He often played men who didn’t want to be heroes but couldn’t help themselves. Over his six-decade career, with starring roles in Stalag 17, The Wild Bunch, Picnic and The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden became famous for characters who represented the best an American man could be.
He could be just as strong and quietly courageous offscreen, too. Bill shared a warm, nurturing relationship with his adopted daughter, traveled to Africa to help save endangered animals, and even became an informant for the CIA at a crucial time in history. “Fame did not interest him,” the actor’s daughter, Virginia Holden Gaines, exclusively tells Closer in the latest issue, on newsstands now, adding that her father initially tried acting to cure his shyness.
At home, Virginia, who was adopted by Bill after he married her mother, Brenda Marshall, in 1941, blossomed with his love and support. “I felt like I could confide in him,” she says. “I particularly enjoyed when he was playful. He was a trained gymnast and we used to do acrobatics together.”
But even then, Bill had a reputation as a hard drinker. “His standard breakfast before leaving for the studio in the morning was a glass of vodka mixed with orange juice,” she says, noting that he joined AA in 1962 and sought sobriety on and off for the rest of his life.
By 1972, Bill and Brenda had parted and he began dating Hart to Hart actress Stefanie Powers, who wrote about their romance in her 2011 memoir One From the Hart. “Despite the differences in our ages, we shared many of the same curiosities about life,” Stefanie tells Closer. “We were soulmates. In six of the nine years that we were together, he was sober. It was a very meaningful time for both of us.”
The couple shared a respect for wildlife and traveled frequently to Africa. “We loved it. Being outdoors, sleeping under the sky, tracking animals,” Stefanie recalls. “It was a sort of real-life adventure.”
Bill confided to his love that he’d had other off-screen exploits too. “After the Korean War, there were parts of Southeast Asia Bill was interested in going to,” says Stefanie. “The CIA asked him that if he came across any interesting observations to contact them. The 1950s were filled with Cold War intrigue, and Bill was a part of it.”
In the last years of his life, Bill was doing some of his best work. In 1977, he received his third Oscar nomination for Network, but his grip on sobriety began to slip. “He had an apartment where he would go and drink. I was filming Hart to Hart in Hawaii. We had come back from location that Friday and he wasn’t returning my phone calls,” says Stefanie, who made several attempts to rouse him. But it was too late. Bill died on Nov. 12, 1981, bleeding out from a gash to his head he sustained while drinking.
A year later, Stefanie founded a wildlife conservatory in his name to carry on his legacy. “The organization is known as The William Holden,” says Stefanie. “That makes me laugh, and it certainly would have made him laugh, too, because he had a great sense of humor.”
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.