This week marks the 30th anniversary of the death of William Holden, an actor who typified the pre-1960s ideal of the American male, but whose insecurities and alcoholism plagued him throughout his four-decade career.
He was born into a family that didn’t want him to go into acting and, as if to punctuate the point, gave him the very un-Hollywood name of “William Beedle.” The name didn’t last long into the young actor’s career. When a studio scout discovered him, he said, “Beedle, huh? Sounds too much like an insect.”
He became William Holden, and he got his first break in 1939’s Golden Boy, a film with established stars Barbara Stanwyck and Lee J. Cobb. It was a big film for a newcomer and a minor hit, but at the age of 20, “Golden” Holden was too young to transition to traditional leading-man roles. Despite his auspicious start, he spent the next decade toiling in routine studio fare.
Holden was frustrated by his inability to break into bigger films. He was relegated to what he called “Smiling Jim” roles, where his good looks allowed him to smile his way out of on-screen trouble. “Good ole Smiling Jim,” he said. “I hate him.”
Speaking with Joel McCrea, one of his idols, he commented, “I’m too young to get good parts. I need lines in my face, like you and Coop.” McCrea replied: “They’ll come, Bill. They’ll come.”
The lines appeared soon enough, a byproduct of his natural aging process and his unnatural alcohol consumption.
Sober, Holden didn’t care to be the center of attention; he was shy. To perform he needed to relax his inhibitions and, for that, he turned to alcohol. Before he left home each morning, he called the set and asked his assistant to “Warm the ice cubes.”
Soon, his career began to warm up, too, catalyzed by the hard-edged Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard, which was released in 1950. Given the opportunity to play a well-rounded character with a top director, Holden broke out of his “Smiling Jim” roles and into Hollywood’s elite.
Over the next decade, Holden enjoyed a nearly unbroken—and unprecedented—string of hits. He proved adept at romantic comedy (Born Yesterday and Sabrina), action (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Bridges at Toko-Ri), drama (Picnic and The Country Girl) as well as the impossible-to-categorize Stalag 17 (AMC describes it as a “War/Comedy/Drama”).
For a decade, he was as big as any star in Hollywood, but it did little to attenuate his drinking. Wilder described him as a “a very tense man [who] drinks to pull himself together and to go on the set for the next scene.”
After a day of shooting, however, the drinking could get out of hand. Co-stars remember times when he would do hand stands on upper-story window-sills. On at least one occasion, Holden leapt out of a ten-story window, turned and caught himself before falling. To the horror of his co-stars, he dangled from the window, lifting finger-by-finger from the window sill until he hung by only two fingers. He was, according to Rosalind Russell, as “strong as an ox, stubborn as a monkey, and luckier than anything.”
But he wasn’t eternally youthful, and his hard-driving life-style caught up with him in the 1960s. His good looks gave way to a more haggard appearance, and stars such as Paul Newman, Peter O’Toole, and Steve McQueen became the matinee idols of the decade.
By the late 1960s, Holden’s career had stalled.The facial lines for which he had longed early in his career had indeed come, they settled and deepened and proliferated. One writer compared his face to a road map of the United States.
But even as his leading-man looks faded, Holden reinvented himself as a character star. With the genre busting The Wild Bunch (1969) and the prophetic Network (1976), Holden re-established himself as a Hollywood presence. Indeed, some of his best work came in such lesser-known films as the tragic The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), the poignant Wild Rovers (1971), the quirky Breezy (1973) and television’s gritty The Blue Knight (1973),all of which came after his matinee-idol days.
But even as he enjoyed his late-career activity, he couldn’t overcome his alcoholism. According to Holden biographer Bob Thomas, the actor’s addiction counselor told him he was going to die. “I know how it’s going to be,” Holden said. “Lonely, alone, without dignity.”
He was right.
On screen, Holden was a pro at death scenes. He was shot by a crazed femme fatale in Sunset Boulevard. In The Bridges of Toko-Ri, he died in uniform, defending his country. In the western The Wild Bunch, he died defending a long-forgotten code.
In real life, however, Holden’s death was far from the stuff of Hollywood.
On November 12, 1981, a drunken Holden slipped on a rug in his Santa Monica apartment, hitting his head on a night table. The blow left Holden with a severe cut, and it sent the table scuttling across the floor and, literally, into the wall. Apparently unaware of the severity of his injury, Holden tried to “treat” his wound with tissue. Over a 30 minute-period, he bled to death within a few feet of a phone.
“Killed by a bottle of vodka and a night table,” observed Billy Wilder. “What a lousy fadeout for a great guy.”