William Holden was still a student at Pasedena Junior College when a Paramount representative spotted him in a school production and put him under contract in 1937. The young actor started out modestly with bit parts in “Prison Farm” (1938) and “Million Dollar Legs” (1939), but his luck, and life, changed when he secured the lead role in the Columbia screenplay adaptation of Clifford Odet’s play “Golden Boy” (1939), costarring Barbara Stanwyck. Holden’s portrayal of Joe Bonaparte, a sensitive musician-turned-prizefighter, won him unanimous praise and spawned a lucrative box-office career that spanned more than three decades.
A string of leading-man roles followed “Golden Boy,” including “Our Town” and “Arizona” in 1940, “I Wanted Wings” and “Texas” in 1941, “The Remarkable Andrew,” “Meet the Stewarts,” and “The Fleet’s In” in 1942, and “Young and Willing” in 1943 until Holden put his acting career on hold to serve with the Army during World War II where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. The leave of absence did nothing to dampen Holden’s power at the box-office, and in 1947 he returned to the screen in John Farrow’s “Blaze of Noon.”
During the late forties, Holden honed his talent in films across a broad range of genres from comedies to dramas to thrillers to Westerns, but it was his Oscar®-nominated portrayal of the weak-willed hack screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) that marked his maturity as an actor and is considered one of his finest performances among critics and fans alike. Wilder continued to tap into Holden’s darker side and, in 1953, cast him in the Grandaddy of all World War II films, “Stalag 17.” Holden’s finely crafted charaterization of the cynical, hard-edged seargent who may or may not be an informant won him his only Academy Award.
Holden continued to star in top grossing films throughout the fifties, including such screen gems as “Executive Suite” (joining him again with Stanwyck), “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” “Sabrina,” and “The Country Girl” in 1954, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Picnic” in 1955, and “Toward the Unknown” and “The Proud and the Profane” in 1956. In 1957, Holden negotiated a first-ever deal with Columbia to become part-owner in his next film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” directed by David Lean. The film was hugely successful, thus adding another layer, that of a shrewd businessman, to Holden’s formidible list of talents.
Among Holden’s more memorable roles of his later career are his portrayal of an aging outlaw in Sam Peckinpah’s bloody Western “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and his performance as a jaded TV executive in the black comedy “Network” (1976) written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. Holden also won an Emmy award in 1973 for his role in the TV-movie “The Blue Night.”