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Alan Ladd: A Small but Powerful Star

Getty Images / Moviepix / John Kobal Foundation

Alan Ladd: A Small but Powerful Star

Alan Ladd held a variety of odd jobs growing up –– picking fruit, delivering newspapers and sweeping floors. While making his way in Hollywood, he worked as a carpenter, radio actor, lifeguard and gas station attendant. But the job that eventually suited him most was playing bad guys in a new way –– winning instead of threatening: handsome, elegant, well-dressed and smooth talking.

“I have the face of an aging choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight,” he was widely quoted as saying.

Ladd, who died 50 years ago today, Jan. 29, 1964, was not just small, but also actually undernourished as a boy. Alan Walbridge Ladd was born in 1913 in Hot Springs, Ark. He lost his father at 4, then accidentally burned down his family's apartment building while playing with matches. His mother moved with him to Oklahoma City, where she remarried, and then to California. During those early years, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, there were periods of homelessness and hunger. In high school in North Hollywood, Ladd excelled at swimming, diving and track. After an injury caused him to give up sports, a teacher persuaded him to try acting, and he got a job after graduation at the Warner Brothers film studio as a grip for $42.50 a week, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website.

Initially turned down as an actor by movie studios, he played small parts in local radio productions, working his way up to national shows such as the Lux Radio Theater. While on radio he caught the ear of Hollywood agent Sue Carol. He landed many small roles (he appeared in 12 films in 1940) including one as a reporter in Citizen Kane in 1941. The next year he scored a more-significant role in Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire; he and Carol married that same year. (Previously he had been married briefly to a high school sweetheart with whom he had a son, Alan Ladd Jr.)

This Gun for Hire marked the beginning of a popular on-film pairing during the 1940s and '50s –– Ladd and Veronica Lake, a beautiful blonde femme fatale who, at 5 feet, 1 inch, was a good match for Ladd. No ramps, lifts or boxes were needed for their scenes together as they were for Ladd in his films with other leading ladies. Ladd and Lake appeared in seven films together, most memorably The Glass Key (1942) and the original The Blue Dahlia (1946).



Ladd starred in Saigon (1948, again with Lake) and played Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1949). He turned down a part in Giant in 1956 and went on to star in Shane (1953), which is listed among the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Westerns.



His last film, The Carpetbaggers (1964), was released after his death. It received five Academy Award nominations. Ladd was listed among the top 10 money-making actors in 1947, 1953 and 1954, according to Ladd, the Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd, a biography by Beverly Linet. (An earlier version was called Ladd: A Hollywood Tragedy.)

Ladd was just 50 when he died. Some suspicion arose that he might have committed suicide, but his death was ruled an accidental overdose.

Ladd was survived by Alan Ladd Jr. and his two children with Carol: son David Ladd and daughter Alana Ladd, who co-starred with him in Guns of the Timberland and Duel of Champions.

He is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
 

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.