Name at birth: William Horatio Powell
William Powell became a star of the big screen in the 1930s, as the model of sharp-edged, sophisticated wit in films such as The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936) and, later, Life With Father (1947). He grew up in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Missouri, and set out for New York when he was 18. Thanks to the largesse of an aunt, Powell was able to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 1912, he was a regular player on Broadway. He made his movie debut in 1922's Sherlock Holmes, the first of many silent roles as a slick villain. Powell became a leading man after Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command (1928), and his charismatic stage elocution turned out to be a plus when talkies came along in the late 1920s. He starred in a series of detective movies as Philo Vance, and, in the early 1930s, Powell had box office success in romantic comedies with Kay Francis. The success of The Thin Man (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett) propelled Powell and his co-star, Myrna Loy, into the top tiers. Powell was nominated for an Oscar for The Thin Man, starred as The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar-winning best picture of 1936), and again got an Oscar nomination for 1936's My Man Godfrey. Then tragedy struck: his lover Jean Harlow died suddenly in 1937, and he was diagnosed with cancer. Powell bounced back and made several more Thin Man movies with Loy, earned another Oscar nomination for 1947's Life With Father, and before he retired turned in great performances in The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Mister Roberts (1955, starring Henry Fonda). Powell lived in retirement in southern California with his wife, Diana Lewis (m. 1940), until he died in 1984 at the age of 91.
William Powell was married to Eileen Wilson from 1915-1931, and to Carole Lombard from 1931-33… It’s said that his engagement to Jean Harlow was a secret, as studio heads preferred the stars to be known as single.
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