TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (12)
|Also Known As:||Richard E. Powell||Died:||January 3, 1963|
|Born:||November 14, 1904||Cause of Death:||Cancer|
|Birth Place:||Mountain View, Arkansas, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor singer director producer|
A romantic singing lead in a number of musicals throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dick Powell traded in his tenor voice and good guy image to take on a more hard-boiled persona following a career-transforming performance as Phillip Marlowe in the classic film noir "Murder, My Sweet" (1944). Prior to that film, Powell was a bankable star in several big screen extravaganzas like "Footlight Parade" (1933), "42nd Street" (1933) and "Dames (1934). Having worked many times with famed choreographer-director Busby Berkeley, the actor cemented his place as a go-to leading man in lighthearted musical comedies, along the way forming notable onscreen pairings with Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell, the latter of whom he married in 1936. Despite his success in films like "Happiness Ahead" (1934), "Broadway Gondolier" (1935) and "Hollywood Hotel" (1937), Powell craved the opportunity to branch out into other roles. Preston Sturges gave him the lead in the Capra-esque screwball comedy "Christmas in July" (1940), but the actor remained unsatisfied. After unsuccessfully lobbying for the lead in "Double Indemnity" (1944), he landed the Marlowe role in "Murder, My Sweet" and propelled his career in an entirely new direction with bleak noirs like "Cornered" (1945), "Johnny O'Clock" (1947), "Pitfall" (1948) and "Cry Danger" (1951). Powell turned to directing in the mid-1950s, but found greater success as the president of Four Star Television. Though his life ended prematurely, Powell radically transformed his career through a combination of talent and sheer will.
Born on Nov. 14, 1904 in Mountain View, AK, Powell attended Little Rock College before starting his entertainment career as a singer for the Charlie Davis Orchestra, with whom he recorded a number of hit records during the 1920s on the Vocalion label. After moving to Pittsburgh, PA, he found success working as the MC at the Enright Theater and the Stanley Theater, which lead to Warner Bros. noticing his talent for song and dance, and offering him a contract in 1932. Powell made his feature debut as a bandleader in the Roy Del Ruth showbiz comedy "Blessed Event" (1932) and was a radio announcer in the crime drama "Big City Blues" (1932), featuring a pre-fame Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. He soon graduated to more prominent parts, playing the protégé of a wealthy woman (Ruth Donnelly) in the classic musical "Footlight Parade" (1933), starring James Cagney, and was top billed alongside Bebe Daniels and Ginger Rogers in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed extravaganza "42nd Street" (1933). By the time he starred in "Dames" (1934), Powell had formed a popular onscreen pairing with dancer Ruby Keeler, but was already desperately yearning to branch out beyond musicals.
Powell shouldered on with more musicals like Mervyn LeRoy's "Happiness Ahead" (1934), "Flirtation Walk" (1934) and "Shipmates Forever" (1935), both with Keeler, and "Broadway Gondolier" (1935), which co-starred Joan Blondell, whom he married in 1936 and had two children. He finally received his wish to branch out when he was horribly miscast as Lysander in the adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935), the one and only Shakespeare outing of his career. Powell returned to musicals with "Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935), "Stage Struck" (1936), "Hearts Divided" (1936) where he played the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte (Claude Rains), and "Gold Diggers of 1937" (1937). Following "On the Avenue" (1937) and "The Singing Marine" (1937), Powell was a saxophonist in a jazz band who wins a talent contest in Busby Berkeley's lighthearted "Hollywood Hotel" (1937), which was notable for the iconic number "Hooray for Hollywood." He went on to star in the titular role of "The Cowboy from Brooklyn" (1938), before playing a store clerk who poses as a race jockey in "Going Places" (1938). After stagnating a bit with "Hard to Get" (1938) and "Naughty But Nice" (1939), Powell moved on to straight comedies with the charming Preston Sturges effort, "Christmas in July" (1940), where he played a head-in-the-clouds office clerk duped into believing he has won a slogan contest.
Powell once again attempted to break the mold with a second-billed role in the Abbott and Costello comedy "In the Navy" (1941), before returning to musicals with "Star Spangled Rhythm" (1942) and the Western-themed "Riding High" (1943). Having lobbied hard to play the lead in "Double Indemnity" (1944) - a role he lost to Fred MacMurray - he forever changed his career after playing hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk's classic film noir "Murder, My Sweet" (1944). Powell's performance as the sharp-tongued private eye transformed his image, erasing his wholesome persona in favor of a tougher, grittier one. With his voice a bit rougher and his callow juvenile charm intriguingly hardened, Powell more than reinvented himself in such bleak noirs as Dmytryk's "Cornered" (1945), "Johnny O'Clock" (1947) and "Pitfall" (1948), co-starring noir queen Lizabeth Scott. By this time, Powell had divorced Joan Blondell in 1945 and married "American's Sweetheart" June Allyson later that year. Meanwhile, he continued along his new career trajectory with leading roles in the adventure drama "Mrs. Mike" (1949), the romantic comedy "The Reformer and the Redhead" (1950) which co-starred Allyson, and the boxing drama "Right Cross" (1950), co-starring Ricardo Montalban.
Powell returned to the gritty world of noir with "Cry Danger" (1951), a classic crime thriller where he played a recent parolee released from prison after a robbery conviction who uses his newfound freedom to bring justice to the real guilty party. From there, he starred as a 19th century detective who tries to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on a train in Anthony Mann's "The Tall Target" (1951), and followed up with a leading role in the comedy "You Never Can Tell" (1951). Also at the time, Powell turned to radio as the star of "Richard Diamond, Private Detective" (NBC/ABC/CBS, 1949-1953), a light-hearted detective drama where he displayed a quick wit and sang to his girlfriend at the end of every episode. Meanwhile, after a supporting role in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and starring in the romantic comedy "Susan Slept Here" (1954), Powell turned to directing and producing several largely unexceptional B-films, though his best was also his first, the taut crime thriller "Split Second" (1953).
After helming the misguided Ghengis Khan biopic "The Conqueror" (1956), "The Enemy Below" (1957) and "The Hunters" (1958), he made a successful venture into television, becoming a notable executive with his own production company, Four Star Television. The company produced shows like "Richard Diamond, Private Detective" (CBS/NBC, 1957-1960) starring David Janssen as the hard-boiled Diamond, minus the singing; "The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor" (ABC/NBC, 1959-1962); "The Westerner" (NBC, 1960) with Brian Keith; "Wanted: Dead or Alive" (CBS, 1958-1961) starring Steve McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall; and "The Dick Powell Show" (NBC, 1961-63), an anthology series that featured a number of prominent guest hosts like Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Jackie Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson and David Niven. The series also launched the careers of several notable actors and directors, including Aaron Spelling, William Friedkin, Blake Edwards and Robert Vaughn. But on Jan. 2, 1963, just one day after his final appearance on his anthology series, Powell died from stomach cancer at 58 years old. His illness was widely considered to be the result of exposure to atomic test radiation in Utah, where he had filmed "The Conqueror" seven year prior. Along with many members of that cast - Susan Hayward, John Wayne, Agnes Moorhead, even Hayward's young twins sons who visited their mother on the set - all contracted severe cases of cancer and often premature death, leading to an investigation by the families into how much the government knew about the safety of filming in that area of the desert. Ultimately Four Star was taken over by David Charnay and was successful in syndication, but went through several owners until its catalogue was absorbed by News Corp.
By Shawn Dwyer
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