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American Movie Classics magazine
Tyrone Power was born into the family trade and a daunting legacy
At birth, he was given one of the most distinguished names in the history of the acting profession. At the age of 22, with only some drama-school and stock-theater experience to his credit, he charmed his way into the lead role of his first major motion picture. His popularity onscreen was matched by critical acclaim on the stage, and when he passed away, much too early, his death was eerily reminiscent to that of his celebrated father. Even at death, he was still contending with the daunting legacy of his name.
Tyrone Edmund Power was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 5, 1914, to a rich theatrical tradition. His great-grandfather, Tyrone Power the First, had been a celebrated comedian on the Dublin stage and one of the first European actors to tour the United States. One of his sons, Harold, became a renowned concert pianist, and Harold's son, Frederick Tyrone Power, became a matinee stage idol. Billed as Tyrone Power II, he established himself as a highly reputable Shakespearean actor on the Broadway stage. To this rich theatrical heritage, Tyrone Power, Jr. was born.
"One morning," 20th Century-Fox director Henry King recalled, "I was in my office, extremely busy in preparation for the feature, Lloyd's of London (1936). My secretary entered and told me that a young gentleman named Tyrone Power, Jr. was requesting a few minutes of my time.
"I remembered his father, Tyrone Power, Sr., who had played an important part in Fury, a picture I made in 1923. She ushered the young man in, and he said that he wanted me to know that he was under contract, so that if there was any kind of part in my picture, he would like to be considered. His manner, attitude and personality impressed me immediately." The studio was poised to cast Don Ameche as the lead male, but King took a risk and convinced 20th Century-Fox to screen-test Power. The actor had several years of experience, having made his screen debut in Tom Brown of Culver (1932), but lacked substantive experience. He needed his big break.
He got it. After watching the test, King cast Power over Ameche, and according to the director, "When Lloyd's of London was released, the public acclaimed Tyrone as a star -- from that day on."
Recognizing the draw of his dashing good looks, 20th Century-Fox responded by casting Power in a successful series of swashbuckling costumers, such as Mark of Zorro (1940), The Black Swan (1942), Captain from Castile (1947) and Prince of Foxes (1949), as well as Westerns and romantic histories, such as Jesse James (1939), Brigham Young: Frontiersman (1940), and Rawhide (1951). Power bristled at the light material and argued for more serious dramas, which would allow him to prove himself as an actor of depth and conviction. However, ever mindful of the bottom line, studio head Zanuck continued to cast him in a steady series of romances.
One rare opportunity to display his abilities was The Razor's Edge (1946), Somerset Maugham's tale of a young man's search for enlightenment. 1Zanuck was hesitant about granting Power's wish to star in a second dark drama, Nightmare Alley (1947). Zanuck pleaded with director, Henry King, to dissuade his protégé away from the movie. King complied, telling the actor that his fans would not accept him as an alcoholic con man and suggested that he was more suited for other dramatic roles. "Name one!" Power challenged. King remained silent -- all too aware that the studio had no intention of endangering its leading man's image. Power persisted, however, and got his way. He would later cite Nightmare Alley as one of his favorite roles. Critics agreed, raving, as The New York Journal American did, "It isn't a pretty role, and Power takes full advantage of a meaty part to give a strong, arresting performance that's easily one of his best to date." Time magazine agreed, "Tyrone Power ... steps into a new class as an actor ... ." Such reviews must have vindicated Power's lifelong struggle to prove himself worthy of the talent associated with his name.
Power's last film should have been Solomon and Sheba (1959); nearly three-quarters had been shot when, on November 15, during a dueling scene, he collapsed. Power died soon after, at only 44, from heart failure. Even at death, he was not free of his family legacy. The case was tragically similar to his father's, who collapsed from a heart attack on the set of The Miracle Man (1931). Ironically, Power may have been delivering the role of his life. "I felt he was giving his best performance..." Solomon and Sheba director King Vidor later said.
"The completed picture would have been his best performance."
1 Nightmare Alley was not a commercial success. Fearful of the damage to their star's image, the studio gave the movie no publicity campaign and pulled the movie out of the theatre very quickly. The movie has attained a cult status among film noir fans and critics often cite the movie as one of Ty's best films. Nightmare Alley is being released on DVD June 7, 2005. You can preorder now from Movies Unlimited.
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