Television script writer
It was how Richard spent his time away from the Les Cheneaux Islands that touched most of America. The television scripts he wrote were performed by others and broadcast into living rooms across the nation, but they were his words. Always strikingly funny and truthful, at once current and timeless, his words always seemed perfectly placed in the mouths of the characters that he scripted.
His most well known work was for the series Hogan’s Heroes. Because of his previous work with producer Ed Feldman on The Gomer Pile Show and The Andy Griffith Show, Richard was originally hired by Feldman to re-write the pilot episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Sergeant Schultz, the bungling Nazi guard, was Richard’s creation. His work was so good, in fact, that Feldman didn’t change a single word of the script Richard handed him, a unique show of confidence for a writer in the television industry where rewrites of rewrites are standard practice. Richard wrote four of the first five episodes, helping to set the tone for one of the most popular comedies of the time. He continued to write for Hogan’s Heroes throughout its six-year run from 1965 to 1971. In all, he penned 29 episodes.
Richard also wrote for a wide variety of other television favorites including The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, M.A.S.H., The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Quincy, Charlie’s Angels, All That Glitters, and many others. Later in his career Richard entered into a development contract with Hollywood producer David Biegelman and MGM for three years. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his writing on a Bob Hope and Lucille Ball comedy special and won the Morgan Cox Award for lifetime contribution to the Writer’s Guild only a year before his death. Richard also developed the story line for a 1963 movie entitled Wild and Wonderful, starring Tony Curtis. At the time of his death, he was working on a script about computer dating. Richard was no stranger to political controversy. Once, the FBI threatened to shut down a stage show he was working on. He had penned a skit for the stage show, entitled “Courage is Contagious.” In the skit, Senator and Mrs. McCarthy are arguing: “Why don’t you run off with J. Edgar Hoover?” asks Mrs. McCarthy. Senator McCarthy replies “Don’t think I haven’t thought of it.” Hoover, director of the FBI at the time, must have gotten wind of the skit and was swift to react to the suggestion that he was homosexual. FBI agents approached Richard and told that he must remove the scene or they would shut down the show.
Even more significantly, Richard was blacklisted during the 1950s and ’60s, so he was unable to work under his own name for more than ten years. Over three hundred of Hollywood’s finest talents, those suspected of leftist political leanings, were blacklisted as a result of the McCarthy hearings and prohibited from working. Most, like Richard, never even appeared before a committee, and suspicions against them remained unproven and often unsubstantiated. Though Richard was prohibited from working directly, he was talented enough to be in demand. Two producers in particular hired him frequently. One even risked his own status by “fronting” for him: presenting Richard’s work under his own name. Thus, Richard was able to continue to make a living writing.
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Sy Gomberg knew Richard and worked with him in the Writer’s Guild of America. “He was the most courageous guy I knew in the Guild and he truly believed in the Guild and promoting the well-being of the writers. Everyone, even those who didn’t share his views, had tremendous respect for him and what he had to say,” Gomberg remembers. Strikes that Richard helped lead resulted in health and pension benefits, guaranteed residual payments and credit rights for writers in the film and television industry. He was president of the Television Writers branch of the Writers Guild during the 1950’s and continued to be extremely active in the Guild until his death, often in opposition to the current, more conservative leadership.
Richard was a prolific writer, but he spoke sparingly. He would, however, come up with a witty and spontaneous observation in any situation. His delivery was poker faced deadpan, his timing impeccable. Long time friend, Lou Shaw, who created Quincy and wrote on Colombo and McCleod, among other shows, remembers Richard’s knack for one liners. One year when Lou was broke, “I got a letter from Dick. Inside was a check for a thousand dollars and a note. ’Run it up, Lou’ was all it said.”
“Every year he would give the fish and game report at the Les Cheneaux Island’s Association’s annual meeting,” says his son, Alex. “In 1974 or ’75, he announced a new honor, the OPEC Award, given to a friend of his, also a fisherman, for most gallons of gas burned per fish caught.” On the West Coast, too, his speeches were a highlight. Sharon Barovsky, in a letter printed in Malibu’s Surfside News after Richard’s death, wrote of one evening at a Writer’s Guild strike rally. “It was almost midnight; people were tired and discouraged. The speeches were over; the votes were cast. But hundreds of people sat and waited. I asked the man sitting next to me why no one was leaving. ’Because,’ he said simply, ’Richard Powell hasn’t spoken yet.’”
Richard was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 15, 1916. His great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister of Welsh and German descent who moved to Cincinnati in the early 1800s. His father, Richard Clifford Powell, was a short hand reporter in the Hamilton County Court, and tried to instill a strong respect for the legal profession in his son. Richard’s mother, Anna Armstrong, also lived in Cincinnati. Her family had emigrated from Ireland in 1826. Before she married Richard’s father, Anna had taken a trip with a friend to Cedarville in the Les Cheneaux Islands. She fell in love with the area and convinced Richard’s father to honeymoon there. They continued to vacation at a hotel for a couple of years. Then, in 1916, they bought a tiny one-bedroom cottage on one of the islands. It became the place Richard loved above all others, a peaceful, beautiful, natural place where knowing the names of the trees, flowers and rocks was significant. As children, Richard and his only sister, Betty, spent endless hours swimming, picnicking, fishing and exploring.
Richard attended the University of Cincinnati where Betty remembers the first expressions of his future writing career. While pursuing a liberal arts degree, Richard started writing theatrical productions and musicals. At the urging of his father, he began law school after graduating from U.C., but didn’t enjoy it. He soon left law school and was hired as a comedy writer for WLW radio in Cincinnati until his enlistment in the Army. Richard served his country during World War II in the Army Entertainment Corps, making use of his writing talent. His posting kept him in the United States for the duration of his four years of service, and he emerged from the Army as a Captain.
Richard returned to Cincinnati for a short time after the War and resumed his affiliation with WLW radio. But soon he found he was unhappy in Cincinnati and decided to test himself in Hollywood. In 1946 he moved to Los Angeles and worked first in radio, writing for, among other things, The Life of Reilly, which later was developed into a television series of the same name. Through various contacts in the industry, Powell was able to make the transition into television, though he struggled to make ends meet for several years. But hard work and good writing paid off, and Richard found himself frequently employed.
During his early writing career, Richard was active in a politically liberal Hollywood circle, and it was at this time that he became acquainted with a politically active young woman, Alice Fhragowitz. Alice was married to Robin Willner, son of George Willner, the agent representing most of the Hollywood Ten, a widely publicized group of 9 screenwriters and one director who were ostensibly tried and convicted of leftist activities. In 1955 Richard married for the first time, but tragedy struck. After only two years of marriage, he lost both his wife, Libby Burke Powell, and their baby in childbirth. He suffered terribly from the traumatic loss. Some time after the loss of his family, Richard bumped into Alice Shragowitz, who was recently divorced from her husband. They began dating and were involved for a year before splitting up and going their separate ways. Five years later their paths crossed again when Alice called Richard asking for advice on where she might find a place to live in Malibu, where he had recently moved.
Richard and Alice were a perfect match politically and religiously, and deeply appreciated each other’s sense of humor. They married at their home on New Year’s eve, 1962. He often commented that Alice had “slowly moved in” to his Malibu home, but it was on their wedding night that Richard placed a new sign on the front of the house, which read “Under New Management.”
Richard and Alice’s two sons, Anthony and Alex, grew up on the beach in Malibu and at the cottage in Michigan. Anthony is currently a reporter for an NBC affiliate news station in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Alex is a radiologist in Miami, Florida. The Powell family still spends as much time as possible at their cottage each summer.
After living on the beach in Malibu for almost 30 years, the Powells moved to the hills overlooking the ocean. Two years later, their new house burned to the ground during the widespread Malibu fires of 1992. Almost all of Richard’s scripts and writings were destroyed in the blaze. Words may have been the trademark of Richard’s professional life, but in his personal life, his easy communication came through actions and fulfilled intentions. He was a loving husband and a caring father who never had his own personal ambitions for his sons. He supported them in everything they did. They remember his steadfast support at their sporting events. He never missed a game. While other parents went berserk, screaming at their kids or the coaches, Richard would sit quietly, his presence encouraging them to do their best. He often took his sons to LA Rams and Lakers games. “Magic Johnson was his favorite player,” Anthony says. “We would watch all the games together. I think this made him unique. He could go from political writing to going to watch a Lakers game. He was very well rounded.”
Richard and Alice were generous and respectful parents. “The most critical thing he ever said to me was when he read my medical school application essay,” Alex remembers. “’I’m not sure this is your best.’ That was his idea of criticism. I rewrote the essay.” Anthony recalls “When I first got a job in broadcasting, he wrote me a letter saying you’ve really worked hard at following your dreams and I’m so proud of you. He hinted that he identified with me because he saw my effort and remembered how much he had struggled. I think he was proud that I went into something that involved writing.” Richard also gave Alice complete support as she earned her Ph.D. in Psychology and began practicing.
Anthony remembers how humble Richard was. “I got hold of his résumé one time. I was amazed at how much he had written and how much he had done. He always played it down, but he was obviously very successful.” Richard’s priorities were simple. His family always came first. He instilled in his sons a love of life and leisure. He worked hard, but understood that life has more to offer. He never emphasized accumulation of wealth. He sometimes wrote at the cottage, but turned down any job that would have required him to stay in California for the summer, including an offer to produce Barney Miller.
He also loved the outdoors and the environment. He loved to garden and had an annual Memorial Day garden planting ritual. He was extremely active in preserving the environment, both in Cedarville and Malibu, where he lived for nearly 36 years. His strong sense of community and solid commitment to what he believed. was right drove him to be involved, to try and make a difference.
The Michigan cottage was Richard’s retreat, a place where he could grow vegetables and flowers, watch the trees he planted mature. “Cedarville was his idea of world travel,” Alice jokes. Fishing was one of his favorite pastimes, in Cedarville, California and Mexico. He loved everything about it: being out on the water, inhaling the cool, clean air, absorbing the natural silence, sharing the companionship, smelling fresh salmon on the grill, and, of course, hauling in the big one. “Just about the only time I remember him getting excited was when we caught our first salmon on Lake Huron.” Alex says. “We’d been trying for a couple of years with no luck. We hugged after we got it in the boat. He was really excited.”
Richard lost his battle with cancer on October 20, 1996, at the age of 79. He touched the lives of countless people through his humor, his compassion and his commitment. He wrote for some of America’s most popular television sit-coms and radio shows. He said funny things, always with a dry wit, an incomparable poker face and an unshakeable sense of timing. He was a courageous and active member of the Writer’s Guild. He was a wonderful husband and father. He worked steadfastly for the environment and communities in which he lived. Those who knew and loved him will always celebrate his life.
Contributed by Pete Edwards