Alan Ladd's mother emigrated from England age 19. His accountant father died when he was four. At age five he burned his apartment playing with matches, and his mother moved them to Oklahoma City. He was malnourished, undersized and nicknamed Tiny. His mother married a house painter who moved them to California--a la "The Grapes of Wrath"--when he was eight. He picked fruit, delivered papers and swept stores. In high school he discovered track and swimming. By 1931 he was training for the 1932 Olympics, but an injury put an end to those plans. He opened a hamburger stand called Tiny's Patio, and later worked as a grip at Warner Brothers Pictures. He married his friend Midge in 1936 but couldn't afford her, so they lived apart. In 1937 they shared a friend's apartment. They had a son,Alan Ladd Jr., and his destitute alcoholic mother moved in with them, her agonizing suicide from ant poison witnessed a few months later by her son.
His size and coloring were regarded as not right for movies, so he worked hard at radio, where talent scout and former actress Sue Carol discovered him early in 1939. After a string of bit parts in "B" pictures--and an unbilled part in Orson Welles' classic Citizen Kane (1941)--he tested for This Gun for Hire (1942) late in 1941. His fourth-billed role as psychotic killer Raven made him a star. He was drafted in January 1943 and discharged in November with an ulcer and double hernia.
Throughout the 1940s his tough-guy roles packed audiences into theaters and he was one of the very few males whose cover photos sold movie magazines. In the 1950s he was performing in lucrative but unrewarding films (an exception being what many regard as his greatest role, Shane (1953)). By the end of the 1950s liquor and a string of so-so films had taken their toll. In November 1962 he was found unconscious lying in a pool of blood with a bullet wound near his heart. In January 1964 he was found dead, apparently due to an accidental combination of alcohol and sedatives.