POWELL, DICK

U.S. Actor-Producer

Dick Powell may be best remembered as a movie star, a boyish crooner in dozens of Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, and later, a hard-boiled film noir tough guy. Like many stars of the studio era, Powell turned his dramatic talents to television in the fifties, but he did so as an adjunct to his most significant television role, as an independent telefilm producer. Between 1952 and his death in 1963, Powell served as the head of Four Star Television, which became, under his leadership, one of Hollywood's leading suppliers of prime-time network programming.

As the star of numerous Warner Brothers musicals, Powell was one of Hollywood's top box-office draws during the 1930s (and quickly became just as popular on radio). By mid-decade the young singer was lobbying to break into more serious roles, but his efforts were rebuffed by Jack Warner. The parts became somewhat more varied after a 1940 move to Paramount, but the actor's dramatic ambitions were blocked there as well. The turning point came in 1944 when Powell convinced RKO to cast him as private eye Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (regarded by many as the definitive rendition of Raymond Chandler's fictional sleuth). Thereafter the singing roles stopped, and Powell began a new career as a hard-boiled antihero in such films as Cornered, Pitfall, Johnny O'Clock, and Cry Danger, in the process remaking his radio persona as well, with a stint as gumshoe Richard Rogue in Rogue's Gallery, and three seasons as Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Still eager to broaden his creative horizons, Powell set his sights on movie directing in the late 1940s, but once again met with resistance from studio powers. Finally, in 1952, RKO studio head Howard Hughes gave Powell a chance to direct the thriller Split Second, and the success of that film led Hughes to offer Powell a producing job. While there was some speculation in Hollywood that Powell would become head of production at RKO, he was able to complete only one feature, The Conqueror, before Hughes sold the company in 1955. Powell went on to helm three more features in as many years at other studios.

Although the leadership of RKO had eluded him, Powell had already begun his rise as a television mogul. On the heels of his first feature assignment Powell had formed an independent telefilm production company with actors Charles Boyer and David Niven. Four Star Films derived its name from its first project, the half-hour anthology Four Star Playhouse, in which one of the three partners would rotate with a different weekly guest star. In its second season the partners invited guest Ida Lupino to become the show's permanent "fourth star." Although she did not become a stockholder in the firm, Lupino went on to direct many episodes of Playhouse and other Four Star series, in addition to her acting duties.

While Boyer and Niven each owned a healthy share of Four Star, Powell ran the company. A 1962 Television magazine profile of Powell called him the company's "principal architect of policy as well as the most valuable performer and production executive," and noted that the firm's fortunes moved in direct proportion to the time the boss devoted to it. A "workaholic" in today's parlance, Powell was notoriously driven, and closely involved with both the financial and creative aspects of Four Star. He not only managed operations, but was active in developing story properties, oversaw script conferences, and, when needed, used his charm--and the weight of his celebrity--to close a program sale.

Four Star's stock-in-trade early on was anthologies. Powell followed up Four Star Playhouse in 1954 with the short-lived Stage 7, and two years later Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, hosted by and occasionally starring the Four Star chief executive officer himself. Powell and company also produced one season of Alcoa Theatre in 1958, and in subsequent years crafted anthologies around one of Powell's partners (The David Niven Theater), and his wife (The June Allyson Show), both featuring the requisite array of Hollywood stars.

Zane Grey Theatre ran for five years, at once feeding and riding the crest of the phenomenal surge of western programs on television in the late 1950s. Four Star generated its share of the stampede, scoring its biggest hits in the genre with The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Trackdown, as well as less successful entries like Johnny Ringo, Black Saddle, Law of the Plainsman, Stagecoach West, and the highly-regarded but extremely short-lived Sam Peckinpah project, The Westerner.

Four Star's western output highlights the creative economy of program development under Powell. Anthologies were the perfect vehicles by which to generate new program pilots at a network or sponsor's expense. Most of the Four Star westerns, for example, were born as installments of Zane Grey Theatre (Wanted: Dead or Alive had its trial run as an episode of Trackdown). Four Star Playhouse spawned two crime series featuring gambler Willy Dante: eight Four Star installments starring Powell as Dante were repackaged as a 1956 summer replacement series (The Best in Mystery), and a new Dante series was hatched in 1960 with Howard Duff in the title role. Another spin-off of sorts came in 1957 when Powell revived his Richard Diamond radio vehicle for television, with young David Janssen as the suave P.I. Michael Shayne, Private Detective was a less successful Four Star entry in the private eye cycle of the late 1950s.

Four Star was one of the busiest telefilm suppliers in the business in 1959, when Powell hired Thomas McDermott away from the Benton & Bowles ad agency to be executive vice-president of production. The following year the newly renamed Four Star Television marked its peak in prime time with a remarkable twelve series on the networks. Even after dropping to six shows in 1962, Four Star was producing more programming than any other Hollywood independent, surpassed only by MCA-Revue and Columbia-Screen Gems, leading Broadcasting magazine to dub the firm a "TV major." More literally "independent" than most of his producing counterparts,

Powell resisted the increasingly common practice of ceding control of off-network distribution to the networks themselves. Although Four Star often had to cut the broadcasters in on series profits, the firm retained syndication rights to all its shows, starting its own syndication division, rather belatedly, in 1962. Powell the executive was sensitive to the creative process as well as profits, no doubt due to his own experiences as a performer and later a director. "Four Star was a paradise for writers," according to Powell biographer Tony Thomas, and many Four Star alumni have attested to their boss's sensitivity and support. Powell personally fielded ideas from writers, interceded with sponsors to protect controversial scripts from censorship, and would support any story--even if it conflicted with his own political conservatism--if the writer was passionate enough about it. Powell mentored writer-producers like Peckinpah, Blake Edwards, Bruce Geller and Aaron Spelling, and signed young writers like Christopher Knopf, Richard Levinson and William Link, Leslie Stevens, and Robert Towne early in their careers. By all accounts, Powell was universally respected by his creative personnel.

With the western on the wane in the early sixties, Four Star diversified its product, turning out situation comedies like The Tom Ewell Show, Peter Loves Mary, McKeever and the Colonel, The Gertrude Berg Show, and Ensign O'Toole, as well as a courtroom drama (The Law and Mr. Jones), an organized crime saga (Target: The Corrupters), and an unusual anthology, The Lloyd Bridges Show. Only The Detectives, Starring Robert Taylor constituted even a modest success. In early 1961 Powell reduced his involvement in the overall operations at Four Star and focused his attentions on producing The Dick Powell Show, a star-studded anthology featuring Powell as host and frequent star. The new anthology presented even more pilots than Zane Gray--over a dozen in two years--yielding the newspaper series Saints and Sinners in 1962, and Burke's Law the following year (among the unsold projects was Luxury Liner--produced by future Love Boat creator Aaron Spelling). One of television's few remaining anthologies, the Powell show received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Dramatic Achievement for both its seasons on the air.

After Powell's death in January of 1963 Four Star continued operation under McDermott's leadership, but Four Star's reign as a "TV major" was over. With six series on the fall schedule for 1962, a year later Burke's Law was the firm's only prime-time entry. The change in Four Star's fortunes probably had as much to do with ratings as anything else. The company had not had a major hit since The Rifleman, and its attempts to exploit the sitcom were unsuccessful. The firm's continued resistance to network control of syndication may have cost it prime-time sales. Certainly the loss of Powell's leadership, his formidable salesmanship powers, and indeed his reputation, could not have helped matters. With declining network program sales, more flops (e.g., Honey West, The Rogues), and the disappointing performance of the company's own (belated) syndication division, Four Star's ledgers were awash in red ink by 1966. The Big Valley was the last series being produced under the Four Star banner when the firm was sold in 1967.

 


Dick Powell in the Dick Powell Show

The bulk of Four Star's output reflected Powell's own history in motion pictures, turning out solid, unpretentious entertainment. If Powell and company did not assay social realism or topical drama with the same panache as, say, Stirling Silliphant or Reginald Rose, neither did they pursue the radical self-imitation characterized by Warner Brothers' western and detective series. Rather, Four Star products reflected the relative diversity necessary to survive in an uncertain entertainment marketplace. Even Four Star's genre-bound series exhibited the kind of conventional innovation, and occasional quirkiness, that defines American commercial television at its most fascinating, and Powell was pursuing anthologies long after the conventional wisdom had abandoned the form.

Of all the Four Star products from Powell's tenure, only The Rifleman remains a syndication staple today, although Zane Grey Theatre and Wanted: Dead or Alive survive on commercial video, and Burke's Law has been revived for the 1990s by its star (and co-owner) Gene Barry. Aficionados of Hollywood film can, on cable, video, or at the occasional retrospective screening, still enjoy Powell's innocent grin and golden tones in Gold Diggers of 1933, and his stubbled smirk and grim wisecracks in Murder, My Sweet. His final dramatic roles, on Zane Grey and Dick Powell, are the purview of collectors of TV ephemera, until their resurrection on video. It remains for historians to cite Dick Powell the independent producer, the telefilm pioneer, the "TV major," and to emphasize that by the early 1960s he was a more successful producer of motion pictures--for the small screen--than any of the old-line Hollywood studios. One wonders what Jack Warner must have thought.

-Mark Alvey

DICK (RICHARD) EWING POWELL. Born in Mountain View, Arkansas, U.S.A., 14 November 1904. Attended Little Rock College, Arkansas. Married: 1) M. Maund (divorced); 2) actress Joan Blondell, 1936 (divorced, 1945); children: Ellen and Norman; 3) actress June Allyson, 1945; one daughter and one son. Began career as singer with his own band, 1921; singer, comedian, and master of ceremonies, Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1930; film debut, Blessed Event, 1932; co-founder, Four Star Productions, 1952; first directed film, Split Second, 1953; host, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, 1956-61. Died in Hollywood, California, 2 January 1963.

TELEVISION

1952-56 Four Star Playhouse
1956-62 Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre
1961-63 The Dick Powell Show

FILMS

Blessed Event, 1932; Too Busy to Work, 1932; The King's Vacation, 1933; 42nd Street, 1933; The Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933; Footlight Parade, 1933; College Coach, 1933; Convention, 1933; Dames, 1934; Wonder Bar, 1934; Twenty Million Sweethearts, 1934; Happiness Ahead, 1934; Flirtation Walk, 1934; The Gold Diggers of 1935, 1935; Page Miss Glory, 1935; Broadway Gondolier, 1935; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935; Shipmates Forever, 1935; Thanks a Million, 1935; Colleen, 1936; Hearts Divided, 1936; Stage Struck, 1936; The 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; Christmas in July, 1940; I Want a Divorce, 1940; Model Wife, 1941; In the Navy, 1941; Happy Go Lucky, 1942; Star Spangled Rhythm, 1942; True to Life, 1943; Riding High, 1943; It Happened Tomorrow, 1944; Meet the People, 1944; Murder, My Sweet, 1944; Concerned, 1945; Johnny O'Clock, 1947; To the Ends of the Earth, 1948; The Pitfalls, 1948; Station West, 1948; Rogue's Regiment, 1948; Mrs. Mike, 1949; The Reformer and the Redhead, 1950; Right Cross, 1950; Cry Dangers, 1951; The Tall Target, 1951; You Never Can Tell, 1951; The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952; Susan Slept Here, 1954.

FILMS (director)

Split Second, 1952; The Conqueror, 1956; You Can't Run Away from It, 1957; The Enemy Below, 1957; The Hunters, 1958.

FURTHER READING

"Dialogue on Film: Aaron Spelling." American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1984.

"Dick Powell Theatre Loaded with Spinoffs." Variety, (Los Angeles), 30 January 1963.

"Four Star Goes to Syndicate." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 21 August 1967.

"Four Star Has Red Ink for Fiscal Year." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 17 October 1966.

James, Edwin H. "The Boss is His Brightest Star." Television (New York), September 1962.

"L-G-L's 4 Star Deal." Variety (Los Angeles), 24 July 1963.

Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

"Six Studios Big in Network TV." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 13 August 1962.

Stempel, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation. New York: Continuum, 1992.

"The Swing to Network Control." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 16 May 1960.

Thomas, Tony. "Dick Powell." Films in Review (New York), May 1961.

_______________. The Dick Powell Story. Burbank, California: Riverwood Press, 1993.

"Who Controls What in TV Films." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.) 17 October 1960.

 

See also Independent Production Companies