"The Last Days of Tyrone Power
August 1979
By Hector Arce

This segment is adapted from "The Secret Life of Tyrone Power,"
published by William Morrow and Company, 1979, Hector Arce.
It tells of Power's last weeks and events leading up to his death at 44
during filming of "Solomon and Sheba."

Was it a sign of his usual expansiveness that he wanted his friends about him, or was there another reason for his unusual insistence that they gather around?

He'd already stopped off in London on his way to Spain, where Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester were appearing together in The Party at St. Martin's Lane Theatre. The Laughtons were staying in Ty's unoccupied flat off Brompton Road, their host even supplying them with the services of his British secretary.

Laughton had directed Ty in John Brown's Body, his only undisputed triumph as a stage actor, and the two men were quite close. The Laughtons and the Powers had dinner at a restaurant near the theater, one of Ty's favorites because of the way it prepared osso bucco. Miss Lanchester found nothing ominous about their last meeting. All she recalled was the strength in Ty's new wife. She knew what she wanted and she got it in Ty. I suppose all of his women were strong.

Annabella drove down the first week in November from her farm in the French Pyrenees to the location in Saragossa. "He absolutely wanted to introduce me to his new little wife, whom he adored," she would later say about her former husband. When she returned home, she told close friends there was something terribly wrong with Ty, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

Ty hadn't told her, as he had Debbie, that he was feeling pains in his shoulder and upper left arm. He didn't think it was cause for alarm. He was playing a role too strenuous for his age, which might have activated a case of bursitis.

"When Annabella came to see us," Ray Sebastian explained, "We were filming the "young" sequence. His beard was gone, and he was all bleached out from not being out in any sun. He had a light makeup on. He was supposed to be a very cultured, nurtured, young son of David. Maybe he looked pale to her.

"We were shooting in one of those old castles this one day an Ty walked onto the set. There was something of beauty in this man's face that I never saw before. It wasn't the face of a sick man. It wasn't a tired man. It was just something sort of at peace with the whole damned world. It left an indelible impression on me, and I never forgot it. I can see it any time I want to bring it back."

Whenever a star dies while making a film, studio spokesmen are quick to point out that he passed an insurance physical before he began the project. The death may cause the cancellation of the production and the insurance company must absorb the production costs.

Sebastian said, "They checked his blood pressure; had him running up the steps they checked his urine, this, that, and everything. Ty said he'd never had such a going over in his life. They gave him a clean bill of health that Eddie Small was able to insure him for two million dollars. So don?t give me that crap about a heart thing.?

"It's automatic coverage," Rock Hudson, in contradiction, said. "You usually go to some quack doctor. He asks, "Have you had any illnesses in the last year?' You answer no. He says, "Okay." He checks your pulse and takes your blood pressure. Then he gives you a form to sign and you're insured."

Annabella had visited Ty and Debbie the week before. The production company was back at its headquarters in Madrid. It was the second month to the day that they?d been filming the Biblical epic. Ty's work was about 60 percent completed.

The cold fall air hung heavily over mountain-locked Madrid that morning, as the company prepared to shoot the culminating action sequence of the picture.

Director King Vidor quickly got a couple of close-ups of Ty. He already had a master full-figure shot of the duel with George Sanders. Next would be medium shots to capture facial expressions and dialogue, the camera pulling back to catch the choreographed swordplay.

How many times in the past had the two men faced off against each other in movie fights? The pictures, none of them distinguished, had run together in their minds, variations of the same theme in which heroic Ty vanquished the nefarious Sanders. The repeated combat had taken on the character of a grunge match. If Sanders was doomed to die, he understandably wanted the gory death to have the optimum histrionic effect. It wasn't beneath him to milk the scene dry.

In this version, it was brother pitted against brother, fighting for the right to rule Israel over the fallen body of the Queen of Sheba. Only Ty and Sanders were on call this morning, however. Gina Lollobrigida, in her nearby trailer dressing room, was preparing for her afternoon of work, in which she would miraculously rise from her previously presumed death to take the next scheduled chariot back to her homeland.

Over the next hour and a half, the two men, wearing heavy robes and working with real Roman swords weighing fifteen pounds, staged the duel on an elevated staircase landing. Sanders wasn't pleased with some of the angles of being shot and asked several times that the scene be shot over. Ty voiced no objections, going through the exhausting paces time after time.

Finally, after the eighth take, he could stand no more. He threw down his sword. "If you can't find anything there you can use, just use the close-ups of me," he angrily said. "I've had it!"

Ray Sebastian had never heard Ty speak this way. He'd always been accommodating and generous with other actors. In the past, Ty had handled difficult actors by kidding them. "Come on, you son of a bitch," he would say, "Let's get it right and let's get the hell out of here.?

His makeup man saw that Ty was shaking uncontrollably, but didn?t know whether it was from anger or exhaustion. Whatever the reason, something was wrong. He helped the actor down from the platform.

The cameraman reloaded his film as Sebastian took Ty to his trailer dressing room. Inside, the small electric heater hadn?t yet warmed up the drafty enclosure.

"I feel cold," the actor replied. He groaned. "I hurt all over. I think I'll lie down."

In the dozens of pictures and in the twenty-three years he'd worked with Ty, Sebastian never knew him to lie down between takes. He would either sit in his dressing room and read, conduct interviews, or trade small talk with the crews.

As Ty lay down on a small couch, Sebastian poured him a cup of hot tea, and added some rum, thinking the stimulant might be of help.

"Ty, can you hold your arms up?"

He tried. "Boy, they hurt!"

Sebastian asked a messenger to get the company doctor. A few moments later, the boy returned and said the doctor hadn't been on the set that morning. A Spanish girl who didn?' speak English appeared with a beat-up first aid kit.

In his limited Spanish, the makeup man discerned from the girl that the doctor had gone into town.

"This man is seriously ill," he said. "He belongs in a hospital."

Shortly afterwards, Power was dead.

The private funeral services were scheduled for noon for Friday, November 21, 1958, at the Chapel of the Psalms. Debbie at first agreed to seat one thousand uninvited guests outside the chapel, with the ceremony to be carried to them over a loudspeaker. Then she changed her mind.

Because she believed that Linda had made a spectacle out of the Marquis de Portago's funeral, Debbie asked her to stay away from the services. "Ty belongs to me now," his widow stated. "Whatever anybody else does is of no concern to me anymore."

Linda's reaction was caustic. "I am happy for her if she can find peace in that belief." She and her two daughters celebrated mass at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church eight blocks away.

The invited mourners stared arriving to pay their final respects. Among them were Henry King, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Billy Wilder, Danny Kaye, Clifton Webb, Brian Aherne, Herbert Marshall, Robert Wagner, and Natalie Wood. Loretta Young, on a lunch break from filming her television show, arrived wearing Oriental makeup. Yul Brynner had already started growing a beard for the role in which he would be replacing Ty. When he arrived, the gathering crowd burst into applause. He glowered at them, and they quieted down.

Inside, an organ filled the chapel with music associated with Ty's career: "Always" from Alexander's Ragtime Band; "Mam?selle" from The Razor's Edge; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from John Brown's Body; and Eddy Duchin's piano theme.

The Philippine mahogany casket was kept open during the military funeral. Debbie, in a straight-backed chair, her back to the other mourners, held Ty?s hand throughout the half hour ceremony.

Cesar Romero read "The Promises of America" by Thomas Wolfe, which Ty was to have read to airmen in Spain in Thanksgiving Day. After the reading, Romero said a few words:

"Ty was a strong, vital man who never spared himself. Everything he did, he had to do well and to the best of his ability, whether it was in his personal life, in his professional career, or in his service to his country.

"He constantly gave of himself, until one day he gave a little too much. He was a beautiful man. He was beautiful outside and beautiful inside. We shall all miss him."

"Rest well, my friend."

After the services, six marines carried the flag-draped casket to the burial spot beside a small lake in Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery.

Only then was the full force of the vulgar carnival impressed on the minds of the mourners. It was a grisly reaction of the crowd scene from Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust. As their favorite stars appeared, the crowd started cheering. At its outer edges, families were seated on the lawn eating box lunches, oblivious to the crying of several children among them. A little girl was getting a hula hoop lesson from her father. A small boy, trying to get closer to the activities, fell into the pond, screaming and sputtering as he scrambled out. The crowd was effectively pushed back as the body was interred.

The ceremony over, the invited mourners gradually dispersed, to be followed by the crowd. All in all, it hadn't been totally out of control. Only one woman had fainted.

Hours later, Linda and her two daughters visited the grave, leaving a five-foot cross of white gardenias.

When they were married, Ty and Linda had entertained dozens of Hollywood?s most famous names. She learned how short or unforgiving the memories of those she once considered friends actually were. During the few weeks that she stayed on in Southern California after Ty's funeral, she heard only from Henry Hathaway, Joe Pasternak, and Delmer Daves and their wives.

It was a disquieting, disturbing time for all who had known and loved Ty, and it was no better reflected than the description by Time magazine of Ty's military funeral: "Major Power deserved the attention; he had served his country well during World War II. As an actor he had been better than many of Hollywood's handsome heroes. As a private citizen, he had certainly been no worse."

[ back ]