Richard Ewing Powell (November 14, 1904 – January 2, 1963) was an American singer, actor, film producer, film director and studio head. Though he came to stardom as a musical comedy performer, he showed versatility and successfully transformed into a hardboiled leading man starring in projects of a more dramatic nature. He was the first actor to portray the private detective Philip Marlowe on screen.
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Powell was born in Mountain View, the seat of Stone County in northern Arkansas. The family moved to Little Rock in 1914, where Powell sang in church choirs and with local orchestras, and started his own band. Powell attended the former Little Rock College, before he started his entertainment career as a singer with the Royal Peacock Band which toured throughout the Midwest.
During this time, he married Mildred Maund, a model, but she found being married to an entertainer not to her liking and they soon divorced. Later, he joined the Charlie Davis Orchestra, based in Indianapolis. He recorded a number of records with Davis and on his own, for the Vocalion label in the late 1920s.
In April 1930, Warner Bros. bought Brunswick Records, which at that time owned Vocalion. Warner Bros. was sufficiently impressed by Powell's singing and stage presence to offer him a film contract in 1932. He made his film debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event.
He was borrowed by Fox to support Will Rogers in Too Busy to Work (1932). He was a boyish crooner, the sort of role he specialised in for the next few years. Back at Warners he supported George Arliss in The King's Vacation (1933), then was in 42nd Street (1933), playing the love interest for Ruby Keeler.The film was a massive hit.
Powell was upped to star for College Coach (1933), then went back to more ensemble pieces like 42nd Street: Convention City (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934), and Dames (1934).
Happiness Ahead (1934) was more of a star vehicle for Powell, as was Flirtation Walk (1934). He was top billed in Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) and Broadway Gondolier (1935), both with Joan Blondell. He supported Marion Davies in Page Miss Glory (1935), made for Cosmopolitan Pictures, a production company financed by Davies' lover William Randolph Hearst who released through Warners.
Warners gave him a change of pace, casting him as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).
More typical was Shipmates Forever (1935) with Keeler. 20th Century Fox borrowed him for Thanks a Million (1935) then back at Warners he did Colleen (1936) with Keeler and Blondell. Powell was reunited with Marion Davies in another for Cosmopolitan, Hearts Divided (1936), playing Napoleon's brother.
Back at Warners: The Singing Marine (1937), Varsity Show (1937), Hollywood Hotel (1938), Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938), Hard to Get (1938), Going Places (1938), and Naughty but Nice (1939). Fed up with the repetitive nature of these roles, Powell left Warner Bros and went to work for Paramount.
At Paramount he and Blondell were in another musical, I Want a Divorce (1940). Then Powell got a chance to appear in a non-musical, Christmas in July (1940), a screwball comedy which was the second feature directed by Preston Sturges.
Universal borrowed him to support Abbott and Costello in In the Navy (1941), one of the most popular films of 1941. At Paramount he had a cameo in Star Spangled Rhythm (1943) and co-starred with Mary Martin in Happy Go Lucky (1943). He supported Dorothy Lamour in Riding High (1943).
By 1944, Powell felt he was too old to play romantic leading men anymore,, so he lobbied to play the lead in Double Indemnity. He lost out to Fred MacMurray, another Hollywood nice guy. MacMurray's success, however, fueled Powell's resolve to pursue projects with greater range.
In 1944, Powell's career changed dramatically when he was cast in the first of a series of films noir, as private detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk at RKO. The film was a big hit, and Powell had successfully reinvented himself as a dramatic actor. He was the first actor to play Marlowe – by name – in motion pictures. (Hollywood had previously adapted some Marlowe novels, but with the lead character changed.) Later, Powell was the first actor to play Marlowe on radio, in 1944 and 1945, and on television, in a 1954 episode of Climax! Powell also played the slightly less hard-boiled detective Richard Rogue in the radio series "Rogue's Gallery", beginning in 1945.
In 1945, Dmytryk and Powell reteamed to make the film Cornered, a gripping, post-WWII thriller that helped define the film noir style.
For Columbia, he played a detective in Johnny O'Clock (1947) and made To the Ends of the Earth (1947). In 1948, he stepped out of the brutish type when he starred in Pitfall, a film noir in which a bored insurance company worker falls for an innocent but dangerous woman, played by Lizabeth Scott.
From 1949–1953, Powell played the lead role in the NBC radio theater production Richard Diamond, Private Detective. His character in the 30-minute weekly was a likable private detective with a quick wit. Many episodes ended with Detective Diamond having an excuse to sing a little song to his date, showcasing Powell's vocal abilities. Many of the episodes were written by Blake Edwards. When Richard Diamond came to television in 1957, the lead role was portrayed by David Janssen, who did no singing in the series. Prior to the Richard Diamond series, he starred in Rogue's Gallery. He played Richard Rogue, private detective. The Richard Diamond tongue-in-cheek persona developed in the Rogue series.
Powell took a break from tough guy roles in The Reformer and the Redhead (1950), opposite then-wife June Allyson. Then it was back to tougher movies: Right Cross (1950), a boxing film, with Allyson; Cry Danger (1951), as an ex con; The Tall Target (1951), at MGM directed by Anthony Mann, playing a detective who tries to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
He returned to comedy with You Never Can Tell (1951). He had a good role in MGM's popular melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). His final film performance was in a romantic comedy Susan Slept Here (1954) for director Frank Tashlin.
Even when he appeared in lighter fare such as The Reformer and the Redhead and Susan Slept Here (1954), he never sang in his later roles. The latter, his final onscreen appearance in a feature film, did include a dance number with costar Debbie Reynolds.
By this stage Powell had turned director. His feature debut was Split Second (1953) at RKO. He followed it with The Conqueror (1956), coproduced by Howard Hughes starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan. The exterior scenes were filmed in St. George, Utah, downwind of U.S. above-ground atomic tests. The cast and crew totaled 220, and of that number, 91 had developed some form of cancer by 1981, and 46 had died of cancer by then, including Powell and Wayne.
In the 1950s, Powell was one of the founders of Four Star Television, along with Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Ida Lupino. He appeared in and supervised several shows for that company. Powell played the role of Willie Dante in Four Star Playhouse, in episodes entitled "Dante's Inferno" (1952), "The Squeeze" (1953), "The Hard Way" (1953), and "The House Always Wins" (1955). In 1961, Howard Duff, husband of Ida Lupino, assumed the Dante role in a short-lived NBC adventure series Dante, set at a San Francisco nightclub called "Dante's Inferno".
Powell guest-starred in numerous Four Star programs, including a 1958 appearance on the Duff-Lupino sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. He appeared in 1961 on James Whitmore's legal drama The Law and Mr. Jones on ABC. In the episode "Everybody Versus Timmy Drayton", Powell played a colonel having problems with his son. Shortly before his death, Powell sang on camera for the final time in a guest-star appearance on Four Star's Ensign O'Toole, singing "The Song of the Marines", which he first sang in his 1937 film The Singing Marine. He hosted and occasionally starred in his Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater on CBS from 1956–1961, and his final anthology series, The Dick Powell Show on NBC from 1961 through 1963; after his death, the series continued through the end of its second season (as The Dick Powell Theater), with guest hosts.
Powell was the son of Ewing Powell and Sallie Rowena Thompson.
He married three times:
Powell's ranch-style house was used for exterior filming on the ABC TV series, Hart to Hart. Powell was a friend of Hart to Hart actor Robert Wagner and producer Aaron Spelling. The estate, known as Amber Hills, is on 48 acres in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood, Los Angeles.
Powell enjoyed general aviation as a private pilot.
On September 27, 1962, Powell acknowledged rumors that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. The disease was originally diagnosed as an allergy, with Powell first experiencing symptoms while traveling East to promote his program. Upon his return to California, Powell's personal physician conducted tests and found malignant growths on his neck and chest.
Powell died at the age of 58 on January 2, 1963. His body was cremated and his remains were interred in the Columbarium of Honor at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. In a 2001 interview with Larry King, Powell's widow June Allyson stated that the cause of death was lung cancer due to his chain smoking.
It has been speculated that Powell may have developed cancer as a result of his participation in the film The Conqueror, which was filmed at St. George, Utah, near a site used by the U.S. military for nuclear testing. As well as Powell, who directed the film, about a third of the actors who participated in the film developed cancer, including John Wayne and Susan Hayward.
During the 15th Primetime Emmy Awards on May 26, 1963, the Television Academy presented a posthumous Television Academy Trustee Award to Dick Powell for his contributions to the industry. The award was accepted by two of his former partners in Four Star Television, Charles Boyer and David Niven.
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Powell was the first actor to play private detective Philip Marlowe on radio, in 1944 and 1945.
Lux Radio Theatre appearances:
12/21/36 The Gold Diggers w/Joan Blondell, Dick Powell 05/19/41 Model Wife w/Dick Powell, Joan Blondell 01/18/43 My Gal Sal w/Mary Martin, Dick Powell 06/26/44 Christmas In July w/Dick Powell, Linda Darnell 11/20/44 It Started With Eve w/Charles Laughton, Dick Powell 06/11/45 Murder, My Sweet w/Dick Powell, Claire Trevor 05/12/47 Johnny O'Clock w/Dick Powell, Lee J. Cobb 11/08/48 Pitfall w/Dick Powell, Jane Wyatt, Lizbeth Scott 05/23/49 To The Ends Of The Earth w/Dick Powell, Signa Hasso 04/24/50 Mrs. Mike w/Dick Powell, Gene Tierney 06/25/51 The Reformer And The Redhead w/Dick Powell, June Allyson 01/11/55 Island In The Sky w/Dick Powell, Lamont Johnson 05/17/55 Little Boy Lost w/Dick Powell, Gladys Holland
|1945–1946||Rogue's Gallery||played detective Richard Rogue|
|1949–1953||Richard Diamond, Private Detective||played Richard Diamond (NBC radio theater production)|
|1952||Stars in the Air||The Bride Goes Wild|
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