William Powell

William Horatio Powell (July 29, 1892 – March 5, 1984)[1] 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).

William Powell
1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
William Horatio Powell

(1892-07-29)July 29, 1892
DiedMarch 5, 1984(1984-03-05) (aged 91)
Resting placeDesert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California, U.S.
Years active1911–1955
Eileen Wilson
(m. 1915; div. 1930)

Carole Lombard
(m. 1931; div. 1933)

Diana Lewis
(m. 1940)
ChildrenWilliam David Powell

Early life

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 1911. 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.


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 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.[3]

Under contract to Paramount throughout most of the 1920s, Powell played heels and villains in the early part of his career. As he gained experience, 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.

One Way Passage was remade in 1940 as 'Til We Meet Again, featuring Merle Oberon and George Brent.

His most memorable role in silent movies was as a vengeful 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."[4]

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 formidable Clarence Day, Sr., in Life with Father. His last film was 1955's Mister Roberts, playing "Doc" alongside Henry Fonda in the title role, James Cagney as the ship's perfectionist captain, and Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning performance as Ensign Pulver.

Personal life

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.[5]

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.[6] He was engaged to marry Jean Harlow, his co-star in Reckless (1935), until her sudden death in 1937.[7][8] 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.[9]


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.[10]


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.[1][11]


Academy Awards nominations

Other awards

New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in 1947 for Life with Father and The Senator Was Indiscreet.[12]

William Powell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1636 Vine Street.

In 1992, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.[13]

Radio appearances

1940Lux Radio TheatreManhattan Melodrama[14]
1946Readers' Digest Radio EditionHe Fell in Love with a Picture[14]:33
1949Screen Directors PlayhouseLove Crazy[15]


William Powell and John Barrymore in Sherlock Holmes (1922)
Poster for My Lady's Lips (1925)
Lobby card for Pointed Heels (1929)
Poster for For the Defense (1930)
1922Sherlock HolmesForeman Wells(film debut)
1922When Knighthood Was in FlowerFrancis I
1923The Bright ShawlGaspar De Vaca
1923Under the Red RobeDuke of Orleans
1924Dangerous MoneyPrince Arnoldo da Pescia
1924RomolaTito Melema
1925Too Many KissesJulio
1925Faint PerfumeBarnaby Powers
1925My Lady's LipsScott Seldon
1925The Beautiful CityNick Di Silva
1926White MiceRoddy Forrester
1926Sea HorsesLorenzo Salvia
1926Desert GoldSnake Landree
1926The RunawayJack Harrison
1926Aloma of the South SeasVan Templeton
1926Beau GesteBoldini
1926The Great GatsbyGeorge Wilson
1926Tin GodsTony Santelli
1927New YorkTrent Regan
1927Love's Greatest MistakeDon Kendall
1927Special DeliveryHarold Jones
1927SenoritaManuel Oliveros
1927Time to LovePrince Alado
1927Paid to LovePrince Eric
1927NevadaClan Dillon
1927She's a SheikKada
1928The Last CommandLev Andreyev
1928Beau SabreurBecque
1928Feel My PulseHer Nemesis
1928Partners in CrimeSmith
1928The Drag NetDapper Frank Trent
1928The Vanishing PioneerJohn Murdock
1928Forgotten FacesFroggy
1928InterferencePhilip Voaze
1929The Canary Murder CasePhilo Vance
1929The Four FeathersCapt. William Trench
1929The Greene Murder CasePhilo Vance
1929Charming SinnersKarl Kraley
1929Pointed HeelsRobert Courtland
1930Behind the Make-UpGardoni
1930Street of ChanceJohn D. Marsden / 'Natural' Davis
1930The Benson Murder CasePhilo Vance
1930Paramount on ParadePhilo Vance
1930Shadow of the LawJohn Nelson
1930For the DefenseWilliam Foster
1931Man of the WorldMichael Trevor
1931Ladies' ManJamie Darricott
1931The Road to SingaporeHugh Dawltry
1932High PressureGar Evans
1932Jewel RobberyThe Robber
1932One Way PassageDan Hardesty
1932Lawyer ManAnton Adam
1933Private Detective 62Free
1933Double HarnessJohn Fletcher
1933The Kennel Murder CasePhilo Vance
1934Fashions of 1934Sherwood Nash
1934Manhattan MelodramaJim Wade
1934The Thin ManNick Charles
1934The KeyCapt. Bill Tennant
1934Evelyn PrenticeJohn Prentice
1935Star of MidnightClay 'Dal' Dalzell
1935RecklessNed Riley
1935RendezvousLieutenant Bill Gordon
1936The Great ZiegfeldFlorenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
1936The Ex-Mrs. BradfordDr. Lawrence Bradford
1936My Man GodfreyGodfrey
1936Libeled LadyBill Chandler
1936After the Thin ManNick Charles
1937The Last of Mrs. CheneyCharles
1937The Emperor's CandlesticksBaron Stephan Wolensky
1937Double WeddingCharles Lodge
1938The Baroness and the ButlerJohann Porok
1939Another Thin ManNick Charles
1940I Love You AgainLarry Wilson a.k.a. George Carey
1941Love CrazySteve Ireland
1941Shadow of the Thin ManNick Charles
1942CrossroadsDavid Talbot, a.k.a. Jean Pelletier
1943The Youngest ProfessionHimself
1944The Heavenly BodyWilliam S. Whitley
1945The Thin Man Goes HomeNick Charles
1945Ziegfeld FolliesFlorenz Ziegfeld Jr.
1946The Hoodlum SaintTerence Ellerton 'Terry' O'Neill
1946The Great MorganHimselfVoice, Uncredited
1947Life with FatherClarence Day
1947Song of the Thin ManNick Charles
1947The Senator Was IndiscreetSenator Melvin G. Ashton
1948Mr. Peabody and the MermaidMr. Arthur Peabody
1949Take One False StepProfessor Andrew Gentling
1949Dancing in the DarkEmery Slade
1951It's a Big CountryProfessor
1952The Treasure of Lost CanyonHomer 'Doc' Brown
1953The Girl Who Had EverythingSteve Latimer
1953How to Marry a MillionaireJ.D. Hanley
1955Mister RobertsDoc(final film)

Short subjects

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

See also


  1. Interments of Interest (PDF), Palm Springs Cemetery District, retrieved March 20, 2017
  2. "William Powell Biography". Archived from the original on 2008-07-24. Retrieved 2008-08-01.
  3. Life, Volume 80, p. 208
  4. Ankerich, Michael G. (1998). The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., p. 106.
  5. Parish, James Robert; Stanke, Don E. (1975). The Debonairs. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House. p. 459. ISBN 978-0870002939.
  6. Bryant, p. 142.
  7. Di Mambro, Dina. "Portrait of Harlow: The Original Blonde Bombshell". ClassicHollywoodBios.com. Retrieved May 27, 2018.
  8. "75 Years Ago, Saying Good-bye to Jean Harlow". DearMrGable.com. June 9, 2012. Retrieved May 27, 2018.
  9. "Obituary: Diana Lewis". The Independent. 31 January 1997.
  10. Bryant, pp. 12736.
  11. Brooks, Patricia; Brooks, Jonathan (2006). "Chapter 8: East L.A. and the Desert". Laid to Rest in California: a guide to the cemeteries and grave sites of the rich and famous. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press. pp. 240–42. ISBN 978-0762741014. OCLC 70284362.
  12. "Awards – New York Film Critics Circle – NYFCC". www.nyfcc.com. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  13. "Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2012-08-07.
  14. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 37 (1): 32. Winter 2011.
  15. "Radio Guide". Altoona Tribune. Pennsylvania, Altoona. August 16, 1949. p. 19. Retrieved November 14, 2015 via Newspapers.com.


  • Bryant, Roger. William Powell: The Life and Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2006. ISBN 0-7864-2602-0.
  • Christensen, Lawrence O., et al. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, Maryland: University of Missouri Press, 199. ISBN 0-8262-1222-0.
  • Francisco, Charles. Gentleman: The William Powell Story . New York: St Martins Press, 1985. ISBN 0-312-32103-1.
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