Lionel Atwill, a fixture of action and horror films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, is a familiar face whose background was unknown to me, so I figured he’d be great to write about for the 7th Annual What A Character! Blogathon. To be honest, there’s a lot more story here than I expected.
Atwill was born to a wealthy family in the Croydon area of London in 1885. Nicknamed “Pinky” due to his reddish hair, he studied to be an architect but that apparently didn’t last — by age 20, he’d made his acting debut at the Garrick Theatre. By 1915, he’d gone to the United States, and he was appearing in silent films by 1918. His posh British accent and authoritative voice allowed him to thrive after the conversion to sound. Per his IMDB filmography, Atwill made at least four films, and as many as 9, every year in the 1930s and early 1940s, portraying mad scientists, police inspectors, tyrannical island governors, and other stern authority figures who often had a sinister side. Atwill, in fact, seemed to gravitate toward this type of role. If you’ve seen two-strip Technicolor masterpiece Doctor X, or The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Captain Blood, The Secrets of Dr. Kildare, the Universal Frankenstein pictures, or House of Dracula, you’ve seen Atwill. Unlike some thespians, then and now, who make the leap from stage to big or small screen, he never sought to distance himself from talkies, and seemed to enjoy making films:
‘I am one of those few stage actors who really like the films, and admit it!’ proclaimed Lionel to The New York Times (August 14, 1932), returning east as Doctor X premiered. It had always been the fashion of theatre stars to patronize the movies, but Lionel praised the work, the West Coast climate and the challenge of acting in films versus playing on the stage:quoted in Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors: Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, and George Zucco
‘There are two different techniques. That is why some stage actors are not in pictures and why some movie stars fail on the stage. It is easier for the former to learn the other mode than the latter.’
by Gregory William Mank
He also wanted very much to become a producer, and in 1941, had spent $25,000 to obtain the rights to a novel, The Dark River, with James Whale reportedly set to direct.
That film was never made, however, and in the mid-’40s, Atwill’s credits start to wane. This was a direct result of his long-rumored real-life sinister side — throwing wild (some might say degenerate) parties — becoming more generally known. There had been rumors for years that the Atwill residence in Pacific Palisades was the venue for orgies and p0rnography viewing, and some even said Atwill produced and directed X-rated films himself. Sometime over the 1940-41 holiday season, Atwill played host to a “grand, old-time Hollywood Yuletide orgy,” according to one attendee who later attempted to blackmail him. He presented some p0rn and afterward, the guests imitated what they had seen. When a related case landed in court, the orgy became public knowledge. The actor was forced to perjure himself in front of a grand jury, and to bribe a check-forger to back him up. On June 2, 1941, the grand jury decided that they believed him when he swore that he indeed owned no p0rn at all, that the films were travelogues, and that the orgy was actually just a wholesome gathering of some of the leading lights of the film colony.
Atwill was on borrowed time though. In 1942, the Yuletide affair was back in court, and he was indicted for felony perjury, found guilty, and sentenced to five years probation. Seven months later, facing a blackmail attempt, Atwill went back to the judge and confessed all, maintaining that he’d lied to protect his friends. Though the judge commuted his sentence and expunged his record, the Hays Office took a dim view of any feature with him in it. Atwill’s career was effectively done. Until his death from pneumonia related to lung cancer in 1946, his film appearances were limited to those for Producers Releasing Corporation, the studio that put the poverty in Poverty Row. He had carved himself an eternal place in the classic horror pantheon, but I suspect I’ll never look at Doctor X the same way again.
My main source for this post is the book quoted above, Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors: Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, and George Zucco by Gregory William Mank.
This post is part of the 7th Annual What A Character! Blogathon.