Born: Mar. 1st, 1885 Died: Apr. 22nd, 1946
If you are a fan of the old Universal classics, then you’ve seen Lionel Atwill. But it seems that younger fans today might now know him other than “that guy from the Universal films”. It’s really unfortunate too since Atwill was wonderfully talented at playing intelligent and authoritative figures. Granted, some of them were mad as a hatter, but that’s beside the point. Then again, that is where he seemed to excel!
Atwill could carry the lead in films, such as the original Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1933), but could also make the same impact when he was playing supporting roles in films like Man Made Monster (1941) or Son of Frankenstein (1939). He was always memorable with his distinct voice and glare, always leaving an impression. My first issue of Famous Monsters magazine featured an article on Man Made Monster, which to this day, remains one of my favorites. Same goes for The Ghost of Frankenstein, that I can still remember watching for the first time on a small 13″ black and white TV and enjoying the hell out of it. And Atwill is one of the reasons on both those examples.
In the early 40’s, he was sentenced to 5 years probation after being found guilty of perjury in a case about a young girl who had been raped at a “wild sex-party”, which was claimed to be at Atwill’s home. He testified that it was not true, which was found to be a lie after others testified. While he did work a little after this scandal, his career was pretty much done. I’m sure there is a lot more to that story as to what really happened, but I’m not sure we’ll ever really know. But he should at least be remembered for the fine work that he did give us.
For a great biography of Atwill, check out Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors, by Gregory William Mank.