Dick Powell and the Fight Against Typecasting

Most serious actors do their best to avoid falling into the trap of typecasting. As creative artists, they would prefer to build a varied resume’, with appearances in a variety of films and roles in Romantic Comedies, Westerns, action films, Period Pieces, Crime Stories, and Space Operas, playing a mix of heroes, villains, clowns, and tragic figures. Of course, only the hottest of Hollywood talent will get to put together a resume’ this rich. Most will find the only way they can keep working is to accept some degree of typecasting.

Typecasting is an easy trap to fall into, and usually, the typecast actor is a victim of his own success. If you are successful as a certain type of character, then the studio bean counters will feel reassured that they can make money if you do it again. That is how Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce wound up making more than a dozen Sherlock Holmes films from 1939 until 1946, as well as several seasons playing the characters on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the radio.

Some actors will point out that it is better to be typecast than to not be cast at all, but it is easy to understand the frustration of playing the same type of character, over and over again. That is why it can be so satisfying to see an actor break from type. One of the best examples is Dick Powell who broke from the musical comedy “pretty boy” type so successfully that he seemed to have three separate careers.

Born Richard Ewing Powell in Arkansas, 1904, he was the middle boy of three sons. His father was often away on business, his mother used as a way to keep her sons in line, encouraging each of the boys to take up an instrument. The family settled in Little Rock in 1914, where folks began to notice Dick’s singing talent. After working his way through Little Rock College as a grocery clerk, soda jerk, and other odd jobs, he broke into show business as an M.C. at local theaters. Later, he signed on as a banjo player and singer with the Royal Peacock Orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky, before hitting the road with the Charlie Davis Band, touring throughout the mid-West.

Davis was based in Indianapolis, where he had the bad cut a few sides for Vocalion, and the label had Dick make some discs as a solo artist. Vocalion was owned by Brunswick Records, who were bought out by Warner Bros in 1930. After getting the new acquisitions sorted out the film studio began to take notice of the good-looking young singer and offered Powell a movie contract in 1932. He made his film debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event (1932).

Warner’s brought Dick along as a journeyman crooner, eventually pairing him with Al Jolson’s wife, Ruby Keeler, in the backstage musical 42nd Street (1933). Audiences loved the Keeler and Powell pairing, and they appeared together in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Flirtation Walk (1934), Shipmates Forever (1935), and Coleen (1936). Joan Blondell, another Warner’s contract player, was part of Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, and Coleen. She also appeared with Powell in Convention City (1933), Broadway Gondolier (1935), and Stage Struck (1936). The Blondell/Powell pairing appeared to work both on and off the set, and Dick and Joan were married in September 1936 (the second marriage for both).

Dick adopted Joan’s son and they had a daughter together. On screen, they made the farces I Want a Divorce (1940) and Model Wife (1941). By this point in his career, Powell was beginning to realize that he would soon outgrow the lightweight roles which had so far defined his Warner’s career. This may have been a strain on the marriage, but he campaigned hard to get the lead in Double Indemnity (1944). The part went to another aging “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray, and Powell was even further frustrated when he saw how working out of type revitalized MacMurray’s career. Powell and Blondell were divorced on July 14, 1944.

Perhaps to help cultivate a roguish image Dick began pursuing MGM starlet June Allyson, who was 13 years his junior. Her studio’s publicity department had sent her on public dates with their own young leading men, including Van Johnson and Peter Lawford. None of the studio set-ups were as attractive to June as Powell, even after Louis B. Mayer ordered her to stop seeing him. In an attempt to mollify the studio head, June asked him to give her away at the wedding. The shocked Mayer accepted (but still suspended her for defying him). Dick and June wed in August 1945.

Powell was cast in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) as the screen’s first Philip Marlowe. Although the role would be forever identified with Humphrey Bogart once he played him in The Big Sleep (1946), Powell’s Marlowe was closer to the thoughtful character created by Raymond Chandler and every bit as tough and hard-bitten as Bogie’s sneering Marlow. The picture certainly turned Dick Powell’s career around, setting his reputation as a noir tough guy.

Along with the hard-boiled movie roles, Powell was a popular radio drama star. He was no stranger to the broadcast studio, usually as a guest crooner supporting his films, but in 1945 Powell was hired to play Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery, the summer replacement for Fitch Bandwagon. Although detective and mystery series had been a staple of radio for a long time, Rogue was arguably the first “hard-boiled” detective who took more beatings than he dished out. The program held on past the summer, but in 1947 Powell left to concentrate on his film career and the part of Richard Rogue was picked up by Barry Sullivan and later Paul Stewart.

After a number of successful he-man film roles, Powell was coaxed back to the airwaves in 1949 for NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Diamond was as ready to take or throw a punch as any other hard-boiled detective, creator and writer Blake Edwards convinced Powell that it would be alright for the gum-shoe to sing a musical number after putting away the bad guy.

On screen, Powell was beginning to age out of the tough guy leading roles, so he began to explore the possibility of keeping his career alive from the other side of the camera. His feature directorial debut was RKO’s noir thriller Split Second (1953) about a group of escaped convicts hiding in a ghost town which is to be the site of an atomic weapon test. There would be a Cold War spin on his second feature, but it would be more sinister and much deadlier.

The Conqueror (1956) had the elements to be a major blockbuster. Powell was a relatively new but highly talented and creative director, Howard Hughes (and his fortune) backed the project as co-producer. There was serious star-power involved, with John Wayne and Susan Hayward leading a strong cast. The principal photography was shot in the grandeur of the Utah desert, and the cavalry scenes involved hundreds of horsemen. What no one seems to have considered was how ridiculous it was to cast The Duke as a Mongolian warrior (Temujin, or Genghis Khan), let alone blond Susan Hayward as his concubine.

Even more tragic than having to sit through the film’s 111 minutes was that the arduous filming took place 137 miles downwind of the site of eleven recent above-ground atomic test shots. Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, nearly half would die of various forms of cancer before 1980 (granted, most of these people were also heavy tobacco users, but the downwinder status seems a bigger factor in their illnesses). Howard Hughes took the film out of circulation by purchasing every known print of the film until Universal bought the rights from his estate in 1979.

Powell had greater directorial success on the small screen. In the early Fifties, he saw that there were greater creative opportunities in the growing TV industry, and he felt that the industry was bound to shift from live programs from New York to recorded shows shot in Hollywood. Impressed by the Desilu Studios business model developed by his friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, he convinced Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Joel McCrea to invest in Four Star Television. McCrea left to pursue his own career and Ida Lupino became the fourth Star, although she did not own stock in the enterprise.

Four Star’s pet project was Four Star Playhouse which featured a weekly rotation of the principals (sometimes more than one working together) in an anthology series. The company also brought a number of Westerns and Sitcoms to TV and resurrected Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective with David Janssen playing the slick gumshoe (Janssen did not, however, sing on the program). Four Star was a career launching pad for TV heavyweights David Janssen, Steve McQueen, Robert Culp, Chuck Connors, Mary Tyler Moore, Linda Evans, Jeannie Carson, Lee Majors, The Smothers Brothers, and Aaron Spelling.

In September 1962 Powell acknowledged rumors that he was undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer. He passed away on January 2, 1963, at the age of 58. Although it has widely speculated that Dick Powell was a victim of the Nuclear Downwinder Phenomenon, his widow June Allyson stated in a 2001 interview that the cause of death had been lung cancer resulting from years of cigarette smoking.

Three Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame were set for Dick Powell, one for Motion Pictures at 6915 Hollywood Blvd, another for Television at 6745 Hollywood Blvd, and for Radio at 1560 Vine Street.

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