Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Star of the "Thin Man" movies, actor William Powell hailed from Pittsburgh.
Awards: New York Film Critics Award
William Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1892. After dropping out of the University of Kansas, he decided to attend the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He then launched career on stage and later in films. Powell became known for his quick wit and on-screen chemistry with leading ladies such as Myrna Loy. His career spans nearly 100 films. Powell retired from acting in 1955 and moved to Palm Springs, California with his third wife. On March 5, 1984, Powell died of pneumonia at the age of 91 in Palm Springs.
William Horatio Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1892 to Horatio Warren Powell and Nettie Manila Brady Powell. His family soon relocated to Kansas City, Missouri where Powell grew up. During his early years, Powell was very active in glee club and small local productions at his high school. His father, an accountant, wished for Powell to attend college to become a lawyer. In order to appease his father, Powell enrolled in the University of Kansas to study law. However, he soon dropped out, to realize his dreams of becoming an actor. His parents disapproved of his decision and refused to finance any formal training. Powell appealed to his great-aunt Elizabeth, living in Mercer, Pennsylvania. She agreed to loan him $700 to fund his tuition at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Powell later remarked that he would be forever indebted to his aunt for helping to get his career underway.
Powell's impressive career began on Broadway where he performed in several productions such as Ne'er Do Well in 1912. He married his first wife, actress Eileen Wilson, in 1914. They later had a son, William David Powell, in 1925. Powell's film career began in 1922 when he starred alongside John Barrymore as the villain in Sherlock Holmes, a silent film. Powell soon evolved into one of Hollywood's most famous leading men. He and his comrades, Ronald Coleman and Richard Barthelmess, became notorious for their late night antics on the town, and they were dubbed as the "Three Musketeers" of Hollywood. As movie productions adopted sound technology, "talkies" began to be produced as Hollywood's main form of entertainment. At this time, many silent stars lost their appeal because they were not able to adapt to the rapidly changing industry. However, Powell's career only improved because of his appealing voice, cunning wit, and on-screen chemistry with leading ladies such as Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Powell married screwball comedienne Carole Lombard in 1931 after his first marriage had deteriorated. He then signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, which gave him an opportunity to greatly expand his body of work. Powell's most renowned and celebrated collaboration was with Myrna Loy. The two originally costarred in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934. They later met again in The Thin Man in the same year. The film centers on the happily married Nick and Nora Charles, Nick being a retired detective and Nora a wealthy socialite. Nora convinces Nick to take part in a murder investigation; along the way they meet a gaggle of off-beat characters. Powell and Loy were impeccable as the Charleses, remembered for their witty banter and amazing chemistry, causing fans to falsely believe that they were actually married in real life. Later, Loy remarked, "I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend, and above all a true gentleman." Powell and Loy rode the success of the first Thin Man movie, producing six more in the span of 10 years: After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man, The Thin Man Goes Home, and Song of the Thin Man.
Two years after Powell's success in The Thin Man, he appeared in The Great Ziegfield. This film, also starring Myrna Loy, chronicled the life of stage producer Florenz Ziegfeld, with Powell in the leading role. The Great Ziegfeld won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Film. Although Powell had been nominated for both The Thin Man and The Great Ziegield in the category of Best Actor, he was overlooked both times. 1936 also brought Powell's success with the comedy My Man Godfrey in which he starred, alongside his now ex-wife Carole Lombard, as a butler taken in by a dysfunctional affluent family. My Man Godfrey brought another Oscar nomination for Powell. Although an Academy Award win seemed to always elude Powell, he did receive the New York Film Critics best actor award for two films, Life with Father and The Senator Was Indiscreet. Powell became known for his quick wit and quirky sense of humor in front of and behind the camera. When asked about his status as a sex symbol and how he kept in shape, Powell quipped, "I have a swimming pool. Every day I go up to see it and give it a long piercing look. I think a lot about tennis and I talk a good game of golf. I worry about almost anything. In fact, I am a very fine worrier. That makes me lose weight and I am fittest when I am lean. So there you are." In 1935, Powell had starred in Reckless with Jean Harlow. Upon meeting Harlow, Powell became enamored of her and the two carried on an affair for two years. Harlow suddenly fell ill and died in 1937 at the age of 26, leaving Powell heartbroken, as the two were secretly engaged. In 1947, Powell was instrumental in the production of Life with Father, a film in which he played the starring role as a gruff but lovable father of a high class New York brood, a role which Powell had wanted for years. Following a bout with rectal cancer, Powell was not able to keep the same pace with his films, and decided that his last film would be 1955's Mister Roberts, a comedy in which he would portray a doctor aboard a naval ship during World War II.
After his final film, Powell moved to Palm Springs, California with his wife, actress Diana Lewis. He led a quiet retirement, happily married until his death on March 5, 1984, from pneumonia at the age of 91. He left behind an impressive body of work spanning nearly 30 years and nearly 100 films.
Sherlock Holmes. Dir. Albert Parker. Perf. John Barrymore and William Powell. Goldwyn Pictures, 1922.
Manhattan Melodrama. Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. Perf. Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. MGM, 1934.
The Thin Man Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. Perf. William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan. MGM, 1934.
Reckless. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Jean Harlow and William Powell. MGM, 1935.
The Great Ziegfield. Dir. Robert Z. Leonard. Perf. William Powell, Myrna Loy. MGM, 1936.
My Man Godfrey. Dir. Gregory La Cava. Perf. William Powell, Carole Lombard. Universal, 1936.
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Dir. Richard Boleslawski. Perf. Joan Crawford, William Powell, Robert Montgomery. MGM, 1937.
I Love You Again. Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. Perf. William Powell and Myrna Loy. MGM, 1940.
Life with Father. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor. Warner Brothers, 1947.
The Senator Was Indiscreet. Dir. George S. Kauffman. Perf. William Powell, Ella Raines. Inter-John & Universal, 1947.
How to Marry a Millionaire. Dir. Jean Negulesco. Perf. Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, William Powell, Rory Calhoun. Twentieth Century Fox, 1953.
Mister Roberts. Dir. John Ford. Perf. Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon, Betsy Palmer. Warner Brothers, 1955.
Dancis, Bruce. "Quite the Pair." The Sacramento Bee 5 Aug. 2005: TK27.
Drabelle, Dennis. "The Art of William Powell." Film Comment 29 May 1993: 55-57.