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William Powell

from the early 1920s
Born William Horatio Powell
July 29, 1892(1892-07-29)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
United States
Died March 5, 1984 (aged 91)
Palm Springs, California,
United States
Occupation Actor
Years active 1911–1955
Spouse(s) Eileen Wilson (1915-1930) 1 son
Carole Lombard (1931-1933) (divorced)
Diana Lewis (1940-1984) (his death)

William Horatio Powell (July 29, 1892 – March 5, 1984) was an American actor, noted for his sophisticated, cynical portrayals.

A major star at MGM, he was paired with Myrna Loy in fourteen films, including the popular Thin Man series 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).

Contents

Childhood

Powell, an only child, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell.[1] He showed an early aptitude for performing. In 1907, he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri where he gradualted Central High School in 1912. The Powells lived a few blocks away from the Carpenters, whose daughter Harlean evolved into Jean Harlow, although Powell would not meet her until both were established stars.

Film career

Powell, from the trailer for Libeled Lady (1936)

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.[2] After several successful experiences on the Broadway stage, he began his Hollywood career in 1922 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 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).

William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Powell's most famous role was that of Nick Charles in six Thin Man films, beginning with The Thin Man in 1934. 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 for The Thin Man. Myrna Loy played his wife, Nora, in each of the Thin Man films. Their partnership was one of Hollywood's most prolific on-screen pairings, 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 it developed into a serious romance, though she died in 1937 before they could marry. His distress over her death, as well as his own battle with colon cancer around the same time, caused him to accept fewer acting roles.

His career slowed considerably in the 1940s, although in 1947 he received his third Academy Award nomination for his work in Life with Father. His last film was Mister Roberts in 1955, with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. Despite numerous entreaties to return to the screen, Powell refused all offers, happy in his retirement.

Personal life

Diana Lewis in Cry 'Havoc' (1943)

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.)

In 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.

A close relationship with Jean Harlow, begun in 1935, was cut short by her untimely death in 1937. It is reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note, but presumed to be written by Powell, that read "Good night, my dearest darling" were placed in her hands before she was interred. 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."

On January 6, 1940, he married actress Diana Lewis, whom he called "Mousie." Although the couple had only met for the first time three weeks before their wedding, they remained married until Powell's death. On March 5, 1984, Powell died of cardiac arrest in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 91, some thirty years after his retirement. His widow died in 1997.

Honors

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Academy Awards nominations

Other

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1636 Vine Street. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in 1947 for Life with Father and The Senator Was Indiscreet. The acoustic guitar instrumentalist Leo Kottke titled a song "William Powell" dedicated to the actor.

Filmography

Features:

Short Subjects:

  • Screen Snapshots (1932)
  • Hollywood on Parade No. A-12 (1933)
  • Screen Snapshots: The Skolsky Party (1946)

Further reading

  • 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

References

External links


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