By Scott D. O'Reilly
Few actors have
been so closely identified with the swashbuckler / adventure genre than Tyrone
Power, and even fewer actors have worked as hard to overcome that
identification. But Power succeeded on both counts, starring in some of the
most successful adventure yarns of the 1930's and 1940's, and later drawing
critical acclaim as a versatile and accomplished actor.
Tyrone Power was born on May 5th 1913. To say that acting genes were in
the family would be an understatement: Tyrone's father and mother were both
actors, as was his great grandfather. Tyrone was a frail and sickly child, and
in the interests of his health the family moved to California. The young Tyrone
was eager to follow his father's footsteps, the elder Power having established a
successful career on stage and screen, appearing in numerous silent films, and
an early sound film opposite John Wayne in one of "The Dukes" earliest films
"The Big Trail."
Tyrone was only eighteen when he appeared on stage with his father in
Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Tragedy, however soon struck, and the
elder Power collapsed of a heart attack later that same year, dying while
holding his son in his arms. As the young Tyrone matured his good looks began
to attract attention. Incredibly handsome, Tyrone possessed an unusual
combination, angelic eyes and a slightly devilish smile. Trim, with thick, jet
black hair, Power also combined a sensitive manner with a virile presence.
After early stage work Power was signed to a long term contract with Fox studios
where he was groomed as a matinee idol. Among his early successes where films
like "Lloyds of London" and "In Old Chicago."
The studio may have pegged Tyrone as a leading man, perfect for costume
dramas and escapist fare, but the actor had other notions. He struggled to get
better parts, serious dramas that might stretch his acting muscles, but in the
meantime Power settled into a successful period of swashbucklers and action
films that cemented his reputation as bona box office draw. Films like "The
Black Swan," considered by many to be one of the best pirate films ever, and
"The Mask of Zorro," find Power at his peak as an adventure hero. The latter
film, in particular, provided Power with an opportunity to showcase his acting
skills as he effectively plays the dual roles of the effeminate aristocrat Don
Diego de Vega by day, and the dashing swordsman Zorro by night. The role was a
triumph for Power, and the climatic swordfight with arch villain
remains one of the screen's all-time best duels.
Tyrone was not just a hero on the screen, at the outbreak of the Second
World War Power volunteered for service, seeing action in the Pacific theatre as
a Marine pilot. Friends say Power rarely discussed his war experiences, but
those experiences may have helped him prepare for one of his most ambitious
roles ever, the part of disillusioned war veteran Larry Darrell in the film
adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's acclaimed novel "The Razor's Edge."
Released shortly after the war in 1946 Power's portrayal of a soul-searching
idealist struggling to find meaning beyond the confines of a superficial
civilian world struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Power was
teamed with an outstanding cast including: Herbert Marshall, Clifton Web, Anne
Baxter - who won an Award for her role - and the luminous
Gene Tierney. Power
and Tierney had, in fact, teamed up before in the South Seas adventure yarn "Son
of Fury." Their on screen chemistry was unmistakable, and according to Tierney
the attraction wasn't just on screen. Tierney, however, had just met a young
naval officer named John F. Kennedy and her infatuation with the future
president precluded an affair with Power.
Power had no shortage of female admirers though, and they included many
of his leading ladies. The star would in fact marry three times during his life
- all to actresses including Annabella and Linda Christian. Power's numerous
affairs, however, were a constant threat to his marriages, and there were rumors
that his affairs were not just confined to women. But for all his promiscuity
those who knew Tyrone describe him as caring father and an exceptionally nice
In the late 40's and early 50's critics noted that the actor didn't seem
to bring the same energy and charisma to his adventure pictures, such as "King
of the Khyber Rifles," as he had in days past. A heavy smoker, Power was not
taking care of himself, and both his choice of films and his performances during
this period were lackluster. He would cap his career, however, with a series of
masterful performances in universally recognized classics such as John Ford's
"The Long Gray Line, a Hemingway adaptation of "The Sun Also Rises," and Billy Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution." The later, based on a whodunit by
Agatha Christie, featured the impeccable talents of Charles Laughton and
Dietrich, in roles that amount to tour de forces. But it was Power who stole
the show, again playing a dual role that left audiences and critics positively
stunned at the surprise ending.
The death of Tyrone Power a year later in 1958 was every bit of a shock.
Power was just 45 when he suffered a massive heart attack on the set of "Solomon
and Sheba" while filming a swordfight with co-star George Sanders. He was
replaced in the role by Yul Brynner. Of course Power himself was irreplaceable,
and he was finally garnering critical raves for tackling complex roles that
showcased his acting versatility. Just months after his death another of
Tyrone's dreams came true - the birth of his only son and namesake, who like his
two daughters, followed their father's footsteps onto the stage and screen.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an
independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. His work has been
published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now, Intervention Magazine, Think,
and The Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The
Great Thinkers A-Z (Continium, 2004) and is working on Deconstructing
Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read about classic film stars every month in
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Tyrone Power Pages:
A Tribute to
Tyrone Power The third member of a four-generation family of actors with the
same name, he was one of the most popular stars of his generation, but died much