‘I’ve always had a lot of respect for the picture business. It’s been good to me,” was a typically modest quote from one of the most recognizable movie stars of the late 1940s and into the 1950s.
Arkansas native Alan Ladd led one of the most tortured paths to Hollywood fame, a story worthy of a film itself.
Alan Ladd was born in Hot Springs in 1913 to an accountant father and an aspiring actress mother from England. His childhood, however, would be a nightmare. At the age of four, his father died suddenly, leaving the family penniless. His mother was able to find only meager work. One day, the still four-year-old Ladd accidentally burned his home down after playing with matches. She moved to Oklahoma to try to find work but still had no luck.
In 1920, he, his mother, and her new and unemployed husband traveled to California to find work. Along the way, their car broke down constantly and they almost never had food to eat. Ladd later recalled that throughout the four-month trek, he remembered always being hungry. He would suffer several illnesses in his life related to years of malnutrition as a youth. The chronic hunger he faced may well have stunted his growth.
In high school, he participated in track and even considered trying out for the Olympics before an injury derailed the dream. He graduated high school at the age of 20 and started a malt shop that quickly folded.
By this time, he had started acting, gaining an interest from an appearance in a high school play. In 1932, he had a small role in Tom Brown of Culver, a quickly forgotten drama. He would appear in 85 films in his career, including some of the most iconic movies of all time. In 1941, he had a small role in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, followed by The Great Gatsby in 1949.
Ladd attempted to enlist in the Army Air Force during World War II but was discharged because of continuing stomach problems. In 1948, he starred in the radio mystery series Box 13.
His most famous role would be the 1953 film Shane, the story of a gunfighter, played by Ladd, determined to defend an innocent frontier family. Shane would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning for Best Color Cinematography. Many fans consider the movie to be one of the best westerns ever made.
Ladd would be known for being a devoted father, co-starring with two of his three children in his movies. In later years, his film roles decreased, but he still offered memorable performances, such as with Sidney Poitier in All the Young Men (1960) and George Peppard in The Carpetbaggers (1964).
After years of suffering chronic health problems and relentless insomnia, Ladd was found dead at his California home in 1964 of an apparent overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. The death was ruled accidental. Years later, he was praised for his acting and in 1996 became part of the first group inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a Professor of History at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He is the proud father of six children. He has written seven books and his columns appear in more than 85 papers in two states. Dr. Bridges can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.