- Jackie Cooper, What A Life, 1939. The only time Bill Holden was Billy Wilder's first choice... it was for the most unpopular guy at Central High!
- Ronald Reagan, KnuteRockne All American, 1939. “Win one for The Gipper” is one of the lines in US cinema. And, good grief, Ronnie Reagan made it happen! Trying to rev up a fast imploding career (he was always stuck as the hero’s best pal), Reagan suggested that Jack Warner should film the story of Knute, the legendary Notre Dame football coach. “And I could play George Gipp.” You're too small! Reagan promptly produced an old photo of him playing college football: he was actually bigger than Gipp. Bye bye Holden, Robert Cummings, Dennis Morgan, Robert Young. Oh, and John Wayne. Not long before Reagan was telling Holden: "Politics is a wonderful second career. You ought to try it."
- Dick Powell, Christmas In July, 1939. Holden and Betty Field were first choices for the struggling young couple in one of the finest Preston Sturges films, first written as a play in 1931.
- John Payne, El Paso, 1948. Holden passed the average Western drama to the musical-turned-action star. In 1955, Payne was also the first - indeed, the only - Hollywood actor to option a James Bond book and plan a cinema franchise.
- Farley Granger, Strangers On A Train, 1950. Alfred Hitchcock’s first choice for the tennis star being offered an exchange murder deal by Robert Walker. “You do my murder, I do yours.” The original ending (put back in Warner’s 75th anniversary DVD) had Granger being recognised by another stranger on another train… Raymond Chandler’s rejected script had the criss-cross killer arrested and writhing in a straight jacket. Sound familiar?
- Van Heflin, Shane, 1952. A little young (eight years younger than Heflin) for the rancher helped by the traditional Western loner: Montgomery Clift at the time. Alan Ladd was an afterthought. Shot during July-October 1952, the release was delayed due to director Geroge Stevens’ lengthy editing and Paramount losing faith… until Howard Hughes tried to buy it. At age six, Billy Crystal was taken to the movie by his babysitter - Billie Holliday! When the kid kept calling “Come back, Shane” as Ladd rode off at the end, her voice of bitter experience declared: “He ain’t never comin’ back!”
- Gene Barry, War of the Worlds, 1952. The directors changed more than actors: Hitchcock, Cecil B DeMille, finally Byron Haskin.
- Desi Arnaz, The Long, Long Trailer, 1953. Lucille Ball and Arnaz were beaten to the rights by MGM which refused to star the top TV duo, Arnaz and Lucille Ball. “No one will pay to see TV stars they get at home for free.” Hah! The comedy was one of the year’s major hits. And really put Redman’s New Moon Trailers on the map. A 1954 re-hash was thwarted by the divorce of the proposed stars: Rosanne Barr and Tom Arnold.
Tom Ewell, The Seven Year Itch, 1954.
Although Ewell won a Tony for the Broadway role, director Billy Wilder could think only of Walter Mathau for the New Yorker bemused and bedazzled by his neighbour: Marilyn Monroe. Except Matthau was unknown. Hence some stupid notions from Wilder and Darryl Zanuck, until the head Fox saw sense. “If I had read the script at the time we were casting, I’d never have recommended William Holden or anybody else except Tommy Ewell. No one I can think of can play this particular script… Holden would have been as big an error as Gary Cooper.” And he didn’t have to add that James Stewart would have been, well, simply embarrssing! Holden made Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Stalag 17, Sabrina and Fedora during 1949-1953. Wilder still considered him for a sadsack - this underestimated, unhappy, insecure, proud, complex Holden, “a totally honorable friend who died too young ”
- Henry Fonda, Mister Roberts, 1954. From the outset, Warner Bros agreed that Fonda, the star of 1,600 Broadway performances, was the “only man thought of for the title role.” Sure, but he was like, kinda too old… and had not been seen since John Ford’s Fort Apache in 1948. And so, Doug Roberts was first offered to to Holden. Being no fool, he passed - “Fonda owned it!”
Next target: Marlon Brando! And Tyrone Power. Ford only agreed to direct if the studio OK’d Fonda who, like Ford, had served in the US Navy during WWII, not to mention six other Ford films. Also backing Fonda was producer Leland Heyward – Hank’s agent, now wed to his’s ex-wife Margaret Sullavan. Fonda never knew Ford had fought the studio for him - particularly when, during the shooting, Ford fought with him, knocking Fonda on his elegant butt... before quitting. Josh Logan finished the film.
- John Forsythe, The Trouble With Harry, 1955. Alfred Hitchcock (or Paramount) aimed to reprise the 1954 team from The Bridges At Toko-Ri: Grace Kelly and Holden.
- Rock Hudson, Giant, 1955.
- Frank Sinatra, The Man With The Golden Arm, 1955. “We suggest you dismiss any further consideration of this material for a motion picture to be made within the Code, ” insisted the Production Code suits. That is when John Garfield owned the drug drama book. Three years after his shock early death, producer-director Otto Preminger battled the Code - with Holcen, Marlon Brando - or Sinatra. Marlon's agent was slow in passing him the script, Sinatra read quicker - most of it - and snapped it up.
- John Wayne, Blood Alley, 1955. Robert Mitchum was fired by William Wellman director of his first big hit, The Story of GI Joe, 1945. “He’s my favourite actor,” said Wild Bill. “He was on dope, always walking about six inches off the ground. He punched... one of the drivers, knocked him into the bay, goddam nearly killed him.” Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck were unavailable, Kirk Douglas was working. Burt Lancaster was “no dice” and Fred MacMurray “not big enough.” And so producer John Wayne sang the old song. “Aw, shucks, suppose I’ll have to do it.” Mitchum said only Louella Parsons told the true story. “And they killed her column. The transportation boss weighed 300 lbs. I was supposed to have picked him up and thrown him in the bay. No way.” The truth? “I think Duke Wayne was renegotiating his Warners contract... They agreed, provided he did one more film on his old contract. ‘Wal, we got that picture up at San Raphael.’ Duke [on his honeymoon] said: ‘No, Mitchum’s doing that.’ ‘Was!’ That was the end of that.”
- Burt Lancaster, The Rainmaker, 1956. Bing Crosby wanted to be Bill Starbuck, the studio wanted Holden - but tested Elvis! Soon as the news broke about Holden fleeing the coop, Lancaster proposed a deal with producer Hal Wallis. Burt agreed to be Wyatt Earp in Gunfight At The OK Corral, 1956, if he could also become Bill Starbuck. He smelled Oscar in the air. He was wrong. Only his co-star, Katharine Hepburn, and composer Alex North were nominated.
- Frank Sinatra, The Man With The Golden Arm, 1956. Explosive director Otto Preminger's reserve if he couldn't land Brando or Sinatra.
- Tyrone Power, Witness For The Prosecution, 1956. Simply unavailable. Besides, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton had the peachier parts. Also in the Billy Wilder mix: Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, William Holden, Gene Kelly, Jack Lemmon, even Roger Moore… Power agreed, passed, and then accepted $300,00 each for two Edward Small productions: this Agatha Christie number from Billy Wilder and Solomon and Sheba - which killed him in 1958.
- Trevor Howard, The Roots of Heaven, 1958. Producer Darryl Zanuck wanted Holden for Morel, possibly the screen's first conservationists. Not available. Despite his love of Africa. Howard was a rare John Huston casting error.
- Dean Martin, Rio Bravo, 1958.
- Paul Newman, Rally ’Round The Flag, Boys! 1958. Something of a comic genius, Leo McCarey directed all the greats, from Laurel and Hardy to the brothers Marx. Now, he seemed determined to make a comedy without funny people. Hence thoughts about Holden and Richard Widmark before booking Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, who are to slapstick what Jerry Seifnfeld is to Shakespeare. Newman made it worse by trying to (over)act funny instead of playing it straight as per Jack Lemmon. Embarrassing!
- Dean Martin, Career, 1958. Producer Hal Wallis bought the James Lee play for Holden and Bette Davis as the friend and agent of Anthony Franciosa’s Sammy Glick-style actor willing to do anything for succes. This was Dino’s fifth straight role after the collapse of Martin & Lewis comedy duo.
- Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry, 1959. He gave up any Giant leaps for Holdenkind when trying to persuade MGM to back him as Sinclair Lewis’ fast talking, hard drinking traveling salesman turned preacherman. UA made the movie with Lancaster after the near fatal accident of first choice Pat Hingle.Burt got an Oscar. Pat got a full year of learning to walk again.
- Fess Parker, The Jayhawkers, 1959. Holden passed, giving TV's Davy Crockett his best Western movie.
- Yul Brynner,Solomon and Sheba,1959. Producer Edward Small wanted one star for two movies: Witness For The Prosecution and Solomon… After Ty Power died during the 1958 filming (his father also died filming in 1931), Holden was contacted again. Unavailable. (Power was the original choice for Holden's 1939 breakthrough inGolden Boy).
- Cary Grant, North By Northwest, 1959. Now he was Alfred Hitchcock's reserve - as Cary kept saying he'd had enough and was retiring. He then postpone dhis departure for another six films over seven years
- Montgomery Clift, Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959. Producer Sam Spiegel never really wanted to see Clift again. “I don’t want to be near him.” Not after the Denny’s Hideaway steak house incident during the River Kwai casting, when Monty actor mixed pills and creme de menthe, spoke in non-sequiturs (“the sky is blue” ) and fell, not into his cups, but into Betty Spiegel’s lap. “He could not move. It was as if he was numb. Sam preferred his River Kwai star, but couldn’t ”Spiegel” (ie cajole, manipulate or con) Holden into agreeing
- Frank Sinatra, Ocean’s 11, 1959. Frank Sinatra and his Clan took over the Las Vegas heist number, but it was his UK Clanster Peter Lawford who had bought the rights in 1958. He’d been told about it by director Gilbert Kay, who in turn - get this - had first heard the premise from a gas attendant. Lawford wanted Holden as Danny Ocean. Until Frankie, Sammy, Joey, Dino, moved in. Sinatra’s initial reaction: was: “Forget the movie. Let’s pull the job.”
- Yves Montand, Let's Make Love, 1960. As Fox worked its way through the top guys,allthe H's-Heston,Holden, Hudson - refused to partner Marilyn.
- Richard Widmark, The Alamo, 1960. Once forced by his backers into an important role, debuting director John Wayne re-announced his heroes as: himself as Davy Crockett, RichardWidmark as Jim Bowie and Holden asColonel William Travis.
- Gregory Peck,The Guns of Navarone,1961. With his River Kwai deal paying him $50,000 a year for 50 years, "Golden Holden" had become money-canny,securing the then highest salary of $750,000 plus a Duke Wayne style cut (20%) for The Horse Soldiers, 1959. Sticking to his Guns, writer-producer Car lForeman could not match it. " Hello… Is Greg there?"
- John Wayne, Hatari! 1961. Or Africa when Howard Hawks first started musing upon a safari saga during his European break... of four years. Paramount could not afford two leading men. So Duke alone went to Tanganyika, deep-sixing Hawks' idea of Clark Gable/Wayne or Duke/Holden. The co-star role was divided between “the German and the little French guy” - (Hardy Kruger and Gerard Blain.
- John Wayne, The Longest Day, 1961. Too exhausted to be Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort after Satan Never Sleeps, The Counterfeit Traitor, The Lion. That was the official version. Producer Darryl F Zanuck knew better. Wayne “accepted a cameo role even after he knew the same role had been turned down by another star [Charlton Hestyon] who considered it insignificant.”
- Richard Harris, I Tre Volt/Three Faces of a Woman, Italy, 1964. The ex-Empress Soraya was given full script approval by producer Dino De Laurentiis. "Her contract was so tight," said Harris, "various people [Holden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard] refused to star with her."
- James Garner, The Americanisation of Emily, 1964. Holden apparently quit when veteran ace director William Wyler was sacked (after a script row) in favour of Canadian Arthur Hiller - making his third feature. Garner (from Hiller’s second, The Wheeler Dealers, 1963) was already booked for Lieutenant Commander Bob Cummings, and simply promoted to the lead of William Bradford Hui’s second book about Lieutenant Commander James Monroe Madison, called Charlie here, and Jim Blair when played by Richard Egan (opposite Jane Rissell) in The Revolt of Mamie Stover, 1955.
- Dirk Bogarde, Darling, 1965. "Nobody wanted the part - they said it was a drag," reported Bogarde. "They told me: 'Oh we tried to get Holden but he wasn't available.' They always tell me quite honestly, very nicely: 'I'm taking you for somebody else."
- Jack Palance, Monte Walsh, 1970. Howard Hawks, The Silver Fox, was asked to film the Jack Schaefer end-of-the-Wild-West-era novel in 1969. Sure, if John Wayne is the old cowpoke - and if they could secure a good partner for him, something they’d failed at for Hatari! Someone like Holden or Robert Mitchum. They could not.
- Jack Hawkins, Poppies Are Also Flowers, 1966. The first 007 director, suave Terence Young, attracted some 20 stars (Stephen Boyd to Princess Grace) for Ian Fleming’s exposé of the drugs trade - a thriller sponsored by the UN, no less.
- Burt Lancaster, 1967. Lancaster called it: “Death of a Salesman in swimming trunks” - as John Cheever’s tragic hero decides to swim home via the pools of his Connecticut friends and neighbours. Burt accused producer Sam Spiegel of spending more time playing gin than on the production. The result, after changing leading lady in mid er, pool - was Sam’s fourth consecutive flop. Minus David Lean, Spiegel was zero. (Glenn Ford, Paul Newman and George C Scott had also been in the Ned mix).
- David Niven, Casino Royale, 1966.
- Timothy Bottoms, Johnny Got His Gun, 1971. Director Mitchell Leisen tried to film Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's book when published in 1939. Took a few more wars to make it possible... for Trumbo to direct it. himself.
- Marlon Brando, Reflections In A Golden Eye, l967. Director John Huston talked to Holden (and Bob Mitchum) while trying to net Brando as the gay Captain Pendleton falling out of his closet.
- Gregory Peck, The Omen, 1975. Not keen on a movie about the devil (he had enough of his own), but came running back for the 1978 sequel. As Peck's brother. Damien’s uncle.
- Robert Mitchum, That Championship Season, l982. Planned in 1980 and delayed so long that playwright Jason Miller's first choice as coach had died - in a drunken fall.
- Richard Widmark, Who Dares Wins (US: The Final Option), 1981. Holden died from injuries after a fall on November 16, weeks before being due to play the US Secretary of State in the (alleged) tribute to the UK’s SAS regiment, a model for “special services” around the world. (Title is the SAS motto). However, said iconic critic Roger Ebert, this “is our old friend, the Idiot Plot.” Two years later, Lloyd lost another star, Richard Burton - on the eve of starting Wild Geese II.
- Pat Hingle, Batman, 1988.
Alec Baldwin always preferred Bill Holden: "You've got to bring three things to a leading man's role: masculinity, sensitivity, intelligence. In some people there's a little too much in the mix of one or the other. With Holden. it was always the perfect mix."