Sunday, October 18, 2015

WILLIAM POWELL AND HIS PERSONAL TRAGEDY


It does not seem easy to be a child of a famous person. Sometimes it is not even easy to be the child of someone not famous! William Powell (1892-1984) was one of the greatest actors that classic Hollywood ever knew. Unfortunately, his only child met a sad and tragic end.

Born on February 27, 1925, William Powell Jr was the only child of William Powell and his first wife Eileen Wilson nine years into their on again off again marriage during a period of reconciliation between the two. They had originally married back in 1915..  They would finally divorce in 1930. His mother died at the young age of 48 in 1942.  As a boy William Jr was apparently plagued by emotional problems.

He would become a television writer, whose work was seen on such series as 'Bonanza,' 'Death Valley,' 'Rawhide,' and '77 Sunset Strip.' He served as an associate producer at Warner Brothers Studios and at Universal Studios as well as holding a position at NBC.

After ill health precipitated his resignation, he was diagnosed with hepatitis and kidney ailments. His lifelong struggle with depression deepened, and at the age of 43, he wrote his father a four page farewell stating that he was "... going where it's better," stepped into a shower, and stabbed himself to death on March 13, 1968. His father never revealed anything else about the letter except the end of it. He was laid to rest at Cathedral City's Desert Memorial Park in Riverside County, California. 

William Powell Sr retired from Hollywood in 1955 after filming a great role in the comedy Mister Roberts. Powell had difficulties retaining his lines during the filming of  Mr. Roberts, something that had not happened to him in earlier films, and this was one of the reasons why this was his final film appearance. Frail health, including bouts with cancer, plus a difficult Hawaii location shoot ultimately led to the actor's retirement decision. He reportedly never got over his only child's death. The elder Powell died at the advanced age of 91 on March 5, 1984.


55 comments:

  1. A sad but interesting story, David. Thanks for posting it.

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    1. Not Powell's only trajedy. He lost a very young Jean Harlow in the 1930s.

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    2. yes he did, I wondered why they just said only tragedy.

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    3. There is some evidence that at the time of her death, Powell and Harlow were no longer in a personal relationship, because he had on several occasions postponed marrying Harlow. That would not have impacted the extent of Powell's grief at her untimely death.

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  2. How awful! I never knew about William Powell's son. So sad.

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  3. So sad. He lived quite a long time after his son died. I've always had a soft spot for William Powell. He had so much tragedy in his life, but always carried on with such dignity.

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  4. An american actor, William Powell is paired in many films with Myrna Loy.

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  5. His son's suicide was perhaps William Powell's greatest tragedy in his life, but a look at this man's fascinating life and career show so much more heartbreak for him. Jean Harlow's death devastated him, shortly after he, himself, came so close to death with illness. So many stars were there for him and not too many years after resuming his career he lost both his ex-wives, becoming a single parent. The one ex was Carole Lombard, who stood by him when he was so ill, and her death was also heartbreaking for him. With such crushing blows to this man, it wouldn't have been surprising if he had become one of the self-destructive Hollywood sad stories. He seemed to have such a rare strength and dignified character. His great partner, Myrna Loy, has so many wonderfully loving quotes about how sweet, kind and intelligent he was. There are so many other wonderful words or respect and admiration for this man from the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, Rosalind Russell, and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. These quotes show him to be a rare kind of man. He was always among the favorite to work with by all his leading ladies. It's so amazing that his career started on the stage in the 1910s! His career was so outstanding. Unfortunately, his career is underrated. It's a career that should have long ago been honored in some way. What this man did in the year of 1936 is truly amazing. The quality of everything he did that year is unbelievable and he even passed on the opportunity to take over John Barrymore's role in Romeo & Juliet. You'll never see that again. Sorry for the rant, but I have such a soft spot for him and it really does seem unfair.

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    1. I too feel as you do about William Powell. 1 quote sticks in my mind about him, from Lombard.."the sob was acting, even in his pyjamas!" True or not, who cares..it's William Powell! Your tribute was lovely by the way!

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    2. This wasn't a rant, it was a very well-considered and well-written tribute to a great actor and a fine man. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

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  6. The baby pictured with William Powell was not his son. It is child actor, William Poulsen, not William David Powell.
    I too concur that William Powell should have been awarded some type of tribute for his work in the entertainment industry during his lifetime. He could play it all -- and well. His movies were hits with the public and brought into the studio coffers much coinage, yet he was never properly thanked for his work by his peers in the industry. Shameful.

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    1. I thought that child looked like the one who played Nick Jr in one of the Thin Man movies. Good catch! I love William Powell also...I had an uncle who looked just like him too!

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  7. "The son was plagued by emotional problems." Yep having narcissistic parents will do that to you. Shucks!

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    1. THANK YOU for your honest analysis of this very sad situation! This story is NOT about William Powell and the kind of actor he may have been, it's about a lonely child who had a tough time growing! The funny thing is I could not find a picture of him as a grown up but plenty of his father.

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    2. Because the father worked in front of the camera for decades, the son behind it. "Honest analysis" of a stranger. Myrna Loy mentions in her memoirs that Powell Sr. was also prone to depression. Powell is possibly the only actor to star in a classic comedy with his ex-wife. After surviving Harlow & Lombard, he married a starlet, a union that lasted to his death (decades after beating cancer - why he missed starring opposite Garbo in Ninotchka. That would have been a fun duo!).

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    3. Powell & his son were close. There's no evidence Powell was a narcissist parent. People can be plagued by emotional problems no matter what their relationship with their parents.

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    4. What an ignorant comment. You know absolutely nothing about how he was raised, yet here you are spewing catty, hateful (untrue) comments. You are a pathetic soul.

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  8. William Powell was most certainly a Class Act.I also find it rather odd that there is no picture of his son.It adds a bit of question as to 'WHY ?'

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  9. Yes, why no pictures of William Powell Jr.? After all, he did work in the industry. Maybe he was more reclusive because of his emotional disability? // William Powell is/was one of my favorites. Discovered his movies once I started watching Turner Classic. He seems to have been well liked by peers. Even his exes had nice things to say about him. Seems he and his first wife made many attempts at reconciliation during their time together. Was the short marriage to Carol Lombard a rebound relationship, considering his 3rd marriage lasted for 40+ years? // If he were indeed, narcissistic it would more than likely showed up while working with other artists he spent a good amount of time with such as Myrna Loy. No one had a bad word about him, it seems. Pretty hard to hide that trait. By all indications, he had a great relationship with both his father and stepmother. Whose to say what causes emotional distress, depression for each individual? No easy answers. //

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  10. William Powell remains one of the greatest film actors of all time. He was an excellent dramatic actor, but his ability to play light comedy was unsurpassed. His partnership with Myrna Loy is among the best comedy ever put on film. He, like his closest counterpart, Cary Grant, could play anything including hilarious physical comedy (see Love Crazy, 1941). Like Grant, Powell was always suave, sophisticated, graceful, and debonair, even when he was playing wacky slapstick. For me, he and Myrna Loy were even better than Tracy and Hepburn (great as they were). Where Tracy/Hepburn were usually in competition and their banter always came with a sting, Powell and Loy's couples always seemed to be deeply bonded, held together by love and unreserved trust in one another. Tracy and Hepburn seemed to like to play at war; Powell and Loy seemed to savor playing at play. I have been in love with William Powell and Myrna Loy since I was a child. I never get tired of watching Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter, just as I never tire of watching Cary Grant because all three of these actor (Powell, Loy, Grant) NEVER EVER let you see them Acting. They always made it look absolutely effortless. I knew about Powell's devastation at the loss of Lombard and Harlow, but I never knew about this life was so hounded by tragedy. I appreciate so much your sharing this story about his life. I don't understand why there isn't a statue of Powell and Loy in front of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. If anyone wants to learn what great acting is, these are the ones to study.

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    1. Well said! I couldn't agree more. William Powell was such a fantastic actor. My favorite of them all. The smoothest, most debonair man who ever graced the screen. No one else even compares. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Gable, Grant, Cooper and all the other powerhouse stars of that era.
      Another actor who I find very underrated is a young Robert Montgomery. His movies of the 30's are gems.

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    2. Apparently Hitchcock thought Powell was the greatest practitioner of physical comedy on screen, perhaps from watching him try to fish in Libeled Lady. Also his elevator & drag antics in Love Me Again. Hitch wanted to cast him as gigolo serial killer Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, MGM wouldn't release him. Later he wanted to cast Loy as the mother in Marnie (she'd have been heartbreaking). Only Hitchcock could look @ Nick & Nora Charles & see a serial killer & broken down old whore!

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    3. Treat yourself to Powell playing a Uncle Charlie on Lux Radio Theatre’s adaptation of Shadow of a Doubt from Jan 3 1944. Also starring Teresa Wright from the film cast. He’s one of my faves too. He’s in lots of other Lux adaptations including The Thin Man, After The Thin Man with Loy(!) and My Man Godfrey with Lombard! These were broadcast in front of a live audience and it’s nice to hear them speak as themselves after the show too. He was so amazing!!

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  11. William Powell is one of my favorite actors, and I would bet his personality wasn't too far from his character portrayals, being witty,intelligent, and very easy going...I really enjoyed the film "Heavenly Bodies" with Hedy Lamarr.

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  12. I saw him recently in the silent film " When Knighthood was in flower" 1922 with Marion Davies. He had presence even then. He was a great actor with such an interesting face.

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  13. One of the greatest! Narcissistic? You mean like a slug that comments about a man he never knew. Judge people much? His career was amazing and he was a by all accounts, a great man

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    1. I agree............ when he played Ziegfeld I was just entranced................

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  14. William Powell narcissistic? I don't think so. He was greatly loved in Hollywood and known for his generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness and so many more wonderful traits. He was extremely close with his son. His son said as a child he was as charmed by his father as everybody else was. As an adult, William David talked about how, as a child, he acted out and felt more important than he was because he was William Powell's son. He dropped out of college and joined the marines, served in WWII and upon discharge came home and re-enrolled in college. Princeton. He graduated with honors. He started a successful career as a writer and associate producer. He spoke lovingly about his father. He poked fun at his ratty robes he wore, old car he drove and the old hats he loved. He loved spending time at his father's home with his wife. He and his father would stay up all night talking. His father was also his best man. WDP contracted hepatitis during his marine service in the Korean War. William Powell, in a letter to a friend, after his son's death, said that the hepatitis had become debilitating, causing him to have to leave his job. From the time William Powell brought his ex-wife and son to Hollywood, he kept did his best to keep them out of the public eye. I think William Powell was a fascinating man. He was incredibly intelligent, witty, charming and just a very decent and sweet man. He was also very modest, gracious and was very grateful for his fans. He was quite the Hollywood treasure and it's a shame that they have never acknowledged or honored him as he should be.

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  15. A true star of the silver screen. Totally believable in every role no matter how theatrical. Miss his presence.Along with Cary Gtant, my all time favorites.

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  16. Sheila - Agreed! I got completely immersed in every role he participated in bec it was incredibly believable! Powell, Cary Grant, and the much underrated supporting actor Edward Everett Horton are my all time favorites. I was born in the wrong era for sure. How I WISH a time machine would be a reality - I’d hightail it back to 1930 and stay.

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  17. I always get William Powell and Melvyn Douglas mixed up.

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    1. Me too! Is it because they look similar?

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  18. I love William Powell. He was a great actor and he got everybody's attention when he was on screen. Him and Myrna Loyd were so matched perfectly in the Thin Man movies. Years go by and these great actors pass away, but will always still be with us through their good works on this earth and in their films

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  19. What a SAD and TRAGIC ending!!!! Of COURSE WIlliam Powell NEVER got over his son's passing!!!! Why on EARTH WOULD HE?!

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  20. As I sit and watch My Man Godfrey at least the 12th time in my life time.Such a wonderful movie William and Carole was a great pair.I so wished they would of stayed together more than the 2years but the she wouldn't of been with Clark Gable.Would she of been on that plane coming home if she was still married to William.William was a great actor in his time and deserved more recognition for the fine work he did and whatever company he wwas making money for. My greatness wish is more actors with these greats from the 30's 40's where men were men I was born in the wrong era to be born and having a chance to experience Hollywood in this wonderful past era the Golden Age. Hollywood will never be the same.

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  21. There is a pic of him as a young man on IMDB

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  22. I was lucky enough to have grown up knowing Bill snd Mousie innPalm Springs . He was already retired before I was born . He and Mousie were both incredible and philanthropic people! He use to watch me ride , he even nick named me VV for Viking Venus ! They were close personal friends of my parents in the desert , I was the lucky kid who got to hang out with them !

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  23. Definitely a big fan of the Great William Powell

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  24. I agree with everyone's comment on the title of the article. I have decided to change it.

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    1. whats wrong with the title?

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    2. The original title was William Powell and His Only Tragedy. He had a lot of tragedy in his life like the death of Jean Harlow so I changed it.

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  25. William Powell has been one of my very favorites for over 50 years! He was so debonair, suave; and the epitome of cool; and a gifted and talented actor! I read that He dated Norma Shearer (I hope I got that correct); and during their courtship, he gifted her with a beautifully hand-carved mahogany cabinet full of bottles of every exquisite perfume you could think of! Also, who could forget that 100 plus carat Blue Star Sapphire ring he gave Jean Harlow?!?! Gosh darn. ..he was an extraordinary man!!!!

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  26. William Powell was one of my favourite actors. He exuded sophistication mixed with easy going charm . So sorry to hear of his son's tragic ending .

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  27. WilliamPowell was a fantastic actor and one of the coolest, sexiest,smoothest actors of the 30s and 40s. Always dressed to kill, no actor looked more tantalizing and denonair than he did in his impeccably fitted 3-piece suits and tux and tails. Dont forget his signature Fedoras. When he walked into a room, everybody noticed. I was surprised to learn that he and Jean Harlow had dated offscreen,but they had great chemistry onscreen in the 2 movies they made together.In "Libeled Lady" I could tell there was some fire brewing between them. Reportedly William and Jean were deeply in love and wanted to marry, but their movie studio forbid it. What a hreat power couple they would have made.
    So sad that William had such personal tragedies with the deaths of his 1st wife, 2nd wife Carole Lombard, his lover Jean Harlow, and then his son's suicide. What a remarkable man!

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  28. TCM will have his movies on all day
    today, celebrating his birthday. He is truly one of my favorites!

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  29. Can't think of any role he like the man wasn't great at

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  30. He has always been one of my favorite actors, and his pairings with Myrna Loy are some of the most enjoyable films ever. I love the charming intelligence he brings to each role. Does anyone know if there was ever a good biography written about him?

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    1. I don't know if it's good, but a chap by the name of Charles Francisco wrote one. Not long after he died. Almost a year later.. Entitled 'Gentleman: The William Powell Story. Wish for anyone who reads this to have a lovely day/night/moment. Also watch a William Powell if you are feeling down <3

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  31. I’m just 45, but I watch “golden oldies” more than anything. They’re a breath of fresh air. Most definitely William Powell helped make them that way.

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  32. William Powell was the quintessential Golden Hollywood Star, a class act and a pleasure to watch. There’s none who come close. I love old Hollywood. I wish it still existed

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  33. Jean Harlow died of uremic poisoning as a result of infected kidneys. How bitterly ironic that Powell's son should suffer kidney problems.
    I cannot imagine anything more devastating for a parent than the death of a child.

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  34. After watching tonight "Another Thin Man", I researched little Nicky Jr., Willian A. Poulsen, and stumbled upon this article. It was a pleasure to read it, along with the above comments. I agree that William Powell was an exceptional actor, and tonight, I learned that he was an exceptional man as well. His life was marked by tragedies, yet he retained his dignity and will to live. I too wish that I could transport myself into the times of real Hollywood, the 30s, 40s and 50s. Even for a week or so ;)I am not American, but I lived in the US for about 13 years, where I became familiar with old Hollywood and old America from movies and documentaries. William Powell did not receive the recognition he deserved, and that's such a shame. He was a rare breed which personally, I don't find among today's actors. Violence, nudity and foul language rule today's Hollywood, and that's why I don't bother watching any movies done after the Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies. And what actresses during Powell's day...We can only watch all those wonderful movies and dream about a bygone era. I am binging on old classics during quarantine times, as a form of escapism. It makes me forget for a while about the way our world has come to.

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