William Franklin Beedle, Jr. was born in O'Fallon, Illinois in 1918. 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. 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 in a small private theatre. His first film role was in Prison Farm the following year.
He was renamed William Holden after his talent scout Harold Winston's ex-wife, Gloria Holden. Holden's first starring role was in Golden Boy (1939), costarring Barbara Stanwyck, in which he played a violinist-turned-boxer. This gave him the eternal nickname in Hollywood of "Golden Boy."
After a few more film roles and a stint in the army during World War II, he made his name known when he landed the quintessential role in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). Initially the role was to go to Montgomery Clift, but luckily Holden snagged it, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
He is also well known as Humphrey Bogart's younger brother, a carefree playboy, in Sabrina (1954), co-starring with Audrey Hepburn. It was Holden's third film with director Billy Wilder, and off-camera Holden and Hepburn became romantically involved during the filming, unbeknownst to Wilder. The relationship didn't last long, as Holden's alcoholism was deepening, and Hepburn fell in love and married actor Mel Ferrer. Holden alludes to the idea that she dismissed his proposal, but this is not proven. However, Hepburn's desire to have children and the fact that Holden had a vasectomy could have been the major cause of the breakup.
His career began to decline as his alcoholism got worse, leading him to take on more television and miniseries roles. While in Italy in 1966, Holden killed another driver in a drunk driving incident. He received an eight-month suspended sentence for vehicular manslaughter. In 1973, Holden starred with Kay Lenz in movie directed by Clint Eastwood called Breezy, which was considered a box office flop.
But 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.
As he aged he began to take on older roles, but after many failures and disappointments professionally (including film delays and another flop), his depression grew and he drank more heavily. He spent much of his later time as co-owner of the Mount Kenya Safari Club, dividing his time between Africa and Switzerland.
On November 12, 1981, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner's autopsy report, Holden was alone and drunk in his apartment in Santa Monica, California. Reports concluded that Holden 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 contact anyone to help him, or perhaps he was unable. His body was found four days later.