William Powell (1892-1984)

'William Powell
William Powell
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William Powell was an American actor who had a successful and long-lasting career in show business. He started on the stage, progressed to silent movies and then, with his strong, rich voice, became well known in Talkies, for his portrayal of suave leading men. He had a unique onscreen charisma which oozed sophistication but in an effortless way, without any hint of pretentiousness. He played every role with authority and always appeared cool and relaxed.

After drama school and ten years learning the business in vaudeville and on Broadway, Powell made his screen debut in 'Sherlock Holmes' in 1922. He kept busy throughout the 1920's, often in period pictures as nobles, rogues, and supporting rotters. Given his later suave image, it is a surprise that in 'The Great Gatsby' in 1926, he played the gas station owner rather than one of the upper class leads.

His fine baritone voice, and clipped moustache combined with his stage training and comic timing and greatly aided his introduction to sound pictures. In the early 1930's he became a major star at MGM where he was paired with Myrna Loy in fourteen films, including the popular and successful 'Thin Man' series in which they played Nick and Nora Charles.

He appeared in some of the most successful comedies and thrillers of the 1930's and 1940's and he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, for 'The Thin Man' in 1934, 'My Man Godfrey' in 1936 and 'Life with Father' in 1947 although he did not win the award.

His movie successes continued until 1955 when he starred in 'Mister Roberts' with James Cagney and Henry Fonda. He then settled down to a long and happy 30 year retirement, refusing all requests for a comeback.


William Powell was born William Horatio Powell on July 29, 1892, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He showed acting talent whilst still at high school and after graduating in 1910, he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, despite the objections of his accountant father who had encouraged him to follow a legal career.

After 2 years Powell graduated from the Academy, and worked for ten lean and learning years performing on stage in vaudeville and stock companies across America.

In 1917 he graduated to making successful appearances on the Broadway stage in 'The King' and the 'Judge of Zalamea' and in the same year, he was cast in the musical comedy 'Going Up', which ran to over 350 performances and became a huge hit. He later appeared in another smash hit, 'Spanish Love', which ran for 2 years from 1920 and which led to his being offered a role in 1922 in a new silent movie version of 'Sherlock Holmes', to star John Barrymore as Holmes. It was the start of a new career for Powell and he began to appear regularly in the new medium.

In 1924 he was signed by Paramount Pictures and he spent seven years with them playing mainly villainous roles in a series of period melodramas and romances,such as 'Romola' in 1924 and 'Too Many Kisses' in 1925, but attracting little attention until 1926 when he appeared in the well received 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Beau Geste'. These successes led to his most memorable role in silent movies when he played a bitter film director in 'The Last Command' in 1928. The following year he became one of the top stars at Paramount with his first starring role as the amateur detective Philo Vance in 'The Canary Murder Case' where he investigates the death of "the Canary" played by Louise Brooks.

Powell's career took another dramatic leap forward with the arrival of sound. His stage training and comic timing allied to his naturally powerful speaking voice allowed him to continue in leading man roles as in 'The Benson Murder Case' in 1930 and 'Ladies' Man' in 1931 but he was tiring of the one-dimensional roles he was getting with Paramount, so in 1931 he switched to Warner Bros. He would again be disappointed with his roles and would make his last appearance as Philo Vance in 'The Kennel Murder Case' in 1933.

In 1934 Powell changed studios again, this time to MGM, home to stars like Garbo, Barrymore and Gable, where he would be given the roles he could really enjoy. He was about to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

He was first teamed with Myrna Loy in 'Manhattan Melodrama' in 1934. There was an obvious chemistry between them which director, W.S. Van Dyke felt could be used in a movie of their own, and he persuaded MGM to let him make an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's best-selling mystery novel "The Thin Man". The movie came out in 1934 and was a massive hit. Audiences liked the romance, comedy and witty dialogue between detective, Nick Charles and his wife Nora and Powell won the first of three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. The movie was shot on a low budget in only 14 days and not surprisingly spawned five sequels. His partnership with Myrna Loy was one of Hollywood's most productive and they went on to make made a total of 14 films together.

Powell continued to be a major force in Hollywood movies for the next two decades, making many more successful movies including 'The Great Ziegfeld' which was awarded the Best Picture Oscar for 1936. Also in 1936 he received his second Best Actor nomination for 'My Man Godfrey' and he appeared in the popular screwball comedy 'Libeled Lady', again with Myrna Loy.

After a successful fight against rectal cancer, Powell slowed his output in the 1940's although he still had his successes such as the comedy I Love You Again' in 1940, 'The Heavenly Body' in 1943 and a reprise of his earlier Ziegfeld success, 'Ziegfeld Follies' in 1946. He proved himself still a winner at the box-office and he received another Best Actor nomination for his performance in 'Life With Father' in 1947.

Powell continued his long career, starring in movies such as 'Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid' in 1948 and 'Dancing in the Dark' the following year, and he ended with much praised character roles in films such as 'How to Marry a Millionaire' in 1953, and in 1955 in the role of Doc in 'Mr. Roberts'.


In his personal life, Powell was famed for romancing his co-stars. All his marriages were to actresses: his first wife was Eileen Wilson from 1915 to 1930, with whom he had a son, William David Powell, who became a television writer and producer before committing suicide in 1968. His second wife was Carole Lombard for two years from 1931 and his third marriage was to Diana Lewis, from 1940 until his death in 1984.

He had a close and well publicised relationship with actress Jean Harlow beginning when they performed together in 'Reckless' in 1935, and they very soon became engaged. He was greatly upset when she died from uremic poisoning in 1937. He paid for her funeral and final resting place.

After making 'Mister Roberts' in 1955, Powell decided to call it a day, aged 63, whilst still at the top. He spent the rest of his long life in retirement with his wife, refusing all offers to make a comeback. It was only after his death that his friend and co-star, Myrna Loy, confided that his hearing was deteriorating with age and he felt that he could not do himself justice.

William Powell died of heart failure on March 5, 1984 in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 91.

William Powell Academy Awards

No Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... The Thin Man (1934))
Best Actor ... My Man Godfrey (1936)
Best Actor ... Life with Father (1947))


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William Powell Filmography

Sherlock Holmes
When Knighthood Was in Flower
The Bright Shawl
Under the Red Robe
Dangerous Money
Too Many Kisses
Faint Perfume
My Lady's Lips
The Beautiful City
White Mice
Sea Horses
Desert Gold
The Runaway
Aloma of the South Seas
Beau Geste
Tin Gods
The Great Gatsby
New York
Love's Greatest Mistake
Special Delivery
Time to Love
Paid to Love
She's a Sheik
Beau Sabreur
The Last Command
Feel My Pulse
Partners in Crime
The Dragnet
The Vanishing Pioneer
Forgotten Faces
The Canary Murder Case
The Four Feathers
The Greene Murder Case
Charming Sinners
Pointed Heels
Behind the Make-Up
Street of Chance
The Benson Murder Case
Paramount on Parade
Shadow of the Law
For the Defense
Man of the World
Ladies' Man
The Road to Singapore
High Pressure
Jewel Robbery
One Way Passage
Lawyer Man
Private Detective 62
Double Harness
The Kennel Murder Case
Fashions of 1934
Manhattan Melodrama
The Thin Man
The Key
Evelyn Prentice
Star of Midnight
The Great Ziegfeld
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
My Man Godfrey
Libeled Lady
After the Thin Man
The Last of Mrs. Cheney
The Emperor's Candlesticks
Double Wedding
The Baroness and the Butler
Another Thin Man