William Powell

For other people named William Powell, see William Powell (disambiguation).
William Powell

1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Born (1892-07-29)July 29, 1892
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died March 5, 1984(1984-03-05) (aged 91)
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
Cause of death heart failure
Resting place Desert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California
Occupation Actor
Years active 1911–1955
Spouse(s) Eileen Wilson
(m. 1915–1930; divorced)
Carole Lombard
(m. 1931–1933; divorced)
Diana Lewis
(m. 1940–1984; his death)
Children William David Powell (1925–1968)

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 popular 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).

Early life

An only child, Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, on July 29, 1892. His father was born in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania (where Powell spent his boyhood summers), to William S. and Harriet Powell.[2] Powell showed an early aptitude for performing. In 1907, he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he graduated from Central High School in 1910. The Powells lived just a few blocks away from the Carpenters, whose daughter Harlean also went to Hollywood, under the name Jean Harlow, although Powell 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.[3] 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. 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).

Powell and his frequent co-star 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, 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 he 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. 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 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, 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 cantankerous Clarence Day, Sr., in Life with Father. His last film was 1955's Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon.

Personal life

In 1915, he married Eileen Wilson (1894–1942) who was born Julia Tierney, 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.[4]

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 when he learned of her death in 1942.[5]

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 Harlow's death, Powell did not undertake any film roles for over a year during this period.[6]

Three weeks after they met, on January 6, 1940, Powell married actress Diana Lewis, whom he called "Mousie".[7] They remained married for 44 years, residing primarily in Palm Springs, California, until Powell died at the age of 91.


Powell died in Palm Springs, California, on March 5, 1984, at the age of 91, some 30 years after his retirement. He is buried at the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California, near his son William David Powell and wife Diana Lewis.[1][8][9]


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.

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

In 1957, Powell was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.

In 1978, influential proto-punk band The Dictators recorded a well-reviewed rock ballad, "Sleepin' with the TV on" in homage to William Powell and The Thin Man films.

In 1992, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.[10]

Television star and comedian Don Adams stated that his famous "clippy" Maxwell Smart voice characterization was an exaggeration of the speaking style of actor William Powell.

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1940 Lux Radio Theatre Manhattan Melodrama[11]
1946 Readers' Digest Radio Edition He Fell in Love with a Picture[11]:33
1949 Screen Directors Playhouse Love Crazy[12]


Year Title Role
1922 Sherlock Holmes Foreman Wells
1922 When Knighthood Was in Flower Francis I
1922 Outcast DeValle
1923 The Bright Shawl Gaspar De Vaca
1923 Under the Red Robe Duke of Orleans
1924 Dangerous Money Prince Arnoldo da Pescia
1924 Romola Tito Melema
1925 Too Many Kisses Julio
1925 Faint Perfume Barnaby Powers
1925 My Lady's Lips Scott Seldon
1925 The Beautiful City Nick Di Silva
1926 White Mice Roddy Forrester
1926 Sea Horses Lorenzo Salvia
1926 Desert Gold Snake Landree
1926 The Runaway Jack Harrison
1926 Aloma of the South Seas Van Templeton
1926 Beau Geste Boldini
1926 The Great Gatsby George Wilson
1926 Tin Gods Tony Santelli
1927 New York Trent Regan
1927 Love's Greatest Mistake Don Kendall
1927 Special Delivery Harold Jones
1927 Senorita Manuel Oliveros
1927 Time to Love Prince Alado
1927 Paid to Love Prince Eric
1927 Nevada Clan Dillon
1927 She's a Sheik Kada
1928 Beau Sabreur Becque
1928 The Last Command Lev Andreyev
1928 Feel My Pulse Her Nemesis
1928 Partners in Crime Smith
1928 The Drag Net Dapper Frank Trent
1928 The Vanishing Pioneer John Murdock
1928 Forgotten Faces Froggy
1928 Interference Philip Voaze
1929 The Canary Murder Case Philo Vance
1929 The Four Feathers Capt. William Trench
1929 The Greene Murder Case Philo Vance
1929 Charming Sinners Karl Kraley
1929 Pointed Heels Robert Courtland
1930 Behind the Make-Up Gardoni
1930 Street of Chance John D. Marsden / 'Natural' Davis
1930 The Benson Murder Case Philo Vance
1930 Paramount on Parade Philo Vance
1930 Shadow of the Law John Nelson
1930 For the Defense William Foster
1931 Man of the World Michael Trevor
1931 Ladies' Man Jamie Darricott
1931 The Road to Singapore Hugh Dawltry
1932 High Pressure Gar Evans
1932 Jewel Robbery The Robber
1932 One Way Passage Dan
1932 Lawyer Man Anton Adam
1933 Private Detective 62 Free
1933 Double Harness John Fletcher
1933 The Kennel Murder Case Philo Vance
1934 Fashions of 1934 Sherwood Nash
1934 Manhattan Melodrama Jim Wade
1934 The Thin Man Nick Charles
1934 The Key Capt. Bill Tennant
1934 Evelyn Prentice John Prentice
1935 Star of Midnight Clay 'Dal' Dalzell
1935 Reckless Ned Riley
1935 Escapade Fritz
1935 Rendezvous Bill Gordon
1936 The Great Ziegfeld Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
1936 The Ex-Mrs. Bradford Dr. Lawrence Bradford
1936 My Man Godfrey Godfrey
1936 Libeled Lady Bill Chandler
1936 After the Thin Man Nick Charles
1937 The Last of Mrs. Cheney Charles
1937 The Emperor's Candlesticks Baron Stephan Wolensky
1937 Double Wedding Charles Lodge
1938 The Baroness and the Butler Johann Porok
1939 Another Thin Man Nick Charles
1940 I Love You Again Larry Wilson aka George Carey
1941 Love Crazy Steve Ireland
1941 Shadow of the Thin Man Nick Charles
1942 Crossroads David Talbot, aka Jean Pelletier
1944 The Heavenly Body William S. Whitley
1945 The Youngest Profession Himself
1945 Ziegfeld Follies Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.
1945 The Thin Man Goes Home Nick Charles
1946 The Hoodlum Saint Terence Ellerton 'Terry' O'Neill
1946 The Great Morgan Film Character
1947 Life with Father Clarence Day
1947 Song of the Thin Man Nick Charles
1947 The Senator Was Indiscreet Senator Melvin G. Ashton
1948 Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid Mr. Arthur Peabody
1949 Take One False Step Professor Andrew Gentling
1949 Dancing in the Dark Emery Slade
1951 It's a Big Country Professor
1952 The Treasure of Lost Canyon Homer 'Doc' Brown
1953 The Girl Who Had Everything Steve Latimer
1953 How to Marry a Millionaire J.D. Hanley
1955 Mister Roberts Doc

Short subjects


  1. 1 2 Interments of Interest (PDF), Palm Springs Cemetery District
  2. Powell genealogy
  3. William Powell Biography
  4. Parish, James Robert, and Don E. Stanke (1975). The Debonairs. New Rochelle, N.Y: Arlington House. p. 459. ISBN 9780870002939.
  5. Bryant, p. 142.
  6. Bryant, pp. 127-36.
  7. "Mousie", Find a grave.
  8. 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. 240–242. ISBN 978-0762741014. OCLC 70284362.
  9. Donald Greyfield (January 1, 2001). "William Powell". Actor. Find a Grave.
  10. Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated
  11. 1 2 "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 37 (1): 32. Winter 2011.
  12. "Radio Guide". Pennsylvania, Altoona. Altoona Tribune. August 16, 1949. p. 19. Retrieved November 14, 2015 via Newspapers.com.


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