A witty and gifted golden age veteran who amassed a daunting list of credits across three mediums, actress Celeste Holm initially planned to become a ballerina before developing a love of acting that blossomed when she made her mark on Broadway in "Oklahoma!" (1943-48) and "Bloomer Girl" (1944-46). Proficient at acting, singing and dancing, Holm was a natural for the movies and signed with 20th Century Fox in 1946, making her film debut in "Three Little Girls in Blue" (1946) before winning an Oscar for her supporting role in "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947). From there, she did especially fine work in "Come to the Stable" (1949) and "All About Eve" (1950), but Holm returned to the stage with "Affairs of State" (1950-52) and as a replacement lead performer in the Broadway juggernauts "The King and I" (1951-54), while appearing sporadically on screen in films like "The Tender Trap" (1955) and "High Society" (1956). Holm also worked frequently on television as a guest star and recurring performer on a handful of series that often only lasted a season, though she received acclaim for her work on "Insight" (Syndicated, 1960-1983) and "Backstairs at the White House" (NBC, 1979). Even after decades of distinguished work in a commendable variety of roles, which included one of her last appearances on the series "Promised Land" (CBS, 1996-99), Holm always displayed energy and conviction at an age when most performers happily settle into retirement and kept performing right into the next century.
Born on April 29, 1917 in New York, NY, Holm was raised by her father, Theodore, an insurance adjuster for Lloyd's of London, and her mother, Jean, a portrait artist and author. After attending University High School for Girls in Chicago, Holm received her post-secondary education at City College of New York and the University of Chicago, where she studied in the drama department. While in Paris, she attended Lycee Victor Duryui and the Sorbonne, while also spending a number of years studying singing and ballet, the latter being the discipline she originally hoped to adopt. She went on to perform summer stock in Pennsylvania, serving as an understudy for a production of "Hamlet" (1936) starring Leslie Howard and acting in a touring production of "The Women." Holm soon made her Broadway debut in the comedy "Gloriana" (1938), though she lasted only five performances. Also that year, she entered into marriage with director-actor-playwright Ralph Nelson, with whom she had a son named after her father. They divorced three years later.
After a turn in "The Time of Your Life" (1939), which offered her a more significant part, as well as additional roles in a handful of Broadway productions that had brief runs, Holm found stardom playing Ado Annie in the original cast of the Rodgers & Hammerstein smash "Oklahoma!" (1943-48). Her amusing rendition of the song "I Cain't Say No" was considered among the highlights of the show and Holm also utilized her vocal talents by performing at various swanky New York City venues, including the Plaza Hotel. Upon finishing her "Oklahoma!" obligations, Holm joined the cast of "Bloomer Girl" (1944-46), a production designed specifically for her, and enjoyed another success. Following a USO tour of Europe, Holm was courted by several movie studios and finally signed with 20th Century Fox, which had given her an expensive, Technicolor screen test alongside performers like Vincent Price and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Holm's contract with the studio got off to an inauspicious start, however, when she was placed in a pair of forgettable musicals, "Three Little Girls in Blue" (1946) and "Carnival in Costa Rica" (1947).
Despite Holm's obvious abilities and physical appeal, the studio never gave her the lead role in any pictures, which was odd considering her superb performance in Elia Kazan's study of anti-Semitic bigotry, "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), which earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She also garnered much exposure and praise for the superior film noir "Road House" (1948) and the mental breakdown saga "The Snake Pit" (1948), while "Come to the Stable" (1949) and the much lauded Bette Davis drama, "All About Eve" (1950) brought her additional Oscar nominations. While on loan out, Holm finally enjoyed top billing as the lead actress of "Champagne for Caesar" (1950), a raucous satire of game shows that also worked as an offbeat romantic comedy. Holm preferred working on the stage and asked to be let out of her contract with Fox. The studio agreed and Holm was soon back on Broadway in "Affairs of State" (1950-52) and did a turn in the cast of "The King and I" (1951-54). She did make the occasional movie like "The Tender Trap" (1955) and "High Society" (1956), and also worked on television, where Holm's stage experience made her a prime candidate for programs like "Lux Video Theatre" (CBS/NBC, 1950-59), "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (CBS, 1951-59), and "Goodyear Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1951-57).
Of course, Holm made attempts to launch her own series with "Honestly, Celeste!" (CBS, 1954), only to be met with failure after only a few weeks on air. Meanwhile, around the time that she was on Broadway in "Invitation to a March" (1960-61), Holm married actor Wesley Addy, with whom she would appear in such off-Broadway productions as "A Month in the Country" (1963) and later "With Love and Laughter" (1982). Holm replaced Angela Lansbury in the title role of "Mame" (1966-70) and would return to the role in 1972 for a touring presentation of the popular musical comedy. She also found time to guest star on a number of primetime programs and played the Fairy Godmother in a television production of "Cinderella" (CBS, 1965) alongside such notables as Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, and a young Lesley Ann Warren. From there, she had another taste of episodic television as a cast member of the short-lived sitcom "Nancy" (NBC, 1970-71), which was followed by roles in "Tom Sawyer" (1973) and "Bittersweet Love" (1976). Holm went on to grace the successful miniseries "Captains and the Kings" (NBC, 1976) and "Backstairs at the White House" (NBC, 1979), the latter earning her an Emmy nomination for supporting actress.
As a guest star, Holm amassed an impressive résumé that included parts on popular shows like "Archie Bunker's Place" (CBS, 1979-1983) and "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990), while on the stage she earned acclaim for her one woman show "Paris Was Yesterday" (1979), which she performed off-Broadway. Holm made the news in 1982, when she and performers like Susan Sarandon, Michael Moriarty, and Treat Williams were arrested for civil disobedience when they tried to stop construction crews from demolishing the Helen Hayes and Morosco theatres, following an unsuccessful legal bid to the Supreme Court. Also at the time, she was appointed to the National Arts Councile by then-President Ronald Reagan, and enjoyed box office success with her first film in a decade, "Three Men and a Baby" (1987). Back on the small screen, she had a successful run as a bag lady on the soap opera "Loving" (ABC, 1983-1995), and was a regular on the primetime dramas "Promised Land" (CBS, 1996-99) and "The Beat" (UPN, 2000). Meanwhile, "I Hate Hamlet" (1991) marked her last appearance on the Great White Way.
During the latter part of her career, Holm also served on a number of boards, including the National Endowment for the Arts, and served as head of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. But her last years were marred by a legal battle after she had a falling out with her two sons, one of whom was computer pioneer Ted Nelson. The conflict revolved around Holm's fifth husband, opera singer Frank Basile, whom she married in 2004 at the age of 87. Basile was 46 years younger than Holm, whom the children claimed was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and thus not able to properly manage her affairs. The sons alleged that Basile was intentionally cutting Holm off from the family in order to gain control of her finances. Regardless, Holm continued to act well into her 90s, including appearances in the movies "Driving Me Crazy" (2012) and "College Debts" (2012). Having suffered from ill health in her final decade, including skin cancer, ulcers, a collapsed lung, pacemaker and a hip replacement, Holm was admitted to New York's Roosevelt Hospital in June 2012 while suffering dehydration following a fire in her Central Park West building. She had a heart attack in the hospital, but asked to be released to convalesce in her home. Holm died on July 15, 2012 due to complications from her recent setbacks. She was 95 years old.
By John Charles