I was thrilled,” William Holden was saying, sounding not at all like a man who had just lost an Academy Award. “The greatest memorial anyone can have is the way he’s remembered, and the Oscar will be part of our memory of Peter Finch. I can’t tell you how happy I was it happened that way.” The reaction was characteristically civil and generous: Holden has a reputation, and good reason, for being both. In a film career spanning nearly four decades, Hollywood has spilled its every treasure at his feet: scores of leading roles, an Oscar for Stalag 17 in 1954, bonanza percentage-of-gross contracts, fame beyond mere celebrity.
If Hollywood has any promise left to keep, it is that his 34-year-old lover, Stefanie Powers, achieve some measure of the same success that he, at 58, has come to take in stride. “Stef is young and underrated,” he says. “Her break can be ahead of her.” By most standards she is a star already, the lead in a hot new ABC-TV series, The Feather and Father Gang, which is likely to be renewed next season. But she remains unencouraged. “My heart is blacker than Bill’s,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m not bitter. I just have to be realistic.”
Although both are products of Hollywood, they comprise anything but its prototype couple. They see each other usually only on weekends, when he drives to her house in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon or she to his in Palm Springs. “Marriage isn’t a consideration at all,” Holden says. “Why ruin it?” Powers agrees. “Our visits are properly spaced so that each of us can go off on our own tangents.” Those tangents, they say, are not amorous; notwithstanding the 24-year age difference and their disinterest in marriage, their relationship is based on fidelity. (Holden enjoys being gallantly oblique about how they make it work. “We have a very well-balanced relationship,” he says. “You can read into that whatever you like.” Among the benefits to Holden: he drinks only black coffee now after years of gregarious boozing.)
Their relationship seems to flourish with the distance they put between themselves and Hollywood during frequent trips—particularly to their two favorite dreamscapes. One is Kenya, where he owns an interest in a 1,216-acre game ranch, and the other is New Guinea, where she buys native works for import and sale.
Their first such jaunt, after discovering each other over the anthropology bin in an L.A. bookshop in 1974, was to Hong Kong, where Holden had investments. Within a year they had traveled to Malaya, Singapore, Iran, Europe, New Guinea and then Africa for a weeks-long “game capture.” Two dozen animals—elephants, rhinos, elands and zebras—were caught, vaccinated and hauled off to Holden’s preserve on the slopes of snow-capped Mount Kenya. “We lived in pup tents among wandering lions, elephant and rhino,” recalls Don Hunt, who runs the game ranch. “In time Stefanie became adept at wrestling a wildly kicking zebra to the ground, and Bill in a speeding truck was more skillful with a two-inch-thick rope lasso than in any of his cowboy roles.”
Holden, though he takes the ranch seriously, likes to perk things up on his trips to Kenya with novelties bought in a New York magic store, “like a mustard jar that won’t open or packages of sugar you can’t tear. The Africans love it. I took those teeth you wind up and release and they roared with laughter.” Powers sums up: “It’s not dull.”
Powers, born Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz, wanted to be an archeologist. But her mother, once a professional dancer, encouraged her to audition for movies—as many of her Hollywood High classmates were doing. Her first efforts were unavailing—a screen test for West Side Story led to a role in an unreleased film for Tom Laughlin. Then finally Experiment in Terror (1962) earned her a contract with Columbia, which was not an unmitigated triumph. On loan, she recalls, “I was shipped over to Warners, which had all those young stars—Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Ty Hardin. They all had dressing rooms. It was just awful.” She eventually did 15 films, running to such juvenilia as The Interns, The New Interns and Palm Springs Weekend.
In 1966 she took the lead in TVs The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and married actor Gary Lockwood. Neither venture ended happily. She remembers U.N.C.L.E. as “a souring experience…I didn’t work after that for two years, and by the time I wanted to go back to work nobody gave a damn.” She could not get movie roles—so she swallowed hard and worked in TV. “Gary and I had investments to support,” she says now. “We were predicating our acting lives on failure, making financial choices only. There was one year when I was off five days. It eventually blew me out emotionally.” She and Lockwood, who co-starred in 2001 but now heads his own construction firm, were amicably divorced in 1974.
By the time Holden met Stefanie that year, he had been divorced from former actress Brenda Marshall for 11 years. (They have three grown children: two sons and her daughter from a previous marriage, whom he raised.) From his first role in Golden Boy in 1939 through his best work in Sunset Boulevard, Country Girl, Sabrina and Stalag 77 in the 50s, Holden both profited and suffered from a marvelously impulsive spirit. (It had led him, as the teenage son of the upper-crust Bedles of Pasadena, to walk the outside railing of a bridge on his hands on a dare.) When director Joshua Logan balked at letting him do his own stunts in Picnic in 1956, Holden hung from an eighth-floor ledge until Logan relented. He plagued Sam Spiegel on the Ceylon location of Bridge on the River Kwai the next year by making pets of two cobras. “Bill, he might kill you,” Spiegel sputtered. “And we’ve already done a month’s shooting.”
Holden could well empathize with Powers’ despair in the shallows of her profession (her work-in-progress when they met was the Disney studio’s Herbie Rides Again). “In the early 1960s,” he recalls, “I didn’t work for three years.” And although he made $2.5 million on Kwai (he takes it in $50,000 annual installments), he can also understand working for hard cash alone. In 1973 he made his TV debut in The Blue Knight and a year later joined the expensive all-star cast of Towering Inferno. “Work is still a necessity,” he says. “I’m still not in a position to do just what I want to do.”
Certainly it isn’t the social life that keeps them in Hollywood. “We’re not party people,” says Holden. “We’re involved with the doers, the accomplishers. If our friends aren’t scholars, they’re goddamn good students. There are a lot of other marvelous, informed people in Los Angeles, but they just haven’t been there. They aren’t experienced.” “It gets too insular,” Powers agrees. “They’re either professional shoppers or house-redoers.” “Or putter-downers,” adds Holden.
In the name of consolidation, Holden is not above some house-redoing of his own. He recently built a mountainside home overlooking Palm Springs. There he hopes to gather all the possessions he once scattered in digs around the world into a “two-bedroom art gallery.” Not to wear out the carpeting, Holden and Powers hope to get visas to mainland China soon. Meanwhile they will rendezvous in Munich in May from separate commitments (hers, an International Arts Council meeting in Warsaw; his, a meaty role in Billy Wilder’s Fedora being shot all over Europe). They’re planning a car trip through the Yucatan peninsula, and if Stef’s TV series is picked up, they have decided, they’ll just take shorter trips. “Like that line in Network, ‘I’m a lot closer to the end than I am to the beginning, so I don’t intend to waste any time,’ ” Holden has said. “We always have trips planned, Stef and I. There’s so much to see, after all, so bloody much to learn.”