This post is part of The Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration, hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Read the rest of the posts for this event HERE!
Big movie stars appearing on TV shows is fairly common nowadays—sometimes playing characters, sometimes playing themselves. We call it “stunt casting.” The classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, which was a groundbreaking show in many respects, pretty much invented the practice. It has rarely, if ever, been done as well since.
The show used the concept of stunt casting to great comic effect during their fourth season, which had a very long story arc about Ricky (Desi Arnaz) getting a movie role in a Hollywood film. With his kooky wife Lucy (Lucille Ball) and their best friends Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred Mertz (William Frawley), their adventures were soon dotted with encounters with real-life movie stars, including Cornel Wilde, John Wayne, Van Johnson, Richard Widmark, Rock Hudson—and William Holden in the very first Hollywood episode, “Hollywood at Last!”
The show also saw an opportunity to promote stars’ upcoming movie releases, as each episode finds a way to mention them, which probably helped get some big stars to agree to appear on the show.
Arguably the funniest of the “Lucy meets a Hollywood star and causes mass destruction” episodes, the events of “Hollywood at Last!” were referred to several times later in the series, as the story of Lucy and William Holden’s fateful meeting became the stuff of Hollywood legend.
On their very first day in Hollywood, Lucy is disappointed to find out she has not been invited to visit the studio along with Ricky. To console her, he offers to give her the car so she and Fred and Ethel can do whatever they like. Lucy is intent on hunting down movie stars, but wants to find a place where they congregate. They hit on the idea of having lunch at The Brown Derby, the famous Hollywood eatery popular with local movie stars.
They immediately see (off-screen) Cary Grant and Gregory Peck. Fred berates Lucy and Ethel for jumping up every time they see or hear the name of a movie star called. When Ava Gardner is called to the phone, he jumps up, too.
While looking at the sketches of stars on the wall of the restaurant, Lucy asks Ethel to ask the lady in the next booth to identify one of them. It turns out to be Eve Arden, the first of the real-life stars to show up on-screen. At the time Arden was starring in “Our Miss Brooks,” which was a Desilu production (a company owned by Arnaz and Ball).
As they’re settling down to their lunch, William Holden enters the restaurant. Ethel frantically points and whispers to Lucy that Holden is sitting in the booth behind her. Lucy takes out a mirror to look at him. Then she shoves Fred and Ethel over so she can look at him, resulting in Ethel tumbling to the floor.
Holden tries to ignore her, but hits on the idea of turning the tables on annoying fans. When Lucy turns around to look at him, he’s right there so that they are face-to-face. Lucy is stunned and embarrassed as he continually stares at her during her meal. At one point, she’s so unsettled she can’t get all her spaghetti into her mouth, prompting Ethel to reach into her purse for manicure scissors to cut the strands of pasta.
Lucy is so shaken up by Holden’s relentless staring she insists they leave. Trying to keep from looking at him as she passes his booth, she unwittingly trips a waiter, who dumps a tray full of pies on Holden. Horrified, Lucy, Ethel and Fred escape from the restaurant as quickly as they can.
At the studio, Ricky meets Holden. Bill offers to drive Ricky back to the hotel and also graciously agrees to meet his wife. When Ricky tells Lucy that William Holden is in their living room, Lucy tries to invent excuses for why she can’t come out to meet him. Finally, Ricky insists.
Lucy eventually emerges from the bedroom wearing a kerchief over her hair and a huge pair of glasses. She has also used some of Ricky’s stage make-up to give herself a larger nose. Ricky is stunned by her appearance. Bill is a little perplexed because he is certain they have met before.
As they converse, the nose gives Lucy trouble. When she tries to scratch her nose, it bends this way and that. She tries to turn away and fix it, only to have it become longer and pointier. To distract Bill, Lucy offers him a cigarette. When he lights hers up, her nose goes up in flames.
Finally forced to pull off the fake nose and confess, Bill recognizes her finally, but doesn’t tell Ricky what really happened at The Brown Derby. In gratitude, Lucy plants a big kiss on Bill. When she realizes she has kissed Bill Holden, she faints in his arms.
The nose bit of course is the most famous part of the episode, where Ball supposedly improvised dipping the nose into a cup of coffee to stop the fire. The nose was fixed with a wick at the end to ensure it would light up.
This episode highlights Holden’s comic talents beautifully. They say acting is really reacting, and the funniest parts are when Holden is reacting to Lucy’s antics. (Or not reacting at all. When the pies fall on him, he sits there without moving or acknowledging anything has happened to him. It’s hilarious.)
The episode also takes full advantage of his charm. He is utterly adorable while resting his chin on the back of the restaurant booth and staring at Lucy. And who wouldn’t faint after planting an impromptu kiss on Bill Holden?
By appearing on the first episode of I Love Lucy to use a real-life actor as a character, Holden became a kind of pioneer of self-referential TV humor. “Hollywood at Last!” is a classic in every way—and still relevant to our star-crazed culture.