Warren William appeared in his first Broadway play in 1920, and had soon made a name for himself in New York. William appeared in 22 plays on Broadway between 1920 and 1931. During this period he also appeared in two silent films, The Town That Forgot God (1922) and Plunder (1923). William moved from New York City to Hollywood in 1931. He began as a contract player at Warner Bros. and quickly became a star during what is now known as the ‘Pre-Code’ period. He developed a reputation for portraying ruthless, amoral businessmen (Under 18, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King, Employees Entrance), crafty lawyers (The Mouthpiece, Perry Mason), and outright charlatans (The Mind Reader). These roles were considered controversial yet they were highly satisfying, as this was the harshest period of the Great Depression, characterised by massive business failures and oppressive unemployment; hence audiences tended to jeer the businessmen, who were portrayed as predators.
Warren William did play some sympathetic roles, including “Dave The Dude” in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day, a loving father and husband cuckolded by Ann Dvorak’s character in Three on a Match (1932), a comically pompous business manager in Golddiggers of 1933, Julius Caesar in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934; starring Claudette Colbert in the title role), and with Colbert again the same year as her character’s love interest in Imitation of Life (1934). He played the swashbuckling musketeer d’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), directed by James Whale. William was the first to portray Erle Stanley Gardner’s fictional defense attorney Perry Mason on the big screen and starred in four Perry Mason mysteries. He played Raffles-like reformed jewel thief The Lone Wolf in nine films for beginning with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), and appeared as Detective Philo Vance in two of the series films, The Dragon Murder Case (1934) and the comedic The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). He also starred as Sam Spade (renamed Ted Shane) in Satan Met a Lady (1936), the second screen version of The Maltese Falcon.
Other roles include Mae West’s manager in Go West, Young Man (1936), a jealous District Attorney in another James Whale film, Wives Under Suspicion (1938), copper-magnate Jesse Lewisohn in 1940’s Lillian Russell, the evil Jefferson Carteret in Arizona (also 1940), sympathetic Dr. Lloyd in The Wolf Man (1941), Brett Curtis in cult director Edgar G. Ulmer’s modern day version of Hamlet, 1945’s Strange Illusion, and as Laroche-Mathieu in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), which would be William’s last film. On radio, Warren William starred in the transcribed series Strange Wills, which featured “stories behind strange wills that run the gamut of human emotion.” Although on-screen William was an actor audiences loved to hate, off-screen William was a private man, and he and his wife, Helen, kept out of the limelight. Warren and Helen remained a couple throughout his entire adult life. He was often described as having been shy in real life. Co-star Joan Blondell once said, “[He] … was an old man – even when he was a young man.” Warren William died on September 24, 1948, from multiple myeloma, at age 53. His wife would die a few months later. He was recognized for his contribution to motion pictures with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960.
- December, 02, 1894
- Atkin, Minnesota
- September, 24, 1948
- Hollywood, California
Cause of Death
- multiple myeloma