William Holden (born William Franklin Beedle, Jr.; April 17, 1918 – November 12, 1981) was an American actor who was one of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s through the 1970s. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1953 for his role in Stalag 17, and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in the 1973 television film The Blue Knight.

Holden starred in some of Hollywood's most popular and critically acclaimed films, including such masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, Picnic, and Network. He was named one of the "Top 10 Stars of the Year" six times (1954–1958, 1961), and appeared as 25th on the American Film Institute's list of 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Early life and career

Holden was born William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois, the son of Mary Blanche (née Ball; 1898–1990), a schoolteacher, and William Franklin Beedle, Sr. (1891–1967), an industrial chemist. He had two younger brothers, Robert and Richard. Holden's paternal great-grandmother, 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. After graduating from South Pasadena High School, Holden attended Pasadena Junior College, where he became involved in local radio plays. Contrary to legend and theatre publicity, he did not study at the Pasadena Playhouse, nor was he discovered in a play there. Rather, he was spotted by a talent scout from Paramount Pictures in 1937 while playing the part of an 80-year-old man, Marie Curie's father-in-law, in a play at the Playbox, a separate and private theatre owned by Pasadena Playhouse director Gilmor Brown. His first film role was in Prison Farm the following year.

A version of how he obtained his stage name "Holden" is based on a statement by George Ross of Billboard magazine: "William Holden, the lad just signed for the coveted lead in “Golden Boy”, used to be Bill Beadle. And here is how he obtained his new movie tag. On the Columbia lot is an assistant director and scout named Harold Winston. Not long ago he was divorced from the actress, Gloria Holden, but carried the torch after the marital rift. Winston was one of those who discovered the “Golden Boy” newcomer and who renamed him — in honor of his former spouse! ..."


Holden's first starring role was in Golden Boy (1939), costarring Barbara Stanwyck, in which he played a violinist-turned-boxer. He was still an unknown actor at the time, while Stanwyck was already a film star. She liked Holden and went out of her way to help him succeed, devoting her personal time to coaching and encouraging him, which made them into lifelong friends. When she received her Honorary Oscar at the 1982 Academy Award ceremony, Holden had died in an accident just a few months prior. At the end of her acceptance speech, she paid him a personal tribute: "I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish".

Next he starred with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in the Warner Bros. gangster epic Invisible Stripes later the same year, followed by the role of George Gibbs in the film adaptation of Our Town. After Columbia Pictures picked up half of his contract, he alternated between starring in several minor pictures for Paramount and Columbia before serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, where he acted in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit.

His career took off in 1950 when Billy Wilder tapped him to star in Sunset Boulevard, where he played a down-at-the-heels screenwriter who gets taken in by a faded silent-screen star, played by Gloria Swanson. Holden earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination with the part. Getting the part, however, was a lucky break for Holden, as the role was initially cast with Montgomery Clift, who backed out of his contract. Swanson later said, "Bill Holden was a man I could have fallen in love with. He was perfection on- and off-screen." And Wilder himself commented, "Bill was a complex guy, a totally honorable friend. He was a genuine star. Every woman was in love with him."

Following this breakthrough film, his career quickly grew in stature as Holden played a series of roles that combined good looks with cynical detachment, including a prisoner-of-war entrepreneur in Stalag 17 (1953), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a pressured young engineer/family man in Executive Suite (1954), an acerbic stage director in The Country Girl (1954) with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, a conflicted jet pilot in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a wandering college football star in Picnic (1955), a dashing war correspondent in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), his most widely recognized role as an ill-fated prisoner in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness, a World War II tug boat captain in The Key (1958), and an American Civil War military surgeon in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) opposite John Wayne.

Holden also played a number of sunnier roles in light comedy, such as the handsome architect pursuing virginal Maggie McNamara in the controversial Production Code-breaking The Moon Is Blue (1953) with David Niven, as Judy Holliday's tutor in Born Yesterday (1950), as a playwright captivated by Ginger Rogers' character in Forever Female (1953).

He co-starred as Humphrey Bogart's younger brother, a carefree playboy, in Sabrina (1954), played by Audrey Hepburn. It was Holden's third film with director Billy Wilder. Holden and Hepburn became romantically involved during the filming, unbeknown to Wilder: "People on the set told me later that Bill and Audrey were having an affair, and everybody knew. Well, not everybody! I didn't know.":174 The interactions between Bogart, Hepburn and Holden made shooting less than pleasant, however, as Bogart originally wanted his wife, Lauren Bacall, to play Sabrina. While Bogart was therefore not especially friendly toward Hepburn, who had little Hollywood experience, Holden's reaction was almost the opposite, and he became her "guardian angel," writes biographer Michelangelo Capua. Holden recalls their romance:

Before I even met her, I had a crush on her, and after I met her, just a day later, I felt as if we were old friends, and I was rather fiercely protective of her, though not in a possessive way.

Their relationship did not last much beyond the completion of the film. Holden, who was at this point dependent on alcohol, said, "I really was in love with Audrey, but she wouldn't marry me." A few months later, Hepburn fell in love and married actor Mel Ferrer

In 1954, Holden was featured on the cover of Life magazine. On February 7, 1955, Holden appeared as a guest star on I Love Lucy as himself. His career peaked in 1957 with the enormous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but Holden spent the next several years starring in a number of films that rarely succeeded commercially or critically. By the mid-1960s, the quality of his roles and films had noticeably diminished. A heavy drinker most of his life, Holden descended into alcoholism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later career

In 1969, Holden made a comeback when he starred in director Sam Peckinpah's graphically violent Western The Wild Bunch, winning much acclaim. Also in 1969, Holden starred in director Terence Young's family film L'Arbre de Noël, co-starring Italian actress Virna Lisi and French actor Bourvil, based on the novel of the same name by Michel Bataille. This film was originally released in the United States as The Christmas Tree and on home video as When Wolves Cry.

For television roles in 1974, Holden won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for his portrayal of a cynical, tough veteran LAPD street cop in the television film The Blue Knight, based upon the best-selling Joseph Wambaugh novel of the same name.

In 1973, Holden starred with Kay Lenz in movie directed by Clint Eastwood called Breezy, which was considered a box office flop.

Also in 1974, Holden starred with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the critically acclaimed disaster film The Towering Inferno, which became a box office smash and one of the highest-grossing films of Holden's career.

Two years later he was praised for his Oscar-nominated leading performance in Sidney Lumet's classic Network (1976), a prescient examination of the media written by Paddy Chayefsky, playing an older version of the character type he had become iconic for in the 1950s, only now more jaded and aware of his own mortality.

In 1980, Holden appeared in The Earthling with popular child actor Ricky Schroder, playing a loner dying of cancer who goes to the Australian outback to end his days, meets a young boy whose parents have been killed in an accident, and teaches him how to survive. During his last years, Holden also appeared in his second Irwin Allen film, When Time Ran Out, a critical and commercial failure and heavily disliked by Holden himself; his final film, Blake Edwards's S.O.B., was more successful and a Golden Globe-nominated picture.

In 1981 Holden was offered the role of Coach Daniel B. Delaney in That Championship Season. He became very depressed when filming was delayed, and drank even more heavily.

Personal life

Holden was best man at the wedding of his friend Ronald Reagan to Nancy Davis in 1952; however, he never involved himself in politics. While in Italy in 1966, Holden killed another driver in a drunk driving incident. He received an eight-month suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

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. His Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki (founded 1959) became a mecca for the international jet set. On a trip to Africa, he fell in love with the wildlife and became increasingly concerned with the animal species that were beginning to decrease in population. With the help of his partners, he created the Mount Kenya Game Ranch and inspired the creation of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. The Mount Kenya Game Ranch works to assist in Kenya with the wildlife education of its youth.

Marriage and relationships

Holden was married to actress Ardis Ankerson (stage name Brenda Marshall) from 1941 until their divorce (after many long separations) in 1971. They had two sons, Peter "West" Westfield (born November 17, 1943; died June, 2014) and Scott Porter (born May 2, 1946; died January 21, 2005, San Diego, California). He also adopted his wife's daughter, Virginia, from her first marriage. Holden was a distant cousin to news anchor and game show panelist, the late John Cameron Swayze through the family of 17th century British judge Samuel Swayze.

During the filming of Sabrina (1954), Audrey Hepburn and the already-married Holden became romantically involved. She hoped to marry him and have children, but she broke off the relationship when Holden revealed that he had undergone a vasectomy.

Holden met French actress Capucine in the early 1960s. The two starred in the films The Lion (1962) and The 7th Dawn (1964). They 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, which sparked her interest in animal welfare. After his death, Powers set up the William Holden Wildlife Foundation at Holden's Mount Kenya Game Ranch.


According to the Los Angeles County Coroner's autopsy report, Holden was alone and intoxicated in his apartment in Santa Monica, California, on November 12, 1981, when he slipped on a rug, severely lacerated his forehead on a teak bedside table, and bled to death. Evidence suggests he was conscious for at least half an hour after the fall. It is probable that he may not have realized the severity of the injury and did not summon aid, or was unable to call for help. His body was found four days later.

Holden had dictated in his will that the Neptune Society cremate him and scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. In accordance with his wishes, no funeral or memorial service was held.

For his contribution to the film industry, Holden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1651 Vine Street. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

In popular culture


  • Holden's stepdaughter, Virginia Holden Gaines, wrote a book, Growing Up with William Holden: A Memoir (2011), reliving her memories of life with her father.


1938Prison FarmPrisonerUncredited
1939Million Dollar LegsGraduate who says "Thank You"Uncredited
Golden BoyJoe Bonaparte
Invisible StripesTim Taylor
1940Those Were the Days!P.J. "Petey" Simmons
Our TownGeorge Gibbs
ArizonaPeter Muncie
1941I Wanted WingsAl Ludlow
TexasDan Thomas
1942The Fleet's InCasey Kirby
The Remarkable AndrewAndrew Long
Meet the StewartsMichael Stewart
1943Young and WillingNorman Reese
Reconnaissance PilotLt. 'Packy' Cummingsshort film, Uncredited
Wings UpHimselfshort film
1947Blaze of NoonColin McDonald
Dear RuthLt. William Seacroft
Variety GirlHimself
1948The Man from ColoradoCapt. Del Stewart
Rachel and the StrangerDavid Harvey
Apartment for PeggyJason Taylor
The Dark PastAl Walker
1949Streets of LaredoJim Dawkins
Miss Grant Takes RichmondDick Richmond
Dear WifeBill Seacroft
1950Father Is a BachelorJohnny Rutledge
Sunset BoulevardJoe GillisNominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Union StationLt. William Calhoun
Born YesterdayPaul Verrall
1951Force of ArmsSgt. Joe "Pete" Peterson
Submarine CommandLt. Cmdr. Ken White
1952Boots MaloneBoots Malone
The Turning PointJerry McKibbon
1953Stalag 17Sgt. J.J. SeftonAcademy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
The Moon Is BlueDonald Gresham
Die Jungfrau auf dem DachTouristcameo, Uncredited
Forever FemaleStanley Krown
Escape from Fort BravoCapt. Roper
1954Executive SuiteMcDonald WallingVenice Film Festival Special Award for Ensemble Acting
SabrinaDavid Larrabee
Samurai I: Musashi MiyamotoNarratorUncredited
The Bridges at Toko-RiLt. Harry Brubaker
The Country GirlBernie Dodd
1955Love Is a Many-Splendored ThingMark Elliott
PicnicHal CarterNominated – BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor
1956The Proud and ProfaneLt. Col. Colin Black
Toward the UnknownMaj. Lincoln Bond
1957The Bridge on the River KwaiShears
1958The KeyCapt. David Ross
1959The Horse SoldiersMajor Henry Kendall
1960The World of Suzie WongRobert LomaxNominated – Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1962Satan Never SleepsFather O'Banion
The Counterfeit TraitorEric Erickson
The LionRobert Hayward
1964Paris When It SizzlesRichard Benson/Rick
The 7th DawnMajor Ferris
1966Alvarez KellyAlvarez Kelly
1967Casino RoyaleRansome
1968The Devil's BrigadeLt. Col. Robert T. Frederick
1969The Wild BunchPike Bishop
The Christmas TreeLaurent Ségur
1971Wild RoversRoss Bodine
1972The RevengersJohn Benedict
1973BreezyFrank Harmon
1974Open SeasonHal Wolkowski
The Towering InfernoJim Duncan
1976NetworkMax SchumacherNominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor
1978FedoraBarry "Dutch" Detweiler
Damien: Omen IIRichard Thorn
1979Escape to AthenaPrisoner smoking a cigar in prison campUncredited
AshantiJim Sandell
1980When Time Ran OutShelby Gilmore
The EarthlingPatrick Foley
1981S.O.B.Tim Culley(Last appearance)
1955Lux Video TheatreIntermission Guestepisode: Love Letters
I Love LucyHimselfepisode: Hollywood at Last
1956The Jack Benny ProgramHimselfepisode: William Holden/Frances Bergen Show
1973The Blue KnightBumper MorganPrimetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
197621 Hours at MunichChief of Police Manfred Schreiber

Box office ranking

For a number of years exhibitors voted Holden among the most popular stars in the country:

  • 1954 – 7th (US)
  • 1955 – 4th (US)
  • 1956 – 1st (US)
  • 1957 – 7th (US)
  • 1958 – 6th (US), 6th (UK)
  • 1959 – 12th (US)
  • 1960 – 14th (US)
  • 1961 – 8th (US)
  • 1962 – 15th (US)

Radio appearances

1946Lux Radio TheatreMiss Susie Slagle's
1950"Boomer Jones""A production of the IAM"
1952Lux Radio TheatreSubmarine Command
1952Hollywood Star PlayhouseThe Joyful Beggar
1953Lux Radio TheatreAppointment with Danger
1953Lux Summer TheatreHigh Tor