July 23, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

An awestruck Marlon Brando called him ”my touchstone,” and James Dean would phone him just to hear his voice. They weren’t alone. Post-World War II audiences, too, were mesmerized by Montgomery Clift’s looks and his moody presence. Yet it was that raw intensity that contributed to Clift’s death at 45, on July 23, 1966 — officially from heart disease, but in reality from years of alcohol and drug abuse.

Born in Omaha, Clift spent a rootless childhood partly in Europe with his high-strung mother. A stage actor at 14, he developed a passion for perfection. ”I delve as deeply as possible into the characterization,” he once said. ”It takes a tremendous toll on the performer, emotionally and physically.” That focus paid off: Clift won Best Actor Oscar nominations for The Search (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), and From Here to Eternity (1953).

But by the mid-’50s, he had turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain brought on by his celebrity, his personality, and his secret homosexuality. A car accident during the making of Raintree County in 1956 — in which his face was disfigured and partially paralyzed — only accelerated his slide.

Clift tried to compensate for the loss of his expressive features with a pared-down acting style, but some critics found the new Monty ”lackluster.” Yet he could still astonish. In 1961, he won raves for his supporting roles in Judgment at Nuremberg and The Misfits. His costar in the latter, Marilyn Monroe, described him as ”the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.”

Unbankable after 1963, Clift went into a tailspin. Elizabeth Taylor, his longtime confidante and costar in A Place in the Sun, asked him to join her in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but Clift was found dead in his Manhattan brownstone before production began. Clift’s last film, The Defector (1966), completed just before his death, shows a wasted, hollow man.

Why did Montgomery Clift destroy himself? He dropped a chilling hint in a 1953 interview with columnist Hedda Hopper, who asked him to describe his life in a sentence. The actor’s reply: ”I’ve been knifed.”

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