The son of a chemical analyst, American actor William Holden plunged into high school and junior college sports activities as a means of "proving himself" to his demanding father. Nonetheless, Holden's forte would be in what he'd always consider a "sissy" profession: acting. Spotted by a talent scout during a stage production at Pasadena Junior College, Holden was signed by both Paramount and Columbia, who would share his contract for the next two decades. After one bit role, Holden was thrust into the demanding leading part of boxer Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy (1939). He was so green and nervous that Columbia considered replacing him, but co-star Barbara Stanwyck took it upon herself to coach the young actor and build up his confidence -- a selfless act for which Holden would be grateful until the day he died. After serving as a lieutenant in the Army's special services unit, Holden returned to films, mostly in light, inconsequential roles. Director Billy Wilder changed all that by casting him as Joe Gillis, an embittered failed screenwriter and "kept man" of Gloria Swanson in the Hollywood-bashing classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Wilder also directed Holden in the role of the cynical, conniving, but ultimately heroic American POW Sefton in Stalag 17 (1953), for which the actor won an Oscar.
Holden became a man of the world, as it were, when he moved to Switzerland to avoid heavy taxation on his earnings; while traversing the globe, he developed an interest in African wildlife preservation, spending much of his off-camera time campaigning and raising funds for the humane treatment of animals. Free to be selective in his film roles in the '60s and '70s, Holden evinced an erratic sensibility: For every Counterfeit Traitor (1962) and Network (1976), there would be a walk-through part in The Towering Inferno (1974) or Ashanti (1978). His final film role was in S.O.B. (1981), which, like Sunset Boulevard, was a searing and satirical indictment of Hollywood. But times had changed, and one of the comic highlights of S.O.B. was of a drunken film executive urinating on the floor of an undertaker's parlor. Holden's death in 1981 was the result of blood loss from a fall he suffered while alone.