1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
William Horatio Powell
July 29, 1892
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||March 5, 1984 (aged 91)|
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Desert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California, U.S.|
(m. 1915; div. 1930)
(m. 1931; div. 1933)
|Children||William David Powell|
William Horatio Powell (July 29, 1892 - March 5, 1984) was an American actor. A major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was paired with Myrna Loy in 14 films, including the Thin Man series based on the Nick and Nora Charles characters created by Dashiell Hammett. Powell 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 to Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, on July 29, 1892.
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 he and she did not meet until both were established actors.
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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. He later performed as Francis I in When Knighthood Was in Flower with Marion Davies, which was considered the most expensive film ever produced at the time.
Under contract to Paramount throughout most of the 1920s, Powell played heels and villains in the early part of his career. As he gained experienced he gradually shifted into leading man roles paired with such leading ladies as Bebe Daniels, Evelyn Brent and Kay Francis.
When Powell left Paramount to sign with Warner Bros., Francis joined him. One of their most successful films together was One Way Passage. Between Paramount and Warner's Powell and Francis made seven films together.
His most memorable role in silent movies was as a sensible film director opposite Emil Jannings' Academy Award-winning performance as a fallen general in The Last Command (1928). This success, along with Powell's commandingly pleasant speaking voice, led to his first starring role as amateur detective Philo Vance in the "talkie" The Canary Murder Case (1929). He would play Philo Vance at Paramount Pictures four more times, and once at Warner's in his final appearance in the role in The Kennel Murder Case.
Powell was loved by many people in Hollywood. Actress Marion Shilling worked with him in Shadow of the Law, and called him, "Self-effacing, deferential, exceedingly thoughtful of other people, he was one of the kindest human beings I have ever met. He sensed that I was in awe of him so, from the start, he did what he could to put me at ease."
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, and they appeared in 14 films together.
Loy and Powell 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. A serious romance developed between them, and in 1936, they were reunited on screen and with Loy and Spencer Tracy in the screwball comedy Libeled Lady. Harlow became ill soon after, and 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 of his own, 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 Day, Sr., in Life with Father. His last film was 1955's Mister Roberts, playing "Doc" alongside Henry Fonda in the titular role, James Cagney as the ship's raging captain, and Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning performance as flamboyantly comedic Ensign Pulver.
In 1915, he married Eileen Wilson (1894-1942), who was born Julia Tierney, by 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. Powell was devastated by her death in an airplane crash in 1942. He was engaged to marry Jean Harlow, his co-star in Reckless (1935), until her sudden death in 1937. On January 6, 1940, three weeks after they met, Powell married his third wife, actress Diana Lewis, to whom he remained married until his death in 1984.
In 1937, Powell was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery and experimental radium treatment which put the disease in full remission within two years. Given his own health and sorrow over Jean Harlow's death, Powell did not undertake any film roles for over a year during this period.
Powell died in Palm Springs, California, on March 5, 1984, at the age of 91 from heart failure, nearly 30 years after his retirement. He is buried at the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California, near his third wife Diana Lewis, and his only child, son William David Powell.
William Powell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1636 Vine Street.
|1940||Lux Radio Theatre||Manhattan Melodrama|
|1946||Readers' Digest Radio Edition||He Fell in Love with a Picture|
|1949||Screen Directors Playhouse||Love Crazy|
|1922||Sherlock Holmes||Foreman Wells||(film debut)|
|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 Runaway||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 Drag Net||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 Hardesty|
|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|
|1935||Rendezvous||Lieutenant Bill Gordon|
|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 a.k.a. George Carey|
|1941||Love Crazy||Steve Ireland|
|1941||Shadow of the Thin Man||Nick Charles|
|1942||Crossroads||David Talbot, a.k.a. Jean Pelletier|
|1943||The Youngest Profession||Himself|
|1944||The Heavenly Body||William S. Whitley|
|1945||The Thin Man Goes Home||Nick Charles|
|1945||Ziegfeld Follies||Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.|
|1946||The Hoodlum Saint||Terence Ellerton 'Terry' O'Neill|
|1946||The Great Morgan||Himself||Voice, Uncredited|
|1947||Life with Father||Clarence Day|
|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||Doc||(final film)|