First, before beginning any information on William Powell, or before starting his biography, I must start by stating that Mr. Powell is my absolute, without a question, most favorite actor of the era. Or of any other era for that matter! I know its an old cliche, but they just don't make them like William Powell any longer! He was (in my humble opinion...), extremely good looking, suave, debonair, always a gentleman, a natural comedian and the most sophisticated gentleman to grace the silver screen. I truly wish that I had been around when he was alive, just on the off chance that I might have had the opportunity to have met him. You might ask, if he is so much a favorite of mine, why did others proceed him in my actors bios? To tell you the truth, I have been putting off adding him deliberately, as I truly felt that I just couldn't do him justice. Or put across how important he is to me and how to give him the recognition he truly deserves. But my desire to see his handsome face everyday, and to share all that I know about him has overcome my reticence and hopefully I can make some new fans for him that as of yet have not known of his great talents. I hope that you will find this entertaining as well as informative!
William Powell was born on July 29th, 1892 as William Horatio Powell. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. Although he is most widely known for his portrayal of the detective Nick Charles in the six "Thin Man" films, his talent far exceeds that.
Powell was an only child. His mothers name was Nettie Brady and his fathers name was Horatio Warren Powell. Powell's father was an accountant and had planned for William to follow in his footsteps. But the young Powell had other ideas. William showed a very early aptitude for performing. In 1907 his family moved from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, Missouri. After working on a high school production of Richard Brinsley Sheridans (10/30/1751 -07/07/1816), "The Rivals". Powell, a quiet and studious boy who enjoyed the freedom that acting gave him, came to seek out more plays and watching pro's at work. After High School, he left home and attended the University of Kansas for a brief period, eventually though, for him to continue acting professionally he would have to support himself as he father refused to contribute, disappointed by the fact that he didn't want to continue with the family business. So, he first went to work for the telephone company in 1910. By the following year, he'd conceived a plan to go to New York. He wrote to a wealthy aunt and appealed to her for help, he asked her for a loan of $1,400. Instead, he got $700 and had to put up the rest himself and was eventually off to New York. When he got to New York City he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1912, he graduated, and worked some vaudeville and stock companies. After several successful experiences on the Broadway stage, he began his Hollywood career in 1922, by playing a small role in a production of Sherlock Holmes, that starred John Barrymore as the great detective. His most memorable role in silent movies was as a bitter film director opposite Emil Jennings, Academy Award winning performance as a fallen detective in "The Last Command" (1928). This led to Powell's first starring role as an amateur detective Philco Vance in "The Canary Murder Case" (1929).
William Powell specialized in urbane cynicism, signifying unflappable, upper class charm with the smallest gesture. A very dependable actor he became a staple at MGM in the late thirties and forties. Powell whether romantic, comic or sinister, kept his edge of witty sophistication invariably intact. His classic look was expressive eyes, close haircut and a trim moustache.
Powell's most famous role by far thought was that of Nick Charles in six "Thin Man" movies. Beginning with "The Thin Man" in 1934. Nick Charles, to Myrna Loy's Nora in the screen adaption of Dashiell Hammetts "The Thin Man" was perfect. Powell and Loy generated a rare, extraordinary chemistry on screen, pioneering a concept that would become a staple in screwball comedy - marriage could be a fun partnership! They would appear in 14 films together including the five additional "Thin Man" outings. The role provided a perfect opportunity for Powell to showcase his sophisticated charm and his witty sense of humor; and he received his first Academy Award Nomination from them. Myrna Loy played his wife Nora in each of the Thin Man films. Their partnership was one of Hollywood's most prolific on-screen parings. 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 "My Man Godfrey".
In 1935, he starred with Jean Harlow in "Reckless". Their on-screen relationship soon developed into a serious romance that would last over two years, even though they were both very much in love with each other, there was a major issue in their relationship that they could not resolve. She wanted children, he did not. Unfortunately, she died of renal failure at the age of 26 on June 6th, 1937. On her crypt are only the words "Our Baby". She was buried in the negligee that she had worn in the filming of her last film "Saratoga" with Clark Gable and had a white gardenia placed in her hands with a note that read "Good Night, My Dearest Darling", which is believed to have been from Powell. He also paid the $25,000 for the private room her crypt is in which is made of multi-colored imported marble and is in their "Sanctuary of Benediction". His distress over her death as well as his own battle with colon cancer (which I will expand upon a bit later...) around the same time caused him to accept fewer roles.
His career slowed considerably in the forties, although he received in 1947 his third Academy Award nomination for his work in "Life of Father". His last film "Mister Roberts" was in 1955 and included James Cagney, Henry Fonda, and Jack Lemmon. Despite numerous entreaties to return to the screen, Powell refused all offers, happy in retirement.
His marriages - In 1915, Powell 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 that lead to his suicide in 1968). In 1931, for his second marriage, Powell married actress Carole Lombard. This marriage lasted just over two years. They were divorced in 1933, but always remained on good terms even starring together in "My Man Godfrey" three years later. Than came his relationship with Jean Harlow which would probably have led to marriage if not for her untimely death. On January 6th, 1940, he married actress Diana Lewis whom he called "Mousie" Although the couple had only met for the first time three weeks before the wedding, they remained married until his death at 91.
Powell's subsequent screen roles were variations on the Nick Charles theme. Igniting a succession of classic comedies such as "The Libeled Lady", "My Man Godfrey" and Double Wedding".
Powell cultivated solitude and quiet and a few sincere friends , rather than mob merriment, noise and thousands of nodding acquaintances.
Concerning Williams bout with colon cancer; He was given a short time to live when he was diagnosed but managed to confound the illness and the predictions with radiation treatment, he even kept his career going with one film each in 1938 and 1939. The later, the second Thin Man sequel, "Another Thin Man". Powell was back working full time if not keeping so heavy a schedule in the early forties, when the studio revived the Thin Man movies anew, starting with "Shadow of the Thin Man". With Van Dyke gone now, Powell and Loy proved that they could work their magic in the hands of other filmmakers, in scripts that carried them through World War II - "The Thin Man goes Home" (1944), and the postwar period "Song of the Thin Man" (1947). What really amazed me is that having such a cancer as he did, and when he did, it was almost a death sentence back than. But with treatment consisting of little more that radiation, he went on to live to the ripe old age of 91!
William Powell retired happily and comfortably at his home in Palm Springs, California, with his third wife Diana Lewis, whom if you may remember, he married in 1940, and ended up surviving him. Ironically with the advent of the television era and the boom in repertory movie houses in the sixties and seventies, and the advent of home video in the early eighties, Powell's popularity didn't wane after his retirement as older viewers continually rediscovered "The Thin Man" and it's sequels as well as his other hits such as "My Man Godfrey" and "Libeled Lady". And newer generations came to know him through these movies as well. He was one of the most consistently popular of retired film stars among the ever growing audience attuned to older movies. His fame endured for decades. Powell never re-emerged to give celebrity interviews, apart from discussing his fight with cancer. Preferring to keep to himself and a tight circle of friends, including Myrna Loy who lived on the other coast in New York City. She later stated that he was embarrassed by his gradual hearing loss in his later years.
William Powell passed away on March 5th , 1984 of Cardiac arrest in Palm Springs, California, at the ripe age of 91. Thirteen years later, his wife Diana passed away in 1997.
In closing, I would like to say that William Powell was one of the most popular and longest enduring leading men in Hollywood; his stardom lasting for four decades, from the 1920's through the 1950's, and even beyond his retirement in 1955. For myself, personally, there has been no equal.
1. "Dessert is probably the most important stage of the meal; since it will be the last thing your guests will remember before they pass out all over the table".
2. A quote for the first Thin Man in 1934:
Nick: "Oh, its all right Joe, its my dog. And also, my wife"
Nora: "Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing!"
3. A quote from "After the Thin Man in 1934:
Nick: "Come on, lets get something to eat, I'm thirsty!"