1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
July 29, 1892|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||March 5, 1984
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
(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, but Harlow died 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 (27 years his junior), 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.
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.
- Sherlock Holmes (1922)
- When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922)
- Outcast (1922)
- The Bright Shawl (1923)
- Under the Red Robe (1923)
- Dangerous Money (1924)
- Romola (1924)
- Too Many Kisses (1925)
- Faint Perfume (1925)
- My Lady's Lips (1925)
- The Beautiful City (1925)
- White Mice (1926)
- Sea Horses (1926)
- Desert Gold (1926)
- The Runaway (1926)
- Aloma of the South Seas (1926)
- Beau Geste (1926)
- Tin Gods (1926)
- The Great Gatsby (1926)
- New York (1927)
- Love's Greatest Mistake (1927)
- Senorita (1927)
- Special Delivery (1927)
- Time to Love (1927)
- Paid to Love (1927)
- Nevada (1927)
- She's a Sheik (1927)
- Beau Sabreur (1928)
- The Last Command (1928)
- Feel My Pulse (1928)
- Partners in Crime (1928)
- The Dragnet (1928)
- The Vanishing Pioneer (1928)
- Forgotten Faces (1928)
- Interference (1928)
- The Canary Murder Case (1929)
- The Four Feathers (1929)
- The Greene Murder Case (1929)
- Charming Sinners (1929)
- Pointed Heels (1929)
- Behind the Make-Up (1930)
- Street of Chance (1930)
- The Benson Murder Case (1930)
- Paramount on Parade (1930)
- Shadow of the Law (1930)
- For the Defense (1930)
- Man of the World (1931)
- Ladies' Man (1931)
- The Road to Singapore (1931)
- High Pressure (1932)
- Jewel Robbery (1932)
- One Way Passage (1932)
- Lawyer Man (1933)
- Private Detective 62 (1933)
- Double Harness (1933)
- The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
- Fashions of 1934 (1934)
- Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
- The Thin Man (1934)
- The Key (1934)
- Evelyn Prentice (1934)
- Star of Midnight (1935)
- Reckless (1935)
- Escapade (1935)
- Rendezvous (1935)
- The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
- The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)
- My Man Godfrey (1936)
- Libeled Lady (1936)
- After the Thin Man (1936)
- The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1937)
- The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937)
- Double Wedding (1937)
- The Baroness and the Butler (1938)
- Another Thin Man (1939)
- I Love You Again (1940)
- Love Crazy (1941)
- Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
- Crossroads (1942)
- The Youngest Profession (1943) (cameo)
- The Heavenly Body (1943)
- The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
- The Great Morgan (1946) (voice)
- Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
- The Hoodlum Saint (1946)
- Life with Father (1947)
- Song of the Thin Man (1947)
- The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947)
- Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)
- Take One False Step (1949)
- Dancing in the Dark (1949)
- It's a Big Country (1951)
- The Treasure of Lost Canyon (1952)
- The Girl Who Had Everything (1953)
- How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
- Mister Roberts (1955)
- Screen Snapshots (1932)
- Hollywood on Parade No. A-12 (1933)
- Screen Snapshots: The Skolsky Party (1946)
- 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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