acting teacher’s biting words, Ladd managed to build himself a career as a radio actor. He trained his voice into becoming rich and deep and found much success in the medium. He had finally made it to the starting line of the long path to stardom. Still, as bolstering as this success was, Ladd’s personal life was a total mess.
10. He Lived Apart From His First Wife
In 1936, Ladd married his high school sweetheart Jane “Midge” Harold, but their marriage was a turbulent one. The couple couldn’t afford to live together in the first year of their marriage, and by 1937, they started sharing a friend’s apartment. As uncomfortable as that was, an overcrowded apartment was about to be the least of their worries.
11. His Mother Spiralled Out Of Control
Ladd’s mother, Ina Raleigh, had terrible luck with relationships. After the passing of Ladd’s biological father, she married a house painter by the name of Jim Beavers. But Beavers also ended up meeting his end too soon, leaving Raleigh devastated and alone once again. In 1937, she got into another relationship that ended with a bad breakup.
By this time, Raleigh was in bad shape. While living with her son, she started exhibiting some wildly destructive behavior, until one day, the worst came to pass.
12. He Made A Terrible Choice
On November 29, 1937, Raleigh asked Ladd to lend her some money to buy something from the store. Ladd knew his mother was an alcoholic, but he didn’t think much of it. He gave her the money thinking she was probably just going to buy some more booze. Among all the bad decisions the actor would go on to make in his life, this one might be the worst.
13. He Lost His Mother In A Horrible Way
Before Ladd could take the next step in his career, his life came to a halt with the tragic passing of his mother. Raleigh used the money she borrowed from her son to buy ant poison. She sat down in the backseat of Ladd’s car and gulped the poison down, ending her life on the spot. But this horror show didn’t end there.
14. He Carried His Trauma with Him
In the end, it was Ladd himself who discovered his mother’s body in the backseat of his car. Poor Raleigh had endured a horrifically painful end, and her son knew it. This harrowing loss cultivated a trauma that Ladd would never be able to shake. Officially alone in the world, parentless and grieving, Ladd had no choice but to stand up and look to the future.
15. He Lost His Wife
Shortly after losing one of the most important women in his life, Ladd lost another. In 1941, after having one child together, Ladd and his wife Midge called it quits. Turns out, these high school sweethearts just couldn’t go the distance. It wasn’t long, however, before Ladd met someone new. But this time, there was more in it for him than just romance.
16. His Voice Allowed Him to Meet His Future Wife
After his divorce went through, Ladd met someone who would become instrumental to his success. A woman named Sue Carol heard Ladd on the radio, playing the roles of a father and son. She found the fact that one man could voice both parts very impressive and immediately asked to meet with Ladd. Luckily for both of them, this business meeting sparked more than just a passion for acting.
17. He Gained An Excellent Ally
Carol was Ladd’s senior in life and in the entertainment industry. A retired silent film actress turned talent agent, Carol was already equipped with plenty of experience and connections when she met Ladd. Shortly after meeting him, Carol signed Ladd to her agency and became his spokesperson in the industry. A few years later, she even married him.
It’s unclear though whether their marriage was a product of love or convenience, especially considering the epic affair Ladd pursued later in his life.
18. He Became Famous For Playing A Killer
Ladd made a name for himself in the industry by playing morally grey characters. The character Raven in the 1942 film This Gun for Hire was his breakout role. Raven is a cold-blooded hitman…who loves cats, is kind to children, and has a tragic backstory. Fans, film critics, and studios fell head over heels for this attractive anti-hero. After that, the roles just kept coming.
19. He Transformed The Gangster
Hitmen, gangsters, and gunslingers—Ladd made bad guys sexy. In fact, his New York Times obituary read, “That the old fashioned motion picture gangster with his ugly face, gaudy cars and flashy clothes was replaced by a smoother, better looking and better dressed bad man was largely the work of Mr. Ladd.” The 1940s were truly Ladd’s peak as an actor, that is, until WWII came knocking.
20. He Made Propaganda Films For The Army
Ladd’s career was put on pause when he was drafted for army service in 1943. He was part of the United States Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit. Such a mouthful, but it basically means the unit in charge of making propaganda and training films for the army. Luckily (kind of), Ladd’s army service didn’t last long.
21. He Escaped The Draft
An honorable discharge allowed Ladd to resume his acting career quickly, although the circumstances of it weren’t so pleasant for him. In October of the same year of his draft, the army deemed Ladd unfit for service due to stomach and digestive issues. By the time he was fit again for service, the draft had already ended.
Unluckily for him, although he escaped the army, he couldn’t escape one of his greatest fears.
22. He Had An Terrible Fear
For a guy who always played tough guys with guns, Ladd was pretty uncomfortable around firearms. The movie Shane featured a scene where Ladd demonstrates his shooting skills. Not only did he have to close his eyes to be able to do the demonstration, but it also took him 116 takes! Considering his fear of them, it’s ironic to think that, later on, these destructive tools played a part in Ladd’s most dangerous accident of all.
23. He Witnessed A Tragedy On Set
Speaking of accidents, the filming of Hell on Frisco Bay, one of Ladd’s later films, was a hot mess (no pun intended). Ladd was recovering from chickenpox which delayed filming, while his co-star Edward G. Robinson was dealing with some personal family troubles. However, when the real tragedy struck, it was so unexpected and heartbreaking, nobody wanted to believe it.
Louis Tomei, a stuntman filling in for Robinson in a fight scene, received a head injury that ended his life. For Ladd, this was the third fatal event that he bore witness to. And when it came to his involvement in bloody disasters, this wouldn’t be the last.
24. He Had A Long-Term On-Screen Partner
Above all, Ladd had exceptional chemistry with the alluring blonde bombshell, Veronica Lake. This was a famous on-screen pairing that led to four successful films. Ladd’s cold, calm, hyper-masculine, but also occasionally vulnerable characters perfectly foiled Lake’s attractive femme fatale roles. But the reason why these two were often partnered together was…rather peculiar.
25. He Was Super Short
You might recall that Ladd’s childhood nickname was “Tiny.” As an adult, Ladd’s build was still small. Sadly, his height became his biggest insecurity, hindering him throughout his career. He was 5 ft 6 in, which was considered too short for an actor. Enter: Veronica Lake. Luckily for him, Ms. Lake was only 4 ft 11 in, making Ladd look positively statuesque. The only problem was, most leading ladies towered over him.
26. He Gave Film Crews A Hard Time
All was well when Lake was Ladd’s co-star, but what if she wasn’t? Oftentimes, that was the case. Film crews had to build ramp systems, dig holes, and prepare mounds to adjust the disparity in height between Ladd and his co-stars. Whether it was his hair, his skin, his voice, or his height, Ladd’s career was full of criticism and judgment. His self-confidence took a major hit—and the consequences were downright heartbreaking.
27. He Hated His Appearance
Ladd’s physical appearance, no doubt, made establishing himself in the film industry difficult. And he was very aware of that. In 1961, an interviewer asked him a question: “What would you change about yourself if you could?” Ladd replied: “Everything.” He had a fragile ego that wasn’t easily inflated no matter how much he accomplished.
28. He Radiated Negative Energy
To say that Ladd was a humble actor would be an understatement. The man invented low self-esteem. His most famous quote was “I have the face of an aging choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight. If you can figure out my success on the screen you’re a better man than I.” This self-deprecation spoke to his negative self-image, and sometimes, it even caused him to make the most terrible decisions.
29. He Had Beef With His Employer
In 1945, Ladd had an argument with his studio that led to a three-month-long suspension. In August of that year, Ladd refused to report for work. He had asked Paramount for higher pay and their response was absolutely ruthless. They not only suspended him, but they also replaced him on the film he was shooting. The two parties made peace eventually, but at what cost?
30. He Was Afraid Of Losing His Job
Ladd always felt that he was standing on shaky ground. When Paramount ended his suspension, they agreed to pay him more, but they also rejected his request to work for other studios. Ladd acquiesced because he didn’t want to be “too difficult.” He wanted security. He said “when a star’s off the screen, he’s ‘dead’.” In an effort to maintain his popularity, Ladd ventured into unknown territory—he had to try something new.
31. He Was A One Trick Pony
When Ladd was cast to play Jay Gatsby in the on-screen production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Paramount was nervous. The role of Gatsby was a significant move away from the tough cool guys Ladd was used to playing. The results? A disastrous letdown. As expected, the film did not perform well at the box office and received mixed reviews.
It was also made clear that Ladd struggled with complex emotional roles.
32. He Lacked A Romantic Aura
While the smooth, well-dressed gangsters Ladd played were definitely popular, Paramount wished he would amp up the passion. Paramount wanted Ladd to exude more flirtatious energy, however, Ladd simply wasn’t capable of leaning into his romantic side. He was too rigid, too serious, and so overwhelmingly cynical—that even his co-stars struggled to get along with him.
33. His Co-Stars Found Him Awkward
Fellow actors felt that Ladd was too unapproachable. Loretta Young, who starred in a 1943 film with Ladd, talked about the serious aura that always surrounded him, and how she never saw him laugh. It was almost impossible to interact with him outside of filming. Even worse, Young was also privy to Ladd’s self-consciousness problem…and it wasn’t pretty.
34. He Was A Horrible Heartthrob
Ladd’s low self-esteem was common knowledge because it affected the way he acted. Describing working with him, Young said “I think he was very conscious of his looks. Alan would not look beyond a certain point in the camera because he didn’t think he looked good.” There was such great dissonance between the men he played on camera and the man he was in real life.
Putting the romantic awkwardness aside, Ladd tried to focus on what he liked best—action scenes. But as Ladd soon learned, working in one’s comfort zone wasn’t necessarily risk free.
35. He Took A Brutal Blow The Head
Ladd starred in a lot of westerns and film noirs, so fight scenes tended to be a common occurrence in his films. But while filming a particular film in 1942, The Glass Key, one fight scene got a little too real. Ladd’s co-star, William Bendix, had planned to fake punch him but he accidentally made contact, leaving Ladd unconscious. Fortunately, this was one accident in Ladd’s life that actually had positive consequences.
36. He Formed An Unexpected Friendship
While many of his co-stars had a hard time befriending Ladd, there were some rare cases of surprising friendships. After knocking Ladd unconscious on the set of The Glass Key, Bendix felt horrible and apologized to Ladd profusely multiple times. Ladd was extremely touched by his sincerity, and an unlikely friendship formed. Against all odds, Ladd managed to make some rare connections.
And then in 1955, he made the most intimate connection of all.
37. He Had An Affair With His Fake Wife
Ladd and actress June Allyson were playing husband and wife in the 1955 film The McConnell Story when their onscreen chemistry turned into an offstage romance. The two had an affair on set, and before he knew it, Ladd had fallen deeply in love. Sadly, their romance was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Although both parties enjoyed their time together, they weren’t exactly on the same page.
38. His Lover Didn’t Reciprocate His Love
The McConnell Story affair left Ladd heartbroken. Ladd was willing to leave his wife, Carol, for Allyson, but she didn’t feel the same. Allyson loved her husband, Dick Powell, too much. On top of that, both parties had children with their respective spouses, and by the end, Ladd had no choice but to admit defeat. Therefore, it was no surprise that they denied all rumors; they didn’t want to hurt their respective spouses.
But when it came to Ladd’s misfortune, this particular breakup was only the cherry on top.
39. He Was A Walking Disaster
Right before filming on The McConnell Story began, Alan Ladd tripped in the shower and broke a rib. But this wasn’t an isolated incident. Ladd was awfully accident-prone. He was almost always injured or suffering from some kind of disease. A year earlier, he’d shot two back-to-back films. During the first shoot, he hurt his hand really badly, and over the course of the second film, he had a terrible infection. The man was a certified hot mess.
But did he let these injuries get in the way of his job? Absolutely not.
40. His Work Ethic Was Disturbingly Impressive
Ladd never allowed a wound or illness to disrupt shooting. During his two 1954 films, he forged on despite his injuries and infections. In a sense, his work ethic was truly amazing. But on the other hand, he didn’t take good care of himself. And it wasn’t just his body that he did a bad job taking care of. By the time he passed his peak, his mental health teetered precariously on the edge, and tragically, he wandered down a perilous path.
41. His Career Hit A Stand Still
In the 50s and 60s, Ladd’s career was in decline and his bad decision-making just made everything worse. His contract with Paramount ended and he reluctantly left the studio. He starred in a number of films after that but, as an independent actor, he had a major flaw: his material choosing instincts were abysmal. This caused him to miss out on some killer roles—unrivaled opportunities that definitely left Ladd swimming in regret.
42. He Made More Bad Decisions
Ladd passed on some projects that ended up turning into great successes with big names. He turned down an offer to play a role in the 1956 film Giant because it wasn’t the lead. But guess who wasn’t so picky? James Dean. He took the role and enjoyed enormous success with the film. Ouch. Another big hit he missed out on was The Sons of Katie Elder. Of course, the role went to another heavy-hitter, John Wayne.
Disappointments were piling up and Ladd’s mental health was in dire jeopardy, yet he still managed to find some success overseas.`
43. He Took On A Sensitive Role
When Ladd went to the UK in the 1950s to star in a film, he had to tread very carefully. The British audience was unhappy with having an American star in a British film about WWII. The rejection of this idea stemmed from Britain’s disdain for the widely accepted American belief that Americans had single-handedly won the conflict.
To deal with this apprehension, Ladd adopted an interesting strategy.
44. He Became Canadian For A Film
To avoid angering his British viewers, Ladd told the media his character was Canadian, not American. He explained, “The story is of a Canadian [i.e. of the British Commonwealth and not an American] who joins the British Paratroopers in order to learn, not teach the job. All the big decisions in the film are made by the British.” The desperation was palpable, and even then, his success was short-lived.
45. He Was A Troubled Man
Back home from his British adventure, Ladd’s demons crept up on him. He suffered from insomnia and relied heavily on drugs and booze to help him sleep. Alcoholism had been a longtime battle, and now, he felt himself sinking into his dependency. He didn’t think much of his mother’s reliance on intoxication to deal with her troubles, and, as an adult, he mirrored her behavior.
The pressures of his career, and his extra fragile nature, took him down a path that was bound to have dire consequences.
46. He Had A Near-Fatal “Accident”
In 1962, Ladd almost lost his life to another alleged freak accident. He was found in his home, gruesomely lying in a pool of his own blood. A bullet was found lodged in his chest, frighteningly close to heart; it had pierced his lungs and rebounded off his ribcage. When officers came upon this gory sight, they feared the worst.
47. He Had An Unbelievable Story
Thankfully, Alan Ladd survived this ordeal, and when the authorities questioned him, he had one heck of a story to tell: He claimed that he suspected a burglar had entered his house, so he grabbed a gun and went looking for them. Unfortunately, halfway through his investigation, he tripped, accidentally shooting himself.
The officers on sight accepted his story, but many suspected that the actor made it all up. Most of all, they believed that the accident had been a failed attempt on his own life.
48. His Last Role Was Very Ironic
Ladd’s last role was Nevada Smith in the 1964 film The Carpetbaggers. This role was extremely meta in its resemblance to Ladd’s real life. In the movie, Smith becomes popular for portraying cowboys in westerns. His career, however, quickly witnesses a decline, much like Ladd’s career at the time, until his popularity becomes practically extinct. But that wasn’t all.
49. He Had Some Belated Success
What’s even more ironic about The Carpetbaggers is that it was a huge success. The film placed fourth on the list of the highest-grossing films of 1964. In fact, it was so popular that a prequel about Nevada Smith, who was played by Ladd, was announced shortly after. Unfortunately, a terrible tragedy intercepted Ladd’s glowing comeback.
50. His Demise Was As Tragic As His Life
In January of 1964, Alan Ladd accidentally overdosed, passing due to cerebral edema. The cause? A lethal interaction of the sleeping pills he was taking for his insomnia mixed with booze. Ladd was only 50 years old when he passed, but before his untimely passing, he managed to leave an indelible mark on Hollywood. Even more? He made sure his kids were set for life.
51. He Established The Ladd Dynasty
Ladd’s life and rise to stardom gave birth to one of the most prominent families in showbiz. In an interview, his son, David commented on how a lot of his family members became a part of the industry thanks to his father. He said, “It’s like living in Detroit and working in the auto business.” Variety called the Ladds “a true dynasty” in Hollywood in acknowledgment of their contribution to the business.