Though often forgotten today, Stone County native Dick Powell was one of the most familiar faces in Hollywood in his 30-year film career. His hard work and talent led him from Arkansas to tour the world and work with some of the most famous actors of the day.
Richard Ewing Powell was born in Mountain View in 1904. His father was a salesman, and his mother taught him music. In 1914, his family moved to Little Rock, where Powell’s interest in performing expanded as he sang in church choirs and local bands.
In the early 1920s, he attended Little Rock Junior College (the present-day University of Arkansas at Little Rock), taking a series of odd jobs to pay for his education. After graduation, he performed with several bands in tours across the country. He recorded a number of albums along the way.
His singing career led to a movie contract in 1932. He found a lot of early success appearing in musicals such as 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Powell ultimately appeared in 73 films and television shows. Most of his roles in the 1930s were light comedies, but he shifted to dramatic roles in the 1940s. In 1944, he played private investigator Philip Marlowe in the gritty drama Murder, My Sweet. He would play similar detective roles in such later films as Pitfall (1948) and The Tall Target (1951).
From 1949 to 1953, Powell starred in the popular NBC radio drama Richard Diamond, Private Detective. He also appeared in several other radio dramas in the 1940s and 1950s, often as a private detective.
In 1953, he directed his first of six films. Split Second was a story of a group of escaped convicts holding a group hostage in a town expected to be obliterated by a nearby nuclear test in just a matter of hours. Powell reportedly joked about becoming a director, “The best thing about switching from being an actor to being a director is that you don’t have to shave or hold in your stomach anymore.”
He also directed The Conquerors, released in 1956, which starred John Wayne as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan and was produced by Howard Hughes. The movie, however, met with mixed reviews. In 1957, Powell directed The Enemy Below, a story set in World War II that pit the captain of an American destroyer against a German submarine commander. The film won an Academy Award in 1958 for special effects.
He continued to appear in movies and on television. From 1956 to 1961, he hosted Zane Grey Theater on CBS, a series of western tales based on novels and short stories by famed writer Zane Grey. He also hosted The Dick Powell Show in 1961 and 1962, a dramatic anthology program that included such guest stars as Dean Martin, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, and Frank Sinatra.
Powell later developed cancer. Some film historians have theorized that that he contracted it while on the set of The Conquerors, as the Utah set was near the site of an above-ground test detonation of eleven nuclear warheads. The test had been two years before filming, but the ground was apparently still contaminated in spite of reassurances from the army that the area was safe. Cancer rates of those on the set were reportedly three times higher than normal in the ensuing years, and producer Howard Hughes allegedly blamed the illnesses on the radioactive fallout. Whether these cancer cases were related, however, may never be known.
Powell died in January 1963 at the age of 58. His son with actress wife June Allyson, Dick Powell, Jr., became a noted actor himself. His modest childhood home in Mountain View is a local landmark today.?