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 popular Thin Man series based on the novels ofDashiell Hammett in which Powell and Loy played Nick and Nora Charles, as well as Manhattan Melodrama opposite Clark Gable. He 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). William Powell was not related to David Powell, Dick Powell, Eleanor Powell, or Jane Powell.
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 William H. Powell spent his boyhood summers), to William S. and Harriet Powell. 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 she and Powell 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. 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).
William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Great Ziegfeld
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, with the couple appearing in 14 films together.
He and Loy 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. Soon a serious romance developed between them, but Harlow died 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 work in Life with Father. His last film was 1955's Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. Despite numerous entreaties to return to the screen, Powell refused all offers, happy in his retirement.
Diana Lewis in Cry 'Havoc'
In 1915, he married Eileen Wilson, 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.
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.
He had a close relationship with actress Jean Harlow beginning in 1935, but it was cut short by her untimely death in 1937. It is reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note was placed in her hands before she was interred, presumed to have been written by Powell. The note read, "Good night, my dearest darling". He also paid for her final resting place—a $25,000, 9×10-foot private room lined with multicolored imported marble located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction" of the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.
In 1937, Powell was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum (although some news accounts at the time, given to decorum, described it as colon cancer instead). 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.
On January 6, 1940, Powell married actress Diana Lewis (27 years his junior), whom he called "Mousie," three weeks after they met. They remained married for forty-four years, residing primarily in Palm Springs, California, until Powell died at the age of 91.
Powell died of heart failure 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.