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William Powell Biography


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Birth Name: William Powell
Born: 07/29/1892
Birth Place: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Death Place: Palm Springs, California, USA
Died: 03/05/1984


Born William Horatio Powell on July 29, 1892 in Pittsburgh, PA, he was the only son of Nettie and Horatio Powell. Powell's father, an accountant, moved the family to Kansas City, MO when his son was in his early teens and it was there that the youngster began pursuing an interest in the arts that had taken hold of his imagination since childhood. Much to the chagrin of the elder Powell - who had envisioned a future in the legal profession for his son - the 18-year-old attended the University of Kansas for a single week before moving abruptly to New York City and enrolling at the venerable American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The venture was subsidized by Powell's aunt, as his father had no intention on bankrolling an endeavor as frivolous as an acting career. After completing his studies at the Academy in 1912, Powell began an extended period taking on work where he could find it with various stock theater companies and vaudeville shows. It was during this time that he met and wed Eileen Wilson, to whom he would remain married for several years, despite early signs of a clearly troubled relationship.

Powell found a modicum of success in the theater, which included turns in such Broadway productions as "The King," "Spanish Love" and "Bavu" from 1917 to 1922, before the actor transitioned into the medium of silent film. Based largely on his looks, which did not lend themselves to the ideal of leading man at the time, Powell most often found himself cast as a villain or scoundrel. In just such a role, he made his debut as an evil henchman to Professor Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) opposite John Barrymore's great detective in "Sherlock Holmes" (1922). He appeared as a supporting player in dozens of films, including a turn alongside Ronald Colman in an adaptation of the French Foreign Legion adventure "Beau Geste" (1926), before garnering substantial attention for his performance as a manipulative film director opposite Oscar-winner Emil Jannings in Josef von Sternberg's "The Last Command" (1928).

Powell's rise to movie stardom coincided with the advent of the talkies and his first appearance as the foppish sleuth Philo Vance in "The Canary Murder Case" (1929), co-starring Louise Brooks. While the arrival of sound heralded the end of many a movie star's career, Powell's crisp, staccato line delivery, perfected during a decade of stage work, made him a perfect vessel through which writers could exploit their most clever dialogue. In addition to a number of sequels in the roles of Vance, the actor found continued success at Paramount as roguish but often honorable playboys and witty ne'er-do-wells in films like "Street of Chance" (1930) and "Ladies Man" (1931), opposite then-starlet Carole Lombard. Powell married the future screwball comedy queen that same year after falling in love on set, and although the union lasted a mere two years - their age difference proved a problem - they remained close friends right up until Lombard's tragic death in a plane crash in 1942.

A brief stay at Warner Bros. played up Powell's debonair side in "Jewel Robbery" (1932), his wisecracking ability in "Lawyer Man" (1932), and his surprisingly romantic sincerity in the brisk but moving "One Way Passage" (1932). As pleasant as these efforts may have been, Powell feared his career was stalling. Two years later, he took a chance and moved to MGM where he soon co-starred alongside rising superstar Clark Gable in the surprise smash, "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934). That film also marked the first of more than a dozen onscreen pairings with frequent leading lady Myrna Loy, with whom Powell also appeared in the mystery-drama "Evelyn Prentice" (1934). But it was that year's mystery-comedy "The Thin Man" (1934) - based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett - that would provide their most famous and lasting celluloid collaboration.

As the boozy, retired private detective Nick Charles, Powell found himself continually urged back into action by his wealthy socialite wife, Nora (Loy), who loved nothing more than solving a truly sensational murder mystery. Accompanied by their fox terrier, Astor, the couple exchanged good-natured barbs and witty banter as they indulged in cocktails and crime solving with equal aplomb. So believable and charming was Powell's onscreen chemistry with his co-star, that many fans of the film believed that they were married in real life, going so far as to write them letters seeking marital advice. While never romantically involved, he and Loy became fast friends. The initial outing as Nick and Nora was so successful that it not only spawned a total of five sequels, but also established an enduring archetype in film, television, stage and fiction of the bantering couple with a fondness for repartee outstripped only by their love for one another.

Times were good for Powell in the mid-1930s. In addition to launching a highly prolific and profitable film franchise with "The Thin Man," he began a love affair with Jean Harlow, Hollywood's resident bombshell. Deeply in love, their romance lingered in an unofficial "engagement" phase for more than two years, reportedly due in no small part to their differing views on children. Harlow wanted them, while Powell did not - nor did he fancy a third possible failed marriage should it not work out with yet another young wife. He had the pleasure of starring with both Harlow and Loy - in addition to Spencer Tracy - in the hit romantic comedy, "Libeled Lady" (1936) then played the title role in the musical extravaganza, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936). Both features went on to garner Best Picture nominations that year, with "Ziegfeld" taking the statue. A banner year, by any measure, Powell also reunited with Lombard - if only on the screen - in the beloved screwball comedy, "My Man Godfrey" (1936). Yet another box office smash, it featured Powell in another Oscar-nominated performance as a homeless man hired to pose as a butler for a family of wealthy lunatics, rendering results both hilarious and touching.

Powell was riding high with the release of the first "Thin Man" sequel, "After the Thin Man" (1936), an appearance opposite Joan Crawford in the comedy-drama, "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" (1937), and a turn as a master spy in the espionage romance "The Emperor's Candlesticks" (1937). It all came crashing down, however, when Powell - and the world - was stunned by the sudden, tragic loss of Jean Harlow, who died at age 26 of complications from an undiagnosed kidney failure in June of 1937. An utterly devastated Powell was rumored to have left an unsigned note in Harlow's casket, reading "Good night, my dearest darling" before she was laid to rest in the mausoleum room he had purchased with the intent of being interred beside her at a later date. For a while it looked as if the actor might be joining his beloved sooner than he would have thought when he underwent aggressive treatment for rectal cancer later that same year. Portrayed as a stomach ailment in the press, the treatment and eventual recovery - exceptionally rare, at the time - kept the actor away from film for more than a year.

Miraculously, things began to pick up for Powell, who married for the third and final time to the lesser known actress Diana Lewis in 1940 after a whirlwind courtship of less than a month. He co-starred with his gal-pal Loy in more non-"Thin Man" comedies, including "I Love You Again" (1940) and "Love Crazy" (1941). Continuing his streak of pairing up with the most popular leading ladies of the day, Powell also teamed with the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr in the mystery, "Crossroads" (1942), his first dramatic role in years. Some 25 years into his film career, Powell still managed to surprise audiences and impress the critics. As the authoritative, yet endearing, patriarch of the Day family in the comedy biopic "Life with Father" (1947), he delivered what many considered the finest performance of his heralded career. The memorable role, one that he had lobbied hard to bring to the screen, earned Powell his third Best Actor Oscar nomination.

That year also saw the hard-working Powell win a New York Film Critics Circle Award for his starring role in the political comedy, "The Senator Was Indiscreet" (1947), in addition to making his final outing as Nick Charles in "Song of the Thin Man" (1947). Having moved increasingly into the role of supporting player, the actor delivered his final performance for his longtime studio home as thrill-seeking Elizabeth Taylor's concerned father in the MGM melodrama "The Girl Who Had Everything" (1953). With his career winding down, Powell capped off an exceptionally enviable track record when he appeared opposite a veritable trifecta of lovely leading ladies - Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe - in the hit comedy, "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953) in the role of the titular man of means. His final film appearance was as the pragmatic Lieutenant "Doc" in the hit naval comedy "Mister Roberts" (1955), co-starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney and Jack Lemmon. With that, Powell entered into a pleasant retirement with his wife at their home in Palm Springs, where he enjoyed playing golf and managing his investments. One final bit of tragedy was visited upon Powell when his only son, William David - from his first marriage - committed suicide in 1968 at the age of 43. Despite frequent enticements from film studios, Powell remained happily retired until his death from heart failure at the age of 91 on March 5, 1984.

By Bryce Coleman