Richard Ewing "Dick" 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 hardbitten leading man starring in projects of a more dramatic nature. He was the first actor to portray the private detective Philip Marlowe on screen.
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 a 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.
Powell moved to Pittsburgh, where he found great local success as the Master of Ceremonies at the Enright Theater and the Stanley Theater. 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 went on to star as a boyish crooner in movie musicals such as 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, Flirtation Walk, and On the Avenue, often appearing opposite Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell.
Powell desperately wanted to expand his range, but Warner Bros. would not allow him to do so. As a result, he bought his release from Warner Bros. in 1940. They did cast him in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), but as Lysander, another youthful romantic character. This was to be Powell's only Shakespearean role and one he did not want to play, feeling that he was completely wrong for the part. 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. 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. He became a popular "tough guy" lead appearing in movies such as Johnny O'Clock and Cry Danger. But 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. 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.
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.
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's film The Enemy Below (1957), based on the novel by Denys Rayner, won the Academy Award for Special Effects.
Powell also directed The Conqueror (1956), 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. This cancer rate is about three times higher than one would expect in a group of this size, and many have argued that radioactive fallout was the cause.
Powell was the son of Ewing Powell and Sallie Rowena Thompson.
He was married three times:
Mildred Maund (1925–1927) – although most biographies say they were divorced in 1927, some sources are contradictory. The couple appears on the 1930 census in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he is working in a theater, and on a 1931 passenger list for the SS Oriente, returning from Havana, Cuba.
Joan Blondell (married September 19, 1936, divorced 1944), with whom he had two children, Norman (her son from a previous marriage, whom Powell adopted) and Ellen.
June Allyson (August 19, 1945, until his death), with whom he had two children, Pamela (adopted) and Richard Powell, Jr. 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 was a major TV executive. His production company, Four Star Television, owned several network shows.
Powell enjoyed general aviation as a private pilot.
Illness and death
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 confirmed his cause of death was lung cancer due to his chain smoking.
Dick Powell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Blvd.
Popular culture references
Frank Tashlin's cartoon satire The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos (1937) features a caricature of Powell, a bird named "Dick Fowl."
The Travel Channel series Mysteries at the Museum (2013) featured a segment about the fallout from the filming of The Conqueror with American actor Paul Meltzer as director Powell.
Blessed Event (1932)
Big City Blues (1932)
Too Busy to Work (1932)
The King's Vacation (1933)
42nd Street (1933)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Footlight Parade (1933)
College Coach (1933)
Convention City (1933)
Wonder Bar (1934)
Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934)
Happiness Ahead (1934)
Flirtation Walk (1934)
Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)
Broadway Gondolier (1935)
Broadway Hostess (1935) (Uncredited)
Page Miss Glory (1935)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Shipmates Forever (1935)
Thanks a Million (1935)
Hearts Divided (1936)
Stage Struck (1936)
Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)
On the Avenue (1937)
The Singing Marine (1937)
Varsity Show (1937)
Hollywood Hotel (1937)
Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938)
Hard to Get (1938)
Going Places (1938)
Naughty but Nice (1939)
I Want a Divorce (1940)
Christmas in July (1940)
Model Wife (1941)
In the Navy (1941)
Star Spangled Rhythm (1942)
Happy Go Lucky (1943)
Riding High (1943)
True to Life (1943)
It Happened Tomorrow (1944)
Meet the People (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944) (released in the UK as Farewell, My Lovely (1944))
Johnny O'Clock (1947)
To the Ends of the Earth (1948)
Station West (1948)
Rogues' Regiment (1948)
The Carpa Follies (1949)
Mrs. Mike (1949)
The Reformer and the Redhead (1950)
Right Cross (1950)
Cry Danger (1951)
The Tall Target (1951)
You Never Can Tell (1951)
Callaway Went Thataway (1951) (scenes deleted)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Susan Slept Here (1954)
The Road Is Open Again (1933)
Just Around the Corner (1933)
Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
And She Learned About Dames (1934)
Hollywood Newsreel (1934)
A Dream Comes True (1935)
Hollywood Hobbies (1939)
Split Second (1953)
The Conqueror (1956)
You Can't Run Away from It (1956)
The Enemy Below (1957)
The Hunters (1958)
Powell was the first actor to play private detective Philip Marlowe on radio, in 1944 and 1945.
Year Program Episode/source
1945–? 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
"I Only Have Eyes for You" (1934) from the film Dames. "Roses in December" (1937) words and music by Herb Magidson, Ben Oakland and George Jessel. (The song first appeared in The Life of the Party.) ISWC: T-070127274-3
"Over There"/"Captains of the Clouds" (1942–Decca 4174) Issued early in World War II, the A side brought back a patriotic song that had been popular in World War I. The B side came from a James Cagney film of the same name.
1. "Film World Mourns Dick Powell; Jack Carson." St. Petersburg Times. AP. January 4, 1963.
2. "Dick Powell." Turner Classic Movies.
3. "Richard Ewing Powell." Dictionary of American Biography (1981) Charles Scribner's Sons, New York
4. "Dick Powell." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers Vol. 3. (2000) Gale, Detroit
5. Olson, James (2002) Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland ISBN 0-8018-6936-6
6. "A Plane Crazy America." AOPA Pilot: 79. May 2014.
7. "Powell acknowledges cancer treatments" (PDF). Broadcasting: 9. October 1, 1962.
9. Hollywood Walk of Fame
10. Kirby, Walter (February 24, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week." The Decatur Daily Review. p. 38.
11. Orodenker, M.H. (March 7, 1942). "On the Records." Billboard. p. 66.