On this day in 1953, Roman Holiday, featuring Audrey Hepburn in her first starring movie role, premieres in New York City. Hepburn’s performance in Roman Holiday, as a European princess who ditches her official duties and falls for an American journalist (played by Gregory Peck) while on tour in Rome, earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress and instantly established her as a leading Hollywood star.
Hepburn was born on May 4, 1929, in Belgium. Her father, an English businessman, left Hepburn and her mother, a Dutch baroness, when Hepburn was a young girl. She attended school in England, but when World War II broke out, her mother brought her to Holland, thinking her daughter would be safer there. During the war, the Nazis occupied Holland and Hepburn and her family endured hunger and other hardships.
After the war, Hepburn studied ballet in Amsterdam and London and played bit parts on stage and screen until she met the French writer Colette, who insisted that Hepburn be cast as the lead in the Broadway version of her novel Gigi. Hepburn’s Broadway debut brought her enormous attention and led to her role in Roman Holiday. Moviegoers were enchanted by the slender, elegant beauty and she went on to star in a string of hit films, including Sabrina (1954), opposite Humphrey Bogart; Funny Face (1957), with Fred Astaire; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), in which she played Holly Golightly; and My Fair Lady (1964), in which she starred as Eliza Dolittle.
Hepburn married the actor and director Mel Ferrer in 1954, and he produced her 1967 film Wait Until Dark, which earned her another Academy Award nomination. (Hepburn also received Best Actress Oscar nominations for Sabrina, 1959’s The Nun’s Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Ferrer and Hepburn divorced in 1968 (they had two sons together) and the actress married the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti in 1969. The couple moved to Europe and Hepburn largely retired from Hollywood, devoting her time to charitable causes. She became a special ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in the 1970s. Hepburn’s marriage to Dotti produced another son, and lasted until 1982.
In 1976, after a nine-year hiatus from Hollywood, Hepburn appeared as a middle-aged Maid Marian in Robin and Marian, opposite Sean Connery. She made a handful of film appearances after that, including her final movie role as an angel in Always (1989), directed by Steven Spielberg. Hepburn continued to work for charitable causes until her death from cancer at age 63 on January 20, 1993, in Switzerland.