Dick 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. 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.
- November, 14, 1904
- Mountain View, Arkansas
- January, 01, 1970
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
- Glendale, California