TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Twenty — William Powell

William Powell: The embodiment of sophistication.

Just picturing William Powell makes me smile. I can’t think of a single performance of his that doesn’t bring me joy, in one way or another – from Double Harness (1933) to How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and from My Man Godfrey (1936) to Mister Roberts (1955).

Suave and sophisticated in his demeanor, he was as adept at drama as he was at comedy, and he never failed to deliver.


William Horatio Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1892. His father, Horatio, was a public accountant who moved his family to Kansas City, Missouri, when Powell was 15. In high school, Powell became interested in drama, but his father envisioned a path leading toward law for his son, and he enrolled him in public speaking classes. Ironically, it was his public speaking teacher who encouraged the teen to try out for the school’s Christmas play and he never looked back. When Powell graduated from high school, he attended the University of Kansas, but he left after a few weeks, moved to New York, and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His classmates included future fellow film stars Edward G. Robinson and Joseph Schildkraut.

Young William.

The first couple of years after he graduated from the American Academy were lean ones, but Powell managed to find jobs in vaudeville and with stock companies in Pittsburgh, Portland, and Buffalo, New York. He also made his Broadway debut in 1912 playing three bit parts in The Ne’er Do Well, but the play closed after only a few weeks. Finally, in 1916, Powell returned to Broadway in small roles in The King and The Judge of Zalamea. Both plays starred a German-born actor-director named Leo Dietrichstein, who took the 24-year-old under his wing. Powell later said that Dietrichstein “taught me all I know about acting.”

Powell spent the next several years in a variety of stage roles, including Spanish Love, for which he was praised by one reviewer for his “touching emotional sensitivity and thrilling range.” His performance led to an offer in his big screen debut, a silent version of Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore.


  • Powell was in 15 films with Myrna Loy, including the Thin Man series, Manhattan Melodrama (1934) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

    Powell with his third wife, Diana “Mousie” Powell.

  • Powell dated actress Jean Harlow for two years, until her untimely death at the age of 26. Powell purchased her crypt at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, which was reserved for Harlow, Powell, and Harlow’s mother. In August 1957, Powell signed a document which stated his wishes that he not be buried there – but also that no other person be buried there except Harlow and her mother.
  • In 1968, Powell’s only son, William Powell, Jr., committed suicide at the age of 43, reportedly despondent over a chronic kidney ailment that prevented him from continuing his career as a television writer and producer.
  • After his 1955 appearance as Doc in Mister Roberts, Powell retired from acting.
  • Powell married his third wife, actress Diana Lewis, in January 1940, three weeks after meeting her. They were married until Powell’s death in 1984 at the age of 91.


Don’t miss it.

This was a tough one. Two of my most-loved Powell films are airing on his day – Libeled Lady (1936) and Life With Father (1947). Ultimately, I decided on Libeled Lady, for the sheer delight that it delivers every time I see it – and I’ve seen it many times. This screwball comedy focuses on a former reporter who’s hired by a newspaper to woo an heiress who is suing the newspaper . . . well, just watch it. It’s so good. It stars Powell, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow, and they make a perfect foursome. Tune in and you’ll see what I mean.

And join me for Day 21 of Summer Under the Stars!



~ by shadowsandsatin on August 20, 2020.

5 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Twenty — William Powell”

  1. The fishing scene!

    I will take up the slack by choosing Life with Father today, if only for Vinnie’s clear-headed description of tariffs.

  2. Can’t go wrong with Libeled Lady! I showed this film to my mother the other day and she quite liked it (especially the fishing scene lol). Thanks for this very informative article!

  3. […] Day 20: William Powell […]

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