Warren William (born Warren William Krech; December 2, 1894 – September 24, 1948) was a Broadway and Hollywood actor, immensely popular during the early 1930s; he was later nicknamed the “King of Pre-Code”.
Warren William Krech’s family originated in Tennstedt, Saxony, Germany. His grandfather, Ernst Wilhelm Krech (born 1819), fled Germany in 1848 during the Revolution, going first to France and later emigrating to the United States. He wed Mathilde Grow in 1851, and had six children. Freeman E. Krech, Warren’s father, was born in 1856.
Around the age of 25, Freeman moved to Aitkin, a small town in Minnesota, where he bought a newspaper, The Aitkin Age, in 1885. He married Frances Potter, daughter of a merchant, September 18, 1890. Their son Warren was born December 2, 1894.
Warren William’s interest in acting began in 1903, when an opera house was built in Aitkin. He was also an avid and life-long amateur inventor, a pursuit that may have contributed to his death. After high school, William auditioned for, and was enrolled in, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City in October 1915.
As his senior year at AADA was coming to an end, the First World War had begun, and William enlisted in the United States Army. He was moved from base to base, in charge of training new men at various locations, and in 1918, was moved to Fort Dix near New York City, in New Jersey.
While in New York, he met his future wife, Helen Barbara Nelson, who was 17 years his senior. In October 1918 he left for France, to enter the war. William left the army in early 1919, after which he began working on his acting career. In 1923, he and Helen were married.
William appeared in his first Broadway play in 1920, and had soon made a name for himself in New York. William appeared in 22 plays on Broadway between 1920 and 1931. During this period he also appeared in two silent films, The Town That Forgot God (1922) and Plunder (1923).
William moved from New York City to Hollywood in 1931. He began as a contract player at Warner Bros. and quickly became a star during what is now known as the ‘Pre-Code’ period. He developed a reputation for portraying ruthless, amoral businessmen (Under 18, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King, Employees Entrance), crafty lawyers (The Mouthpiece, Perry Mason), and outright charlatans (The Mind Reader).
These roles were considered controversial yet they were highly satisfying, as this was the harshest period of the Great Depression, characterised by massive business failures and oppressive unemployment; hence audiences tended to jeer the businessmen, who were portrayed as predators.
William did play some sympathetic roles, including “Dave The Dude” in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day, a loving father and husband cuckolded by Ann Dvorak’s character in Three on a Match (1932), Julius Caesar in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934; starring Claudette Colbert in the title role), and with Colbert again the same year as her character’s love interest in Imitation of Life (1934). He played the swashbuckling musketeer d’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), directed by James Whale.
William was the first to portray Erle Stanley Gardner’s fictional defense attorney Perry Mason on the big screen and starred in four Perry Mason mysteries. He played Raffles-like reformed jewel thief The Lone Wolf in eight films for Columbia Pictures beginning with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), and appeared as Detective Philo Vance in two of the series films, The Dragon Murder Case (1934) and the comedic The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939).
Other roles include Mae West’s manager in Go West, Young Man (1936), a jealous District Attorney in another James Whale film, Wives Under Suspicion (1938), copper-magnate Jesse Lewisohn in 1940’s Lillian Russell, the evil Jefferson Carteret in Arizona (also 1940), sympathetic Dr. Lloyd in The Wolf Man (1941), Brett Curtis in cult director Edgar G. Ulmer’s modern day version of Hamlet, 1945’s Strange Illusion, and as Laroche-Mathieu in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), which would be William’s last film.
On radio, William starred in the transcribed series Strange Wills, which featured “stories behind strange wills that run the gamut of human emotion.”
Although on-screen William was an actor audiences loved to hate, off-screen William was a private man, and he and his wife, Helen, kept out of the limelight. Warren and Helen remained a couple throughout his entire adult life. He was often described as shy, and costar Joan Blondell once said, “[He] … was an old man – even when he was a young man.”
Warren William died on September 24, 1948 from multiple myeloma, at age 53. His wife would die a few months later. He was recognized for his contribution to motion pictures with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960.