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Tyrone Power, Not Just a Pretty Face

Updated on September 22, 2014

Tyrone Power became one of the best known movie actors of Hollywood's Golden Age, famous in swashbuckling roles and as a handsome romantic lead in such films as 'The Mark of Zorro'. Although he became extremely famous and a byword for masculine good looks, he never quite fulfilled his obvious acting potential.

He began in movies at the age of twenty-two and almost immediately his dashing good looks made him a natural for leading man roles. During his career he made about fifty movies ranging from comedy to dramatic Westerns, before his tragically early death from a heart attack at the age of forty-four, before achieving the greatness that once seemed to be his for the taking.

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The Tyrone Powers - An Acting Dynasty

Tyrone Power was born on May 5, 1914, in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a family with acting in the blood. His father, also called Tyrone Power and his mother, Patia, were stage actors and his grandfather, the first Tyrone Power, was an Irish comedian. When Tyrone was a baby, the family moved to Calfornia on the advice of their doctor and his sister Ann was born there in 1915. His father was away from home travelling with acting troupes for long periods and the marriage ended in 1920. Although Tyrone kept in touch with his father he was tutored in drama and elocution as a young boy by his mother who moved with her children back to Cincinnati and became a teacher at her aunt's drama school in the town.

With his family history it was a certainty that Tyrone would choose acting as a career and when he left Purcell High School, Cincinatti, in the summer of 1931, aged 17, he went to live with his actor father, in New York to learn as much as he could about the business from him. It was a short-lived reunion as, in December 1931, Power senior became ill on the set of the movie, 'The Miracle Man' and died of a heart attack, supposedly in his son's arms. Tyrone was on his own in his search for acting work.

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Tyrone, aged 17, with his father in 1930

"He had an aura about him that set him apart from everybody else. I had an enormous crush on him and felt his feet never touched the earth." - Coleen Gray actress

The Young Actor

Tyrone's initial acting experiences were not successful. He had small roles in 'Tom Brown of Culver', and 'Flirtation Walk', in the early 1930s but was advised to learn about acting from stage actors before making another try at screen acting. Accordingly he returned east and after a brief, unsuccessful experience in radio in Chicago with his friend, future Hollywood star, Don Ameche he went on to New York.

There he was taken under the wing of the actress Katharine Cornell who helped him get work, first as understudy to Burgess Meredith in 'Flowers of the Forest' and then the more substantial role of Benvolio in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Hollywood scouts began to take notice of the handsome young man and after his next role in Cornell's 'St. Joan' Power was offered a screen test and joined Twentieth Century Fox studio in 1936.

Hollywood and Stardom

Power hardly had an introductory 'probation' period as a top actor. He hit the ground running and became a leading man and major star in his first year with his new studio. After two minor roles in his first year in 1936 in 'Girls' Dormitory' and 'Ladies in Love' he was given his first major role later in the same year in 'Lloyd's of London' and although he was originally fourth billed, the film made him a top movie star and from then on he was consistently used by the studio as a leading man.

His first starring role was in 1937 in the disaster movie 'In Old Chigago' with Alice Faye and his old friend Don Ameche. At the time it was one of the most expensive movies ever made, a sure sign of the esteem in which Power was now held by Fox, and the studio continued to keep him fully occupied with a variety of roles in many film genres.

With Alice Faye in 'Alexanderâs Ragtime Band'
With Alice Faye in 'Alexanderâs Ragtime Band'

In 1938, Tyrone appeared in the movies 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', (with Alice Faye, above) and 'Suez' which along with 'In Old Chicago' became three of Twentieth Century Fox's top-four grossing films. The following year he made his first movie in Technicolor, 'Jesse James' with Henry Fonda and by the end of the year he was the number two box office star in the country.

Power continued his successful run with a series of swashbuckling costume dramas such as 'The Mark of Zorro' in 1940, 'Blood and Sand' in 1941 and 'Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake' and 'The Black Swan' both in 1942. He became well known for his roles in these swashbucklers and in the course of making them, he developed into a genuinely talented fencer.

Power's popularity was at its peak but he became frustrated and felt that his good looks were preventing him from getting more difficult roles which would make more demands on his acting skills.

"Working with Ty Power was exciting. In those days, he was the biggest romantic swashbuckler in the world. Murderously handsome! But what I loved most about Ty Power was his wicked sense of humor." - Maureen O'Hara actress

Tyrone in Air Force Uniform
Tyrone in Air Force Uniform

Military Service

Power had a break from movies to do military service from 1942 to 1946 and just appeared in one film in 1943, a patriotic movie called 'Crash Dive'. He served as a pilot in the Marine Corps finishing with the rank of First Lieutenant and saw active service in the South Pacific, carrying the wounded out from Iwo Jima, often under heavy enemy fire.

He returned to United States in November 1945 and was released from active duty the following year. He was promoted to Captain in the reserves on May 8, 1951,

On his return he finally got his wish for meatier roles when he was paired with Gene Tierney in the Thriller 'The Razor's Edge' in 1946 and the following year he gave one of his best performances in another unglamorous role as a sham mystic in 'Nightmare Alley'. Unfortunately for Power 'Nightmare Alley' flpped at the box-office, despite his remarkable performance, and he was promptly returned by the studio to his more profitable swashbuckling roles.


Looking older in 1956

He was next seen in a costume move, 'Captain from Castile', directed by Henry King, who directed Power in a total of eleven movies, and after two light comedies 'That Wonderful Urge' and 'The Luck of the Irish' he returned once again to swashbucklers with 'Prince of Foxes' in 1949 and 'The Black Rose' in 1950.

Power continued to be a top box office draw but in his post war movies he seems to have lost his youthful freshness, and his face is drawn and prematurely lined. His film career was certainly past its best and most of his movies during the 1950s were very ordinary. Exceptions were the cowboy movie 'Rawhide' in 1951 and he gave exceptional performances in 'The Sun Also Rises' and 'Witness for the Prosecution' towards the end of his career.

"Ty was warm and considerate. He had a beautiful face." - Gene Tierney actress

Stage Work

Power was himself unhappy with many of the films he was given and he sought and was granted permission to seek roles outside 20th Century-Fox. He returned to his first love, the stage and made several successful appearances. He performed the title role in the stage version of 'Mister Roberts' which ran to packed audiences for six months at the London Coliseum from 1950-51 and from 1952-3 he toured with director Charles Laughton's production of the stage play, 'John Brown's Body', based upon the great poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. He played opposite Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey and received critical acclaim.

He reunited with Katharine Cornell in 1955 at the American National Theatre and Academy Theatre on Broadway in Christopher Fry's 'The Dark Is Light Enough' and the following year he toured the United Kingdom in 'The Devil's Disciple'.

Last Successes

During this period of stage success he continued to make some of his best and most successful movies. In 1955 'The Long Grey Line', a highly successful John Ford film was released by Columbia Pictures, and the following year Columbia also released the hugely successful romantic melodrama 'The Eddy Duchin Story'. His career seemed to regaining momentum when landed key roles in the 1957 film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises' and Agatha Christie's 'Witness for the Prosecution', as the man on trial. Both movies were successful and contained first class acting performances from Power.

Power was undoubtedly a very good actor but always felt he was held back by his studio because of his commercial, matinee idol looks. Although he himself was never nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, four of his pictures received best picture nominations: 'In Old Chicago' (1937), 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1938), 'The Razor's Edge' (1946), and 'Witness for the Prosecution' (1957). His work in the theater was always critically acclaimed and leaves the unanswered question of how good an actor could he have become if he had conncentrated on the stage?

Personal

By all accounts, Power was a highly sexed man and his love life was both varied and active. Rumours circulate that he had homosexual liasions in his youth but he put those behind him with a long series of successful relationships with a large number of women.

He married three times and had a host of affairs. His first marriage from 1939 to 1948 was to French actress, Suzanne Charpentier, known professionally as Annabella. (pictured right) From 1949 to 1956 he was married to Mexican actress Linda Christian with whom he had 2 children and his third marriage was to Deborah Ann Smith in 1958. They had one child, born after Power's death. In between and during his marriages Power had a succession of affairs with, amongst others, Judy Garland, Gene Tierney, Lana Turner and Mai Zetterling.

Tyrone Power's last scheduled film was 'Solomon and Sheba', with shooting beginning in Madrid in September, 1958. Powers was accompanied to Madrid by his heavily pregnant third wife, Deborah. During a particularly exhausting duelling scene with his friend, actor George Sanders, Power collapsed with a heart attack and died on the way to hospital. His son, Tyrone Power IV, was born two months later.

"Good night, sweet prince...".

The inscription on Tyrone Power's tombstone

What's Your Take on Ty? - Gushing praise welcomed!

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    • amandajoyshapiro profile image

      amandajoyshapiro 2 years ago

      Interesting article on Tyrone Power! One of the first roles I saw him in was Marie Antoinette from 1939; starring with Norma Shearer. He played Count Axel de Fersen, the role Jamie Dornan played in the Sophia Coppola version starring Kirsten Dunst.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Handsomest man that ever graced the movie screens.

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      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      I was always enthralled with Tyrone Power for a lot of reasons ... as a child, I was quite enamored with him.