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William Powell
William Powell by Hurrell.jpg
1936 portrait for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by George Hurrell
William Horatio Powell

(1892-07-29)July 29, 1892
Died March 5, 1984(1984-03-05) (aged 91)
Resting place Desert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1911–1955
Eileen Wilson
(m. 1915; div. 1930)

(m. 1931; div. 1933)

Diana Lewis
(m. 1940)
Children William David Powell

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

Early life

Born in Pittsburgh in 1892, William Powell was the only child of Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, who worked as an accountant. In 1907, young William moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he graduated from Central High School four years later.


William Powell - When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922)
Powell in When Knighthood Was in Flower, 1922
Phillips Holmes, William Powell, and Fay Wray in 'Pointed Heels', 1929
Phillips Holmes, Powell and Fay Wray in Pointed Heels, 1929

After high school, Powell enrolled at the University of Kansas, because his parents wanted him to prepare to study law, but after only a week there, he left and relocated to New York City where he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1912, Powell left the AADA at the end of one year, and worked in several vaudeville and stock companies. 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 production to date.

Under contract to Paramount throughout most of the 1920s, Powell played 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 Bros., Powell and Francis made seven films together.

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 played Philo Vance at Paramount Pictures three 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."

Promotional photo for The Thin Man (1934) with Powell, co-star Myrna Loy, and Skippy as Asta

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 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 in the screwball comedy Libeled Lady, that also featured Loy and Spencer Tracy. 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

On April 15, 1915, Powell married Eileen Wilson, who was born Julia Mary Tierney. The couple had a son, William David Powell, his only child. They amicably divorced in 1930. Powell's son became a television writer and producer before a period of ill health and death in 1968.

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. He was engaged to marry Jean Harlow, his co-star in Reckless (1935), until her sudden death in 1937. 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.

A Republican, Powell supported Thomas Dewey in the 1944 United States presidential election.


In March 1938, Powell was diagnosed with rectal 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.


Powell died in Palm Springs, California, on March 5, 1984, at the age of 91 from pneumonia, 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.


Academy Awards nominations

  • 1934 Best ActorThe Thin Man
  • 1936 Best Actor – My Man Godfrey
  • 1947 Best Actor – Life with Father

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

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1936 Lux Radio Theatre The Thin Man
1938 Lux Radio Theatre My Man Godfrey
1939 Lux Radio Theatre One Way Passage
1939 Lux Radio Theatre The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
1940 Lux Radio Theatre Love Affair
1940 Lux Radio Theatre After the Thin Man
1940 Lux Radio Theatre Manhattan Melodrama
1941 Lux Radio Theatre Hired Wife
1942 Lux Radio Theatre Love Crazy
1943 Lux Radio Theatre The Lady Has Plans
1944 Lux Radio Theatre Shadow of a Doubt
1944 Lux Radio Theatre Suspicion
1946 Reader's Digest Radio Edition He Fell in Love with a Picture
1948 Lux Radio Theatre I Love You Again
1948 Lux Radio Theatre Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
1949 Screen Directors Playhouse Love Crazy
1953 Suspense "The Man Who Cried Wolf"


William Powell-John Barrymore in Sherlock Holmes
Powell and John Barrymore in Sherlock Holmes (1922)
William Powell Marion Shilling Regis Toomey Natalie Moorhead Shadow of the Law 1930
Powell, Marion Shilling, Regis Toomey, Natalie Moorhead in Shadow of the Law (1930)
Man of the World lobby card 2
Lobby card with Carole Lombard in Man of the World (1931)
Poster - Libeled Lady 03
Lobby card with Powell, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in Libeled Lady (1936)
Lobby card featuring Myrna Loy and Powell in After the Thin Man (1936)
My Man Godfrey promo still 2
Carole Lombard and Powell in My Man Godfrey (1936)
Life with Father (1947)
Irene Dunne and Powell in Life with Father (1947)
William Powell, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire trailer
Powell, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Year Title Role Notes
1922 Sherlock Holmes Foreman Wells film debut
1922 When Knighthood Was in Flower Francis I
1922 Outcast DeValle lost film
1923 The Bright Shawl Gaspar De Vaca
1923 Under the Red Robe Duke of Orleans
1924 Dangerous Money Prince Arnolfo da Pescia lost film
1924 Romola Tito Melema
1925 Too Many Kisses Julio
1925 Faint Perfume Barnaby Powers lost film
1925 My Lady's Lips Scott Seddon
1925 The Beautiful City Nick Di Silva lost film
1925 The New Commandment uncredited lost film
1926 White Mice Roddy Forrester
1926 Sea Horses Lorenzo Salvia lost film
1926 Desert Gold Snake Landree
1926 The Runaway Jack Harrison lost film
1926 Aloma of the South Seas Van Templeton lost film
1926 Beau Geste Boldini
1926 The Great Gatsby George Wilson lost film
1926 Tin Gods Tony Santelli lost film
1927 New York Trent Regan lost film
1927 Love's Greatest Mistake Don Kendall lost film
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 lost film
1928 The Last Command Lev Andreyev
1928 Beau Sabreur Becque lost film
1928 Feel My Pulse Her Nemesis
1928 Partners in Crime Smith
1928 The Drag Net Dapper Frank Trent lost film
1928 The Vanishing Pioneer John Murdock lost film
1928 Forgotten Faces Froggy
1928 Interference Philip Voaze Powell's sound debut
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 Hardesty
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 Lieutenant Bill Gordon
1935 The Casino Murder Case "A new man" uncredited cameo
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 a.k.a. George Carey
1941 Love Crazy Steve Ireland
1941 Shadow of the Thin Man Nick Charles
1942 Crossroads David Talbot, a.k.a. Jean Pelletier
1943 The Youngest Profession Himself
1944 The Heavenly Body William S. Whitley
1945 The Thin Man Goes Home Nick Charles
1945 Ziegfeld Follies Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.
1946 The Hoodlum Saint Terence Ellerton 'Terry' O'Neill
1946 The Great Morgan Himself Voice, Uncredited
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 (final film)

Short subjects

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

Box office rankings

  • 1935 - 15th
  • 1936 - 13th
  • 1937 - 5th, 6th (UK)
  • 1938 - 25th, 10th (UK)
  • 1940 - 25th
  • 1941 - 25th

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: William Powell para niños

  • List of actors with Academy Award nominations
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Valerie Thomas
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