Originally planning to become a lawyer, William Powell chose instead to pursue a career as an actor, dropping out of the University of Kansas to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Edward G. Robinson and Joseph Schildkraut. He made his Broadway debut in 1912, and within a few years had attained stardom in urbane, sophisticated roles. The sleek, moustachioed young actor entered films in 1922, playing the first of many villainous roles in John Barrymore's Sherlock Holmes. He finally broke out of the bad guy mode when talkies came in; his clipped, precise speech patterns and authoritative demeanor were ideally suited to such "gentleman detective" roles as Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case, the Kennel Murder Case, and others in the Vance series. In 1933 he moved from Warner Bros. to MGM, where he co-starred with Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). So well-received was the Powell-Loy screen teaming that the actors were paired together in several subsequent MGM productions, most memorably the delightful Thin Man series and the 1936 blockbuster The Great Ziegfeld, in which Powell played the title character and Loy was cast as Ziegfeld's second wife, Billie Burke. Away from the screen for nearly a year due to a serious illness, Powell returned in 1944, curtailing his film activities thereafter. As he eased into his late fifties he reinvented himself as a character actor, offering superbly etched performances as a lamebrained crooked politician in The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947) and the lovably autocratic Clarence Day Sr. in Life With Father (1947), which earned him his third Academy Award nomination (the others were for The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey). After playing Doc in the 1955 film version of Mister Roberts, he retired to his lavish, air-conditioned home in Palm Springs, insisting that he'd return to films if the right role came along but he turned down all offers. Married three times, Powell's second wife was actress Carole Lombard, with whom he remained good friends after the divorce, and co-starred with in My Man Godfrey (1936); his third marriage to MGM starlet Diana Lewis was a happy union that lasted from 1940 until Powell's death in 1984. It has been said, however, that the great love of William Powell's life was actress Jean Harlow, to whom he was engaged at the time of her premature death in 1936.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- An aunt financed his education at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; his father disapproved of him wanting to become an actor and refused to pay for the classes.
- Was engaged to Jean Harlow at the time of her death in 1937.
- Was diagnosed with rectal cancer in the late 1930s, but survived with treatment.
- Costarred with ex-wife Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936).
- Most frequent costar was Myrna Loy, with whom he starred in the Nick and Nora Charles film series.