It may seem a bit odd to start a story about an actor near the end of his acting career, but that is where my fascination with Tim Holt began. I was one of those Baby Boomer kids who loved horror and science fiction movies from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It began with Universal classics sold to television as the Shock Theater package. Many Baby Boomer kids got their first real movie fright by the glow of their family Zenith with Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolfman (1941). Shock Theater proved so successful that local television stations craved more horror and science fiction films, and by the 1960s the genre had joined Westerns as a staple of mid-afternoon and late-night programming. That’s how I saw a Navy commander battle giant mollusks. The movie was The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) and the star was Tim Holt.
“The Monster that Challenged the World wasn’t too bad a picture at all"
As I sat on the floor in front of our Zenith, intensely watching Tim Holt challenge the over-grown snails that were challenging our world, my father told me Tim Holt used to be a big Western star. As I grew older and my taste in classic movies expanded, I learned Tim Holt was far more than a Western and Science Fiction star, he was an extraordinarily gifted multi-award-winning actor who appeared in some of the most significant films of the 20th Century. He could easily jump of the saddle in a John Ford Western and turn into the most sophisticated, refined, often wealthy and self-indulgent gentlemen in an Orson Welles period piece. He was the young Army lieutenant in the classic film Stagecoach (1939). He romanced Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas (1937), his first film role, then road the Great Plains supporting George O’Brien and romancing Cecilla Callejo in The Renegade Ranger (1938), He was the young Army lieutenant in the classic film Stagecoach (1939). then returned to his sophisticated ways later that year to romance Ginger Rogers in Fifth Avenue Girl.
“Tim Holt was delightful too. He also was a good rider and a good actor. We played the children of Charles Boyer in the second version of Back Street (1941) and played opposite each other in RKO’s Pirates of the Prairie (1942). An easy and experienced actor, always as attractive and charming as he appeared to be in his films. He always had a twinkle in his eyes and was very popular with the cast and crew.”
Tim Holt pounded out 18 Westerns between 1940 and 1942, and in the middle of that he was cast as the cruel, selfish son who loses his life of early 20th Century privilege in the now classic Orson Welles drama, The Magnificent Ambersons(1942). That role earned Holt a the Best Acting award from the National Board of Review. Orson Welles said casting Holt in the role was “a lucky decision. He’s one of the most interesting actors that’s ever been in American movies.” The New York Times said he gave the role of George exactly what it demanded…all the meanness in the character.
Despite rave reviews and four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress for Agnes Moorehead,The Magnificent Ambersons lost money at the box office and Holt returned to the Western, knocking out six more before he entered the military service during World War II. He was called into active duty during the filming ofHitler’s Children(1943). That movie turned out to be box office gold for RKO. Tim Holt turned out to be a decorated Air Force bombardier winning the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“He was kind of an everyman. It was hard to put him in the Hollywood era,”
-Bryanna Holt, daughter of Tim Holt (2010)
Tim Holt returned to Hollywood after the war and he returned to Westerns, but his youthful devil-may-care cowboy character was now a “serious no-nonsense type of mature cowboy who was less impulsive, more contemporary, and somewhat ‘world weary.", that according to his biographer David Rothel. That new image was immediately put on display in My Darling Clementine (1946), where Holt played brother Virgil Earp to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt. It’s considered one of John Ford’s best films.
Tim Holt was back in the saddle again and in 1947 he made a series of Zane Gray Westerns. When the series ended, he married his third wife and moved to Oklahoma. He was called back to Hollywood and loaded to Warner Bros. for what is probably his best-known performance. He starred alongside Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Although his performance as a sincere gold prospector victimized by his partner’s greed was praised by critics, Holt was over-shadowed by the enormous screen presence of Humphrey Bogart. Never the less, he impressed Dore Schary, the head of RKO who put Holt into a higher quality film bracket. From that point on until 1952, Tim Holt was a cowboy in Western after Western and finally took a 5-year break from acting.
“I never did feel there was anything mystic about Hollywood. I never really did like it.”
-Tim Holt, 1947
This is where our story began. Tim Holt returned to movies in 1957 when he made The Monster that Challenged the World. He didn’t make another film until 1963. It was the extremely low-budget science fiction drive-in special, The Yesterday Machine. He made one more film appearance in 1971 in another low-budget production called This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! This is just a guess, but I like to think those last two films were just a favor for a friend. For the most part, Tim Holt left acting and Hollywood behind him in 1957. He got a degree in animal nutrition, managed a few theaters and advertising for a local radio station until he passed way in 1973. His daughter said Hollywood kept calling, but Tim Holt was just wasn’t interested. He had found true happiness in Oklahoma as the everyman cowboy he truly was in real life.
“Do you realize that this is the first time in my life that I can make my own decisions and do what I want to do? First it was my parents who told me what to do, then RKO told me what to do, then I went into the service and Uncle Sam told me what to do. I came back out and RKO still told me what to do. This is the first time I have not been under somebody's thumb in my life.
-Tim Holt, 1963