Despite a long career in which he played a variety of roles—most notably in a string of hugely successful noirs—Alan Ladd will always be remembered for his role as the eponymous hero in “Shane” (1953). In this classic film, Ladd plays a strong, silent gunslinger who helps a frontier family defend their home against a gang of greedy ranchers. It was a terrific role that revived Ladd’s career. However, the good times were not to last. While onscreen the diminutive Ladd (he was only 5’6″) regularly triumphed over impossible odds and bigger opponents, in real life he was not so victorious. He battled alcohol, drugs, and depression before dying from a combination of the three in 1964.
Alan Walbridge Ladd was born on September 3, 1913, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Despite the aristocratic name, his childhood was brutally hard. His father, an accountant, died when Ladd was just four and his mother struggled with money and alcoholism. But Ladd was tough and self-disciplined. When his mother moved with him to California, the sunshine and opportunity to play sports inspired him to become a champion at track and swimming. He certainly did not look the part of an athlete, with his blond hair, blue eyes, and boyish frame, but he seriously trained for the Olympics until an injury cut him down. Another bad break came when his mother committed suicide, but Ladd, already developing the stoicism that would allow him to succeed as a film star, pushed ahead and decided to become an actor, although he had no real experience.
Ladd knocked around the fringes of Hollywood for most of the 1930’s, garnering small roles in films like “Pigskin Parade” (1936) and “Come on, Leathernecks” (1938), before marrying the agent Sue Carol. She gave him a son (Alan Ladd, Jr., who would become a major Hollywood executive) and made him a star, pushing him for the role of Raven, a hired killer, in “This Gun For Hire” (1942).
It was a breakout role: Ladd looked like a choirboy but had the killer instinct of Capone. His performance was nicely balanced by his co-star, Veronica Lake, another diminutive blond who acted much tougher than she looked. Although the two actors did not get along in real life, they had explosive chemistry on the screen and starred in several great films together, including “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946). The parallels between the two continued offscreen, as both battled alcohol and saw their stars decline after World War II. But while Lake never really got herself together again, Ladd got one more day in the sun with “Shane,” and the iconic American hero he portrayed in that film certainly shines as a lasting testament to his cinematic contribution.