1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
July 29, 1892|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||March 5, 1984
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
Cause of death
(m.1940-1984; his death)
|Children||William David Powell (1925-1968) (suicide)|
William Horatio Powell (July 29, 1892 – March 5, 1984) was an American actor. He typically played highly confident characters, with a sophisticated sense of humor and wit.
A major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was paired with Myrna Loy in 14 films, including the popular Thin Man series based on the novels of Dashiell Hammett in which Powell and Loy played Nick and Nora Charles. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times: for The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Life with Father (1947).
An only child, Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, on July 29, 1892. His father was born in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania (where Powell spent his boyhood summers), to William S. and Harriet Powell. Powell showed an early aptitude for performing. In 1907, he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he graduated from Central High School in 1910. The Powells lived just a few blocks away from the Carpenters, whose daughter Harlean also went to Hollywood, under the name Jean Harlow, although she and Powell did not meet until both were established actors.
After high school, he left home for New York and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the age of 18. In 1912, Powell graduated from the AADA, and worked in some vaudeville and stock companies. After several successful experiences on the Broadway stage, he began his Hollywood career in 1922, playing a small role as an evil henchman of Professor Moriarty in a production of Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore. His most memorable role in silent movies was as a bitter film director opposite Emil Jannings' Academy Award-winning performance as a fallen general in The Last Command (1928), which led to Powell's first starring role as amateur detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929).
Powell's most famous role was that of Nick Charles in six Thin Man films, beginning with The Thin Man in 1934, based upon Dashiell Hammett's novel. The role provided a perfect opportunity for Powell, with his resonant speaking voice, to showcase his sophisticated charm and witty sense of humor, and he received his first Academy Award nomination for The Thin Man. Myrna Loy played his wife, Nora, in each of the Thin Man films. Their on-screen partnership, beginning alongside Clark Gable in 1934 with Manhattan Melodrama, was one of Hollywood's most prolific, with the couple appearing in 14 films together.
He and Loy also starred in the Best Picture of 1936, The Great Ziegfeld, with Powell in the title role and Loy as Ziegfeld's wife Billie Burke. That same year, he also received his second Academy Award nomination, for the comedy My Man Godfrey.
In 1935, he starred with Jean Harlow in Reckless. Soon a serious romance developed between them, and 1936 found them united again in film and with Loy and Spencer Tracy in the screwball comedy Libeled Lady. Harlow died from uremia at the age of 26 in June 1937 before they could marry. His distress over her death, as well as a cancer diagnosis, caused him to accept fewer acting roles.
Powell's career slowed considerably in the 1940s, although he received his third Academy Award nomination in 1947 for his role as the cantankerous Clarence Day, Sr. in Life with Father. His last film was 1955's Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. Despite numerous entreaties to return to the screen, Powell refused all offers, happy in his retirement.
In 1915, he married Eileen Wilson, with whom he had his only child, William David Powell, before an amicable divorce in 1930. Powell's son became a television writer and producer before a period of ill health led to his suicide in 1968.
On June 26, 1931, Powell married actress Carole Lombard. The marriage lasted just over two years. They were divorced in 1933, though they too remained on good terms, even starring together in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey three years later.
He had a close relationship with actress Jean Harlow beginning in 1935, but it was cut short by her untimely death in 1937. It is reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note was placed in her hands before she was interred, presumed to have been written by Powell. The note read, "Good night, my dearest darling". He also paid for her final resting place—a $25,000, 9×10-foot private room lined with multicolored imported marble located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction" of the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.
In 1937, Powell was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum (although some news accounts at the time, given to decorum, described it as colon cancer instead). He underwent surgery and experimental radium treatment which put the disease in full remission within two years. Given his own health and sorrow over Harlow's death, Powell did not undertake any film roles for over a year during this period.
On January 6, 1940, Powell married actress Diana Lewis, whom he called "Mousie," three weeks after they met. They remained married for forty-four years, residing primarily in Palm Springs, California, until Powell died at the age of 91.
Powell died of heart failure in Palm Springs, California, on March 5, 1984, at the age of 91, some 30 years after his retirement. He is buried at the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California, near his son William David Powell and wife Diana Lewis.
Academy Awards nominations
In 1978, influential proto-punk band The Dictators recorded a well reviewed rock ballad "Sleepin' With The TV On" in homage to William Powell and The Thin Man films.
Television star and comedian Don Adams stated that his famous "clippy" Maxwell Smart voice characterization was an exaggeration of the speaking style of actor William Powell.
|1922||Sherlock Holmes||Foreman Wells|
|1922||When Knighthood Was in Flower||Francis I|
|1923||The Bright Shawl||Gaspar De Vaca|
|1923||Under the Red Robe||Duke of Orleans|
|1924||Dangerous Money||Prince Arnoldo da Pescia|
|1925||Too Many Kisses||Julio|
|1925||Faint Perfume||Barnaby Powers|
|1925||My Lady's Lips||Scott Seldon|
|1925||The Beautiful City||Nick Di Silva|
|1926||White Mice||Roddy Forrester|
|1926||Sea Horses||Lorenzo Salvia|
|1926||Desert Gold||Snake Landree|
|1926||The Runaways||Jack Harrison|
|1926||Aloma of the South Seas||Van Templeton|
|1926||The Great Gatsby||George Wilson|
|1926||Tin Gods||Tony Santelli|
|1927||New York||Trent Regan|
|1927||Love's Greatest Mistake||Don Kendall|
|1927||Special Delivery||Harold Jones|
|1927||Time to Love||Prince Alado|
|1927||Paid to Love||Prince Eric|
|1927||She's a Sheik||Kada|
|1928||The Last Command||Lev Andreyev|
|1928||Feel My Pulse||Her Nemesis|
|1928||Partners in Crime||Smith|
|1928||The Dragnet||Dapper Frank Trent|
|1928||The Vanishing Pioneer||John Murdock|
|1929||The Canary Murder Case||Philo Vance|
|1929||The Four Feathers||Capt. William Trench|
|1929||The Greene Murder Case||Philo Vance|
|1929||Charming Sinners||Karl Kraley|
|1929||Pointed Heels||Robert Courtland|
|1930||Behind the Make-Up||Gardoni|
|1930||Street of Chance||John D. Marsden / 'Natural' Davis|
|1930||The Benson Murder Case||Philo Vance|
|1930||Paramount on Parade||Philo Vance|
|1930||Shadow of the Law||John Nelson|
|1930||For the Defense||William Foster|
|1931||Man of the World||Michael Trevor|
|1931||Ladies' Man||Jamie Darricott|
|1931||The Road to Singapore||Hugh Dawltry|
|1932||High Pressure||Gar Evans|
|1932||Jewel Robbery||The Robber|
|1932||One Way Passage||Dan|
|1932||Lawyer Man||Anton Adam|
|1933||Private Detective 62||Free|
|1933||Double Harness||John Fletcher|
|1933||The Kennel Murder Case||Philo Vance|
|1934||Fashions of 1934||Sherwood Nash|
|1934||Manhattan Melodrama||Jim Wade|
|1934||The Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1934||The Key||Capt. Bill Tennant|
|1934||Evelyn Prentice||John Prentice|
|1935||Star of Midnight||Clay 'Dal' Dalzell|
|1936||The Great Ziegfeld||Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.|
|1936||The Ex-Mrs. Bradford||Dr. Lawrence Bradford|
|1936||My Man Godfrey||Godfrey|
|1936||Libeled Lady||Bill Chandler|
|1936||After the Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1937||The Last of Mrs. Cheney||Charles|
|1937||The Emperor's Candlesticks||Baron Stephan Wolensky|
|1937||Double Wedding||Charles Lodge|
|1938||The Baroness and the Butler||Johann Porok|
|1939||Another Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1940||I Love You Again||Larry Wilson aka George Carey|
|1941||Love Crazy||Steve Ireland|
|1941||Shadow of the Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1942||Crossroads||David Talbot, aka Jean Pelletier|
|1944||The Heavenly Body||William S. Whitley|
|1945||The Youngest Profession||Himself|
|1945||Ziegfeld Follies||Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.|
|1945||The Thin Man Goes Home||Nick Charles|
|1946||The Hoodlum Saint||Terence Ellerton 'Terry' O'Neill|
|1946||The Great Morgan||Film Character|
|1947||Life with Father||Father|
|1947||Song of the Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1947||The Senator Was Indiscreet||Senator Melvin G. Ashton|
|1948||Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid||Mr. Arthur Peabody|
|1949||Take One False Step||Professor Andrew Gentling|
|1949||Dancing in the Dark||Emery Slade|
|1951||It's a Big Country||Professor|
|1952||The Treasure of Lost Canyon||Homer 'Doc' Brown|
|1953||The Girl Who Had Everything||Steve Latimer|
|1953||How to Marry a Millionaire||J.D. Hanley|
|1955||Mister Roberts||Lt. 'Doc'|
- Screen Snapshots (1932)
- Hollywood on Parade No. A-12 (1933)
- Screen Snapshots: The Skolsky Party (1946)
- Interments of Interest (PDF), Palm Springs Cemetery District
- Powell genealogy
- William Powell Biography
- "Mousie", Find a grave.
- Brooks, Patricia; Brooks, Jonathan (2006). "Chapter 8: East L.A. and the Desert". Laid to Rest in California: a guide to the cemeteries and grave sites of the rich and famous. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press. pp. 240–2. ISBN 978-0762741014. OCLC 70284362.
- Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated
- Bryant, Roger, William Powell: The Life and Films, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006. ISBN 0-7864-2602-0
- Francisco, Charles, Gentleman: The William Powell Story , New York: St Martins Press, 1985. ISBN 0-312-32103-1
- Christensen, Lawrence O., et al. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press ISBN 0-8262-1222-0
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