William Holden was a major American film star who perfected the role of the cynic who acts heroically in spite of his scorn or pessimism.
Holden was born William Franklin Beedle Jr. on April 17, 1918, in O'Fallon, Illinois. He was the son of William Franklin Beedle (1891–1967), an industrial chemist, and his wife Mary Blanche Ball (1898–1990), a schoolteacher. He had two younger brothers, Robert Westfield Beedle (1921–January 5, 1944) and Richard P. Beedle (1924–1964).
One of his father's grandmothers, Rebecca Westfield, was born in England in 1817, while some of his mother's ancestors settled in Virginia's Lancaster County after emigrating from England in the 17th century. His younger brother, Robert W. "Bobbie" Beedle, became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot and was killed in action in World War II, over New Ireland, a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific, on January 5, 1944.
His family moved to South Pasadena when he was three.
He did his schooling from the ‘South Pasadena High School’.
After completing high school he enrolled at the ‘Pasadena Junior College’ to study chemistry where he got involved in acting in different plays.
He was discovered by a Paramount Pictures talent scout and given the more glamorous surname “Holden.” Drawing on his muscular build and good looks, the studio assigned him the lead in the boxing melodrama Golden Boy (1939). The role was a challenge for the inexperienced young actor, who was tutored by costar Barbara Stanwyck in the basics of performing before a camera.
Columbia Pictures picked up half of his contract, and Holden alternated between the two studios, appearing in several forgettable films before serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. After the war, he continued to perform in what he referred to as “smiling Jim” parts.
Director Billy Wilder rescued Holden’s career by hiring him for the lead in Sunset Boulevard (1950). As Joe Gillis, the jaded screenwriter so desperate for a job that he becomes the gigolo of a faded silent-film star, Holden found his niche and turned in a strong performance as the cynical leading man. He went on to produce his strongest body of work during the 1950s in such films as Born Yesterday (1950), Stalag 17 (the film that earned for Holden the best actor Oscar for 1953), Sabrina (1954), The Country Girl (1954), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955), Picnic (1955), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
In later years Holden appeared in few films of quality. Those roles that do stand out from his later career—those of Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (1969), TV executive Max Schumacher in Network (1976), and hard-drinking film producer Tim Culley in Blake Edwards’s S.O.B. (1981; Holden’s final film)—captured a bit of Holden’s real-life bitterness and depression and added a tinge of melancholy to his screen image.
Holden’s death was especially unfortunate and probably quite unnecessary. Evidence suggests that after an evening of drinking, Holden suffered a severe laceration to his forehead during a household mishap. He remained conscious for at least half an hour after the accident but did not realize the severity of his injury and did not make the phone call that would surely have saved his life. He subsequently passed out and bled to death on November 12, 1981; his body was discovered some four days later.
Holden maintained a home in Switzerland and also spent much of his time working for wildlife conservation as a managing partner in an animal preserve in Africa.
"Aging is an inevitable process. I surely wouldn't want to grow younger. The older you become, the more you know; your bank account of knowledge is much richer."
"There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you're trying to be twenty-five."
"Gratitude based on a faith that everything that happens or doesn’t happen in your life is for your own best interests. That we live in a purposeful universe. Life is always for you; it is never against you. It is a fact that blessings sometimes come wrapped in fear, pain, and tears. In choosing to practice unconditional gratitude you are choosing to trust the process, to honor your feelings and to place your faith in an outcome of inevitable grace."
"Funny how gentle people get with you once you're dead."
"I don't really know why, but danger has always been an important thing in my life - to see how far I could lean without falling, how fast I could go without cracking up."
"I feel lousy about the pain that I've caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I'm beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it's closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features."
"For me, acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it."
"When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal. You're finished. We're finished. All of us."
"Movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work."
"Just one more word. If I ever run into any of you bums on the street corner, just let's pretend we never met before."
"In general, I don't care for scenes of copulation.Certain functions of the human body are bloody private."
"Hell is paved with good samaritans."
"She's television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows comes to her through the television set."
He founded Mount Kenya Safari Club with his business partners oil billionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann. The most elite private members' club in the world. Membership was by invitation only and members included Bing Crosby, David Lean, Charles Chaplin, Steve McQueen, Conrad Hilton, Winston Churchill and Man Singh II. Stefanie Powers and John Hurt still keep houses adjoining the club.
Mount Kenya Safari Club
In later years, Holden bitterly resented the studios’ exploitation of his physical appearance at the expense of his development as an actor.
He had a great muscular build and good looks.
Quotes from others about the person
When Holden died, President Ronald Reagan released a statement, saying, "I have a great feeling of grief. We were close friends for many years. What do you say about a longtime friend - a sense of personal loss, a fine man. Our friendship never waned."
Disillusioned with Hollywood, he spent much of his time and money supporting conservation efforts in Africa.
Holden was married to actress Ardis Ankerson (stage name Brenda Marshall) from 1941 until their divorce 30 years later, in 1971. They had two sons, Peter Westfield "West" Holden (1943–2014) and Scott Porter Holden (1946–2005). He adopted his wife's daughter, Virginia, from her first marriage with actor Richard Gaines.
During the filming of the film Sabrina (1954), costar Audrey Hepburn and he had a brief but passionate affair.
Holden met French actress Capucine in the early 1960s. The two starred in the films The Lion (1962) and The 7th Dawn (1964). They reportedly began a two-year affair, which is alleged to have ended due to Holden's alcoholism. Capucine and Holden remained friends until his death in 1981.
In 1972, Holden began a nine-year relationship with actress Stefanie Powers, and sparked her interest in animal welfare. After his death, Powers set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation at Holden's Mount Kenya Game Ranch.