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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
1952-56 Four Star Playhouse
Powell's Zane Grey Theatre
1961-63 The Dick Powell Show
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.
Split Second, 1952; The Conqueror, 1956; You
Can't Run Away from It, 1957; The Enemy Below, 1957;
The Hunters, 1958.
"Dialogue on Film: Aaron Spelling." American Film
(Washington, D.C.), May 1984.
Powell Theatre Loaded with Spinoffs." Variety, (Los Angeles),
30 January 1963.
Star Goes to Syndicate." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 21
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
Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Studios Big in Network TV." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.),
13 August 1962.
Stempel, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation. New York:
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.
Controls What in TV Films." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.)
17 October 1960.