Lionel Atwill (1885-1946)

Lionel Atwill, Hollywood movie and stage star of the thirties and forties, lived in Lennard Road, Penge, for more than twenty years before sailing to America and finding fame and fortune in Hollywood.

Star of Son of FrankensteinMystery of the Wax Museum and The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which he played James Mortimer M.D. and supported Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Atwill became a wealthy and successful man but one prone to scandal. Perhaps the temptations in Hollywood were too much for one who, despite his earlier success on the London stage, had existed in relative obscurity before leaving England for America in 1915.

Neil Pettigrew, biographer of Lionel Atwill, shares his research on this talented actor:

Lionel Atwill was born into a family of modest means on 8 March, 1885, at 2 Upton Villas, South Norwood. The family moved to 54 Lennard Road, Penge, when Lionel was 5 and Atwill was educated at the prestigious Mercer School. Intending to be an architect, somehow his interests switched to acting. He made his West End debut at the age of 20 in 1905 at the Garrick Theatre. He subsequently appeared in many prestigious West End productions, specialising in Ibsen and Shaw, and took many of these plays on tour.

Atwill had the gift of making friends with those who mattered to him and this was to be a blessing through most of his life and his undoing at the end of it. Having toured Australia, he sailed to America in the company of Lily Langtry in 1915. Langtry was to star with him on Broadway in Mrs Thompson. The play was not a success but Atwill had made his entrée into Broadway society. By 1918 he was a Broadway star and was to act, among others of equal calibre, opposite Helen Hayes in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Katherine Cornell in The Outsider. He starred in more than 25 plays between 1917-1931.

He made his screen debut in 1919. His distinctive looks and sonorous voice made him a natural on stage and his transition to the talking pictures easy. In the following years he was to make around seventy films, accruing a personal fortune, and becoming friends with the famous and the wealthy. His ambitions may have cost him the first three of his four marriages. He starred on screen in principal or supporting roles with the likes of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Bela Lugosi, Abbot and Costello, Maureen Sullivan, Fay Wray, Lucy Mannheim, Carole Lombard and Marlene Deitrich. He co-starred with Deitrich in The Devil is a Woman and Song of Songs .

A versatile and able actor, he is probably best remembered for the sequence of horror movies he made for Warner Brothers, Universal and other studios throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He starred with Fay Wray in The Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Atwill appeared in five out of eight Frankenstein films for Universal and, in his day, was as famous a name as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Nowadays he should be remembered in the same league as other British actors known for their horror films such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Here he is with Basil Rathone and Nigel Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon:

His success was shattered when he was implicated in a perjury scandal in 1942 concerning one wild party too many at his luxurious homes in the Hollywood Hills and overlooking Malibu Beach. He admitted perjury to protect some of the great and the good in Hollywood who were assembled in his home at the time.

During the same period, his eldest son was killed in action in 1941, aged 26. Compounded by grief, the impact of a potential prison sentence, the failure of his third marriage to millionairess Louise Cromwell Brooks and the rejection of his Hollywood friends, Atwill died of lung cancer in 1946. However, there was a belated measure of happiness in the final years of his life with another marriage and the birth of a second son, Lionel Anthony Atwill.

A full account of his extraordinary life is given by Sydenham resident Neil Pettigrew in Lionel Atwill: The Exquisite Villain (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Publishers, Inc, 2014). A Foreword is written by Atwill’s younger son, Lionel A. Atwill.  Neil joined a Penge Heritage Walk during the Penge Festival of 2016 and pointed out the house where Lionel  Atwill had lived in Lennard Road. Site of a future blue plaque, perhaps?


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Stop Press: Rachel Nagle is creating her own website for Lionel Atwill. The autographed photo of Lionel is one of her discoveries.