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William Holden: Hollywood Icon

by Legacy Staff

William Holden went places. In movies and in life he was always on the move.

William Holden went places.

In movies and in life he was always on the move. From his first film role as an extra in Prison Farm in 1938, to his final notable role in Network (1976), he was a handsome, popular and talented actor. He won an Academy Award for best actor in 1953 for his role in Stalag 17. Introducing him on the Tonight Show in 1980, Johnny Carson said Holden “was never in a bad motion picture.”


Before foreign adventures were a way of life for Hollywood stars, Holden was an inveterate traveler, spending time in the Far East and maintaining homes in Palm Springs, Switzerland and Kenya in East Africa, where he was the co-owner of the Mount Kenya Safari Club. “He’s usually leaving for someplace or coming back from someplace,” Carson said.

Though he was married to Barbara Marshall for 30 years (1941 to 1971), he was also on the move in his romantic life, linked to such actresses as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Shelley Winters, just to name a few. After his marriage dissolved due to his affairs and alcoholism, he had a decade-long relationship with actress Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart) who shared his love of travel and particularly Africa.

In her memoir One From the Heart, Powers wrote, “Our attraction was undeniable, but Bill was from the old school and maintained a certain formality, even when he invited me to his house in Palm Springs. … He had a great eye for art, and his collection represented his life in the Far East as well as his love of Africa.”

Holden was born William Franklin Beedle Jr. in O’Fallon, Ill., the son of a schoolteacher and a wealthy industrial chemist. The family moved to California when he was 3. Holden, who always thought of himself as Bill Beedle, attended Pasadena Junior College, where he acted in radio plays.

After his first film role as an extra, in Prison Farm, he starred as a violinist/boxer in Golden Boy (1939) and had lead roles in a few other movies before he joined the U.S. Army Air Force and, as a second lieutenant, appeared in training films. One of his two younger brothers, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, was killed in World War II.

After his return to Hollywood he played screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950), which led to his first nomination for a best actor Oscar. Next came Stalag 17 (1953), Executive Suite (1954), The Country Girl (1954), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Sabrina (1954), Picnic (1955), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

During the next two decades he made lesser films but was notable in 1969’s The Wild Bunch. In the 1970s he appeared in several action movies including Towering Inferno and starred as a TV executive in Network in 1976. He won an Emmy in 1974 for his portrayal of a police detective in The Blue Knight. His final role was in the 1981 film S.O.B.

According to a story that appeared in the U.K.’s Daily Mail in 2011, Stefanie Powers, who was almost 25 years younger than Holden, was driving to the set of Hart to Hart when she heard on the radio that Holden had died. He was alone in his apartment when he slipped on a rug, hit his head and bled to death. He may or may not have been intoxicated.

After his death, Powers and friends established the William Holden Wildlife Foundation to continue his conservation efforts.

More facts about William Holden:

• Friend and director Billy Wilder said, “He was about the shyest actor I ever worked with, with the exception of Gary Cooper.”

• Many said that he drank to get up the courage to act.

• He was the best man at Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis’s wedding in 1952.

• Holden was the top box-office draw in 1956.

• He was an avid hunter until he shot an antelope on safari. After looking the graceful animal in the eye, he reportedly uttered, “I’ve just shot Audrey Hepburn.” He gave up hunting and became a wildlife conservationist.

• Powers refused to marry him until he gave up alcohol. “Drinking was, for him, a disease. But it didn’t stop him achieving some extraordinary things,” she said. They never married.


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+.

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