William Powell Overview:

Legendary actor, William Powell, was born William Horatio Powell on Jul 29, 1892 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Powell died at the age of 91 on Mar 5, 1984 in Palm Springs, CA and was laid to rest in Desert Memorial Park Cemetery in Cathedral City, CA.

Early Life

William Horatio Powell was born on July 29th, 1892 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The only child of an accountant and homemaker, young Powell enjoyed a comfortable quiet childhood. When he was nine, his family relocated to Kansas City. It was there Powell began taking and interests in the arts, much to the chagrin of his straight laced father. Powell's passion only grew with age and in High School he participated in glee club, drama club, public speaking, yearbook illustration. After graduating, he made his father happy by enrolling at University of Kansas. That happiness, however, was short lived when Powell dropped out after only a week and headed east to New York. He then enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he studied until 1912.

Early Career

Upon graduating Powell immediately began looking for work. He would spend the next ten of his career moving to acting companies and tropes, honing his craft and skills as an actor. He also spend time on the vaudeville circuit, no doubt polishing his comedic skills he would one day be famed for. After some success on the theatre circuit, in 1917 Powell made his Broadway debut with a bit part in Cohan & Harris production of The King. He then went on to play another small role as Javier in Spanish Love, lasting over 300 performances. In 1922 he appeared in two Broadway shows, the first being the Earl Carroll stages Bavu. He immediately followed that up with larger role in The Woman Who Laughed, which only lasted 13 performances.  He soon caught the eye of film director Albert Parker and was cast Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore. Powell made his film debut playing Foreman Wells, a lackey to the Professor Moriarty. Seeing more opportunity for gainful employment on the screen than on the stage, Powell abandoned Broadway and began appearing in more films.

Silent Film Career

For the next ten years Powell toiled away in silent cinema, appearing in over thirty films and most often found himself playing villains from various ethnic descent. In 1924 Powell signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, where he would remain employed for seven years.  In 1925 Powell appeared in four films, Too Many Kisses, Faint Perfume, My Lady's Lips and The Beautiful City. The next year the amount of films he appeared in had doubled to eight including the notable Beau Geste and The Great Gatsby. He continued this busy pace into the late 1920's, once again working on eight films in 1927. In 1928 Powell gain great critical attention for his role as the manipulative film director, Lev Andreyev, in Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command. He appeared in seven more films that year, including supporting role in the films Partners in Crime and Forgotten Faces. During this time, Hollywood began to make its leap from silence to sound, and at the end of 1928, Powell appeared in his first talkie, Interference.

Sound Film Career

While many stars saw their careers suffer during the transition sound, Powell's began to flourish. Thanks to his clipped and crisp manner of speaking and years of work on the stage, Powell's career transformed from exotic villain to urbane sophisticate in a few short years.  His first of those roles was in 1929's The Canary Murder Case, as the smooth talking and worldly detective Philo Vance. The character proved so popular that Powell would revive it in the films The Greene Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case, and Paramount on Parade. He soon began to find his niche in the world known as Hollywood stardom. He had a gift for comedy, playing witty playboys and rogues through out the early 1930's in films like Street of Chance opposite Jean Arthur and Ladies Man opposite Carole Lombard. It was while filming Ladies Man that Powell found he and Lombard found they had an attraction that went beyond the screen and married in 1931. However, the union would only last two years as the age difference proved to a bigger problem the pair initially thought and divorced a mere two years later. A gentleman through and through, Powell and Lombard remained close friends until her death in 1942.

In 1932 Powell's contract with Paramount expired and signed with Warner Brothers. He continued to demonstrate his comedic skill in films like 1932's Jewel Robbery. In the film Powell plays a debonair thief who uses his sophisticated charms to win over a wealth Baroness in order to steal her fine jewels. That year he also took s surprising but success turn as a romantic leading man in the romantic drama One Way Passage. In the film Powell played a debonair murder awaiting execution who falls in love with a terminally ill socialite aboard a trans-pacific boat. In 1933 Powell starred in three films, Double Harness, Private Detective 62 and The Kennel Murder Case. Despite getting work, he was unhappy with the role being offered. After only two years at Warner Brothers, he left the studio and signed with MGM in 1934.


Upon his arrival at MGM, Powell was cast opposite Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama. In the film Powell and Gable plays two orphans who develop a life long friendship despite growing to be on opposite ends of the law. The film was hit and is noted for being the last film famous gangster John Dillinger would see right before being gunned down in front of the movie theatre. The film also marked the first of fourteen movies Powell would appear in with leading lady, Myrna Loy. Although the pairing proved popular in Manhattan Melodrama, it would be their next film that would provide the two with the most memorable and lasting roles. Nick and Nora Charles.

In 1934 Powell and Loy starred in W.S Van Dyke's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's detective novel The Thin Man. In the film, Powell played the boozy and retired detective Nick Charles, married to the wealthy and witty socialite, Nora. The two spend the film drinking cocktails, engaging in banter and exchanging good-natured barbs all while solving a solving a murder in seedy underbelly of New York. The film, which took just two weeks and a little over 200,000 dollars to complete, was originally slated as B-picture. However, the film would gross over a millions and launch five more sequels to The Thin Man series. For his efforts, Powell received his first of three Academy Award nominations. Thanks to the films success, Powell was now a bonafide Hollywood Star and the following years would bring some of best work.


The mid-1930's  would prove to be high point in Powell's career. After The Thin Man, he became one of Hollywood's go-to screwball comedy performers. In 1935 he starred opposite Jean Harlow in the musical comedy Reckless. The two soon began a relationship during filming.  The next year he starred in a series of hit films. The first was the biographical picture The Great Ziegfeld in which he played famed stage producer Florenz Ziegfeld. The film would go to win best picture. He then starred opposite ex-wife, Carol Lombard in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey. In the film Powell plays the wayward Godfrey, invited by socialite Carole Lombard to serve as her wealthy families Butler. The film was huge hit commercially and critically with Powell earning his second Academy Award. His next film yet another screwball comedy, Libeled Lady, this time opposite Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. He rounded the year with the first of The Thin Man sequels, After The Thin Man. In 1937 he starred in three films, including another Loy collabaration with Double Wedding. Although initially riding high on the success of his career, soon those feelings of elation would comes crashing down.


In June of 1937, Jean Harlow died of complication of kidney failure.  Powell sank into a mix of shock and depression; unable to believe the beautiful 26 year could be taken away so fast. Powell would go on to pay for Harlow's gravesite, a 25,000-dollar private room in the Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale. It is report also left gardenia and an unsigned note that read "Good night, my dearest darling," in her hand before her burial. Later than year Powell was diagnosed with recital cancer and underwent experimental radium therapy to treat the disease. It would take two years before the cancer went into full remission.  The combined emotional turmoil and physical stressed caused the action to take a break from filmmaking.

Later Career and Life

Although he was able to return to the movie business, his career has slowed by 1940's. In 1940 he starred with Loy in the comedy-of-divorce, I Love You Again. The Next year he starred with Loy in Love Crazy and Shadow of the Thin Man. He once again played stage producer Florenz Ziegfeld in Ziegfeld Follies. In 1947 he starred as Clarence Day, Sr in the opposite Irene Dunn and Elizabeth Taylor in Life With Father. For the role Powell would receive his last Academy Award nomination. Also that year, Powell starred in Song of the Thin Man, the final installment of The Thin Man series. He continued to act sporadically in late 1940's and 50's with film such as Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Dancing in the Dark, and How to Marry a Millionaire. His final fame came in 1955, opposite Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and James Cagney in Mister Roberts. After that, Powell slipped in to quiet retirement with his third wife, Diana Lewis. Although frequented with offers from the studios to return to the sound stage, Powell preferred to live his days playing gulf and managing his investments. William Powell died on March 5th, 1984 from heart failure. He was 91 years old.


(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Although Powell was nominated for three Oscars, he never won a competitive Academy Award.

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1934Best ActorThe Thin Man (1934)Nick CharlesNominated
1936Best ActorMy Man Godfrey (1936)Godfrey ParksNominated
1947Best ActorLife with Father (1947)Clarence DayNominated

He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures. William Powell's handprints and footprints were 'set in stone' at Grauman's Chinese Theater during imprint ceremony #32 on Oct 20, 1936.

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William Powell Quotes:

Irene: I'm terribly grateful. This is the first time I've ever beaten Cornelia at anything and you helped me do it.
Godfrey: Well, that makes me a sort of Cornelia beater doesn't it?

Nora Charles: Pretty girl.
Nick Charles: Yes. She's a very nice type.
Nora Charles: You got types?
Nick Charles: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick Charles: Nicky, something tells me that something important is happening somewhere and I think we should be there.
[cut to Nora with a cocktail shaker]

read more quotes from William Powell...

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William Powell Facts
Although he and Carole Lombard divorced in 1933, they remained close friends until her death in 1942.

He and Casey Stengel were in the same class in Central High School in Kansas City, Missouri.

Cousin-in-law of Howard Hawks and Kenneth Hawks.

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