William Powell was a debonair film star who epitomized the suave, cosmopolitan leading man of the 1930s and 1940s.
Best known as Dashiell Hammett's urbane "Thin Man" detective, Powell appeared in 95 films. He was nominated three times for an Oscar but never won.
During a 33-year film career he was often paired opposite the great leading ladies of the times, such as Carole Lombard, who was his second wife; Jean Harlow, to whom he reportedly was engaged to at the time of her death in 1937; Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. In most of those roles he was asked to be ever elegant and charming, fast to produce either clever one-liners or a bucket of champagne.
He made a dozen films with Myrna Loy, among them "The Great Ziegfeld" and "Libeled Lady" (both 1936), "Double Wedding" (1937) and "Love Crazy" (1941). But their most successful collaborations were as the urbane Nick and Nora Charles in six "Thin Man" films, exchanging bright and witty dialogue as they solved murder mysteries.
Like many actors of his time, his craft was developed and honed long before Hollywood beckoned. For nearly 10 years he had labored in traveling stock companies and then on the Broadway stage.
In 1922 Sam Goldwyn hired him for a small role as a heavy in "Sherlock Holmes," a silent film starring John Barrymore.
More and larger roles followed, but during the 1920s he was almost always cast as the villain. He was a comic villain opposite Marion Davies in "When Knighthood Was in Flower" (1922), a terrible husband opposite Lillian Gish in "Romola" (1924), an oily Italian thief in "Beau Gest" (1926) and a blackmailer in "Love's Greatest Mistake" (1927).
The "talking" pictures that wiped out so many Hollywood careers enhanced Powell's and liberated him from the long procession of bad-guy roles. His second talkie, as the dilettante detective Philo Vance in "The Canary Murder Case" (1929), was his first appearance as a suave sophisticate, and he immediately became a star. His first Oscar nomination was for that role.
Asked by a reporter years later if talkies had "hurried" his stardom, he snapped "Don't be foolish. They caused it. But for talkies I would probably be a first class so-and-so in every picture. I was practically doomed by my face to play a screen menace."
But that face combined with his voice turned around his image. He did two more Philo Vance detective mysteries, but thereafter was cast principally in drawing room comedies and madcap farces. His work in one of these, "My Man Godfrey," a 1936 film with Carole Lombard, gained him an Oscar nomination.
Powell's last Oscar nomination came as a departure from his man-of-the-world roles, when he appeared as the terrible-tempered Clarence Day in "Life With Father" (1947), which costarred Irene Dunne and Elizabeth Taylor.
His last picture was made in 1954, when he portrayed the philosophical ship's doctor in "Mister Roberts." He took the part, he later said, to get a "free trip Hawaii," where the movie was filmed.
After that he refused all offers, explaining, "The ham in me has been pretty well burned out."
|1934||Best Actor||The Thin Man||Nomination|
|1936||Best Actor||My Man Godfrey||Nomination|
|1947||Best Actor||Life With Father||Nomination|