Sunday, October 18, 2015

WILLIAM POWELL AND HIS ONLY 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.


16 comments:

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

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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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  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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  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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  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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  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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