Like Zorro, the role he is perhaps most famous for, Tyrone Power left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of film audiences around the world. Though we all knew him as the man who put the “swash” in “swashbuckling,” his rugged and devastatingly handsome exterior belied a sensitive man who wanted nothing more than to become a “serious” actor.
Tyrone Power was born into an acting dynasty: His great-grandfather was the first Tyrone Power (1795-1841), a renowned Irish comedian; his father, known as Tyrone Power, Sr. (1869-1931), was a wildly succesful stage actor, and later film actor; his mother, Patia Power, was a Shakespearean actress and respected drama coach. So, it would seem that Tyrone Edmund Power, Jr. (Tyrone Power III), born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1914, had the blood of a thespian coursing through his veins.
At birth, Tyrone was frail and sickly—a far cry from the robust paragon of a man he later became. He was so wan and weak that the Power family relocated to San Diego, California, to reap the benefits of the milder climate. It was here that the young Tyrone got his first taste of the theater, watching his father walk the boards in a stage production. Unfortunately, it was also here that Tyrone Sr. decided to become a romantic leading man in real-life, not just on the stage. Tired of her husband’s infidelities, Patia filed for divorce, packed up the kids, and took them back to Cincinnati.
But Tyrone’s passion for acting had been kindled, and throughout his childhood, he maintained a rigorous correspondence with his father, who encouraged Tyrone to follow his dreams. In 1931, Tyrone graduated from school and went out to Chicago to join his father. Together they appeared in several Shakespearean productions on the road. Later that same year, Tyrone Sr. died tragically in his son’s arms, the victim of a heart attack. Tyrone left for Hollywood shortly thereafter, determined to make his father’s dreams for him become a reality.
Despite having matured into a startlingly handsome young man, Tyrone initially had considerable difficulty finding parts in Hollywood. He appeared in a few unremarkable roles, banking solely on his looks, in films like “Tom Brown of Culver” (1932) and “Hollywood Hobbies” (1934), until a screentest in 1936 led to a contract at 20th Century Fox. Leading roles quickly followed in films like “Lloyds of London” (1936) and “Suez” (1938) with Loretta Young. The debonair star soon found himself playing opposite more powerhouse actresses like Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette” (1938) and Myrna Loy in “The Rains Came” (1939). In 1939, Power married his sweetheart Annabella, and was selected as the nation’s number two box-office star by the Motion Picture Herald. He was finally a superstar, but he was known more for his swordplay than his wordplay.
Power was becoming bored with his acting career. With the family legacy of dramatic acting looming over him, Power was desperate to try his hand at meatier roles. He wanted to leave the frivolous parts in period pieces, whimsical comedies, and disaster films behind, and prove, once and for all, that he was his father’s son. After much cajoling, Power persuaded Darryl F. Zanuck, of 20 Century Fox, to find him a more serious role.
Zanuck wanted Power to play the role of Tom Joad in John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). But, despite pressure from the studio, Ford held out for Henry Fonda, whom he had worked with several times before. Power wound up starring in the gangster film “Johnny Apollo” (1940), and the film that would change his image forever, “The Mark of Zorro” (1940).
After serving in the Marine Corps in World War II and seeing action in the South Pacific, Power finally got the type of role he dreamed of. He got rave reviews for his performance in the dark film “Nightmare Alley” (1947) playing a downward-spiralling carnie. After seeing this and several other performances, John Ford cast Power in “The Long Gray Line” (1955), another serious role, in which Power portrayed an Irish immigrant who settles into a life of self-sacrifice.
Sadly, although he remained a huge star, much of Power’s postwar work was, with only a few notable exceptions, unremarkable. The War also seemed to wreak havoc on Power’s personal life. In an odd parallel to his father’s life, Power’s first and second marriages fell apart due to his highly publicized extra-marital affairs with co-stars.
Power seemed to be getting his career back on track with fine performances in Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) and “The Sun Also Rises” (1957). His personal life also seemed to be taking a turn for the better with his third marriage to Debbie Ann Minardos in 1938. Then, halfway through shooting “Solomon and Sheba” (1959), in a last, eerie echo of his father’s life, Power collapsed during a dueling scene and died of a heart attack before he could reach a hospital.
The Power theatrical dynasty did not end with Tyrone III: All three of Power’s children, including his namesake, Tyrone IV, have followed in the family’s acting tradition. Though his most enduring legacy turned out to be that of a swashbuckling rogue, Power ultimately did prove that he, too, was a serious actor. Perhaps in a final tribute to his father and a last effort to remind us of his roots, Power’s tombstone, etched with the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, bears an inscription from “Hamlet,” it reads: “Good night, sweet prince…”