April 17 marks the 100th birthday of William Holden, who is ranked No. 25 on AFI’s list of all-time great leading men. Since he had classic good looks, an expressive voice, and was an excellent actor who starred in some of Hollywood’s most memorable movies, why wasn’t he even higher on the list? Maybe because Holden had a special talent for always making his co-stars look so good.
He starred in many hit films opposite actors who had flashier roles: Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday,” Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina,” Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl,” Alec Guinness in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” and Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch in “Network.” Significantly, many of these actors won Oscars for their work. They gave great, showy performances, but Holden was the anchor of the films. It’s hard to think of another leading man who was equally magnetic and self-effacing.
Holden won an Oscar for his second collaboration with Billy Wilder, the 1953 “Stalag 17.” He also starred in such iconic films as “Our Town,” “Picnic,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Towering Inferno.” And he did great TV work: He played himself in one of the funniest episodes of “I Love Lucy,” when she and Ricky go to Hollywood; and he won an Emmy for the 1973 “The Blue Knight.”
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Holden was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in Illinois, and his family moved to Pasadena when he was a kid. On April 4, 1939, Variety reported, “William Holden, Paramount contractee, yesterday was set by Columbia for title role in ‘Golden Boy.'” It was a high-profile project for an unknown, since it was based on a Clifford Odets play and starred Barbara Stanwyck. Columbia claimed 3,000 actors had been seen by Hollywood and New York talent execs for the role; the report stated, “Holden, 21, was discovered recently in a little Pasadena theater by Artie Jacobson, Par talent executive.”
In those days, studios signed actors to long-term contracts, and would sometimes loan them out to other studios. The Variety Archives show an article from Oct. 30, 1939, headlined “New Faces of Year”; it said Holden was “one of the best examples of the loan-out advantage to player and studio,” since he became a star at Columbia but subsequently worked for his home studio, Paramount.
Holden continued to work steadily for the next decade, but Hollywood often had no idea what to do with him. The actor’s second major breakthrough occurred when Wilder cast him in the lead of the 1950 “Sunset Boulevard” after Montgomery Clift dropped out. The April 19, 1950 review said Holden and Gloria Swanson were “exceptionally fine. Holden’s stock within the industry should mount after there has been a general viewing of his standout job as the young writer, enmeshed with an old woman.” (For the record, “old woman” Swanson was 51 when the film was released.)
On Aug 16, 1950, Variety reported that producers Charles Brackett and Wilder had tried three different finales, including one with a happy ending, but agreed to the present one, “which has William Holden dead and Miss Swanson being carted off to a booby hatch.”
Holden had a series of hits in the 1950s, including movies like “Sabrina,” where he was just required to be charming and likable. But his best roles offered him a chance to be sympathetic while showing his dark side; he was an expert at playing post-WWII disillusionment, characters with self-doubt (even self-loathing) and cynicism who could still maintain integrity.
Those qualities were also on good display in “The Wild Bunch.” On July 2, 1969 Warner Bros. 7 Arts (known as W7) held a massive press junket for several films on Grand Bahama Island. Getting the most reaction was the Sam Peckinpah-directed Western, which Variety described as “maybe the most violent U.S. film ever made.” Some reporters were aghast. Asked about the film, Peckinpah said with a straight face, “No, I don’t like violence. In fact, when I look at the film myself, I find it unbearable. I don’t think I’ll be able to see it again for five years.”
But the final word went to Holden. Asked why he would participate in such a film, the actor said “I just can’t get over the reaction here. Are people surprised that violence really exists in the world? Just turn on your TV set any night. The viewer sees the Vietnam war, cities burning, campus riots.”
In real life, as in films, Holden could be cynical, logical and likable at the same time.