The British-born actor became a Broadway sensation in 1918, starring in no less than five top productions that year. An April New York Times article, entitled The Rise of Lionel Atwill, stated, “Atwill is riveting his position as one of the most valuable stage importations from England in several seasons.”
Despite his success on stage, often directing and producing in addition to his performing, Atwill abruptly turned his back on New York in 1931. Reprising his part as a lawyer from his last play, Silent Witness, in a 1932 film, he would, from then on, work exclusively in Hollywood. His very next film, Doctor X, introduced him to horror films. He appeared in six horror and mystery titles released in quick succession, literally within a year, outpacing rivals Karloff and Lugosi. Of these, Murders in the Zoo (1933) with its grisly revenge plot, opened notoriously with Atwill sewing a man’s lips together. “You’ll never lie to a friend again," he cackles. "You'll never kiss another man’s wife!”
Paired in three films with the incandescent Fay Wray, their encounter in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) proved the most memorable, captured in warm, two-strip Technicolor, with Wray punching and cracking Atwill’s wax face to reveal the burned monster underneath. Her scream still resonates.
Atwill returned to the genre in 1939, going on to appear in five consecutive Frankenstein films, opposite every actor who played The Monster at Universal: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange.
Uniformed and ramrod-straight, manipulating a monocle and an articulated wooden arm with Teutonic precision, and delivering his lines in machine-gun, clipped tones, Atwill forged one of the most iconic and memorable characters in the Frankenstein film canon as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939), a part beautifully spoofed 35 years later by Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein (1974).
In The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Atwill was the mad scientist who catastrophically swapped Ygor’s brain into the Monster’s flat skull, and in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), he appeared in a small supporting role as a the Mayor of monster-infested Vasaria. Finally, Atwill returned to his trademark Inspector parts, called Arnz in House of Frankenstein (1944), and Holtz in House of Dracula (1945).
Among his many menace and mystery roles, Atwill played opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes twice, most notably as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943). He specialized, typecast perhaps, as a mad scientist in numerous programmers. As the Frankensteinian Dr. Rigas in Man Made Monster, a sleeper hit in 1941, he turned Lon Chaney Jr’s Lennie-like Dynamo Dan McCormick into a glowing electrical zombie, exclaiming "Of course I'm mad!"
Atwill’s private life would provide newspaper fodder throughout his career, starting with a sensational divorce case in 1925, while at the peak of his Broadway years. In 1930, Atwill married the stunning and very opinionated Louise Cromwell Brooks, a famous socialite, recently divorced from General Douglas McArthur. “I traded four little stars for one big Hollywood star” she quipped. Her Palm Beach lifestyle, her political connections and frequent one-liners made “Mrs. Lionel Atwill” a gossip column favorite.
Movie press agents fed Atwill stories to the papers. A 1934 article boldly credited Atwill as having “discovered” director Joseph Sternberg. In 1936, a plug for the spy drama Till We Meet Again made the papers as “Papa Atwill Stumps Sonny With Monocle”. The item related how Atwill had amused his family by wearing his movie monocle at a family dinner, supposedly prompting his son Walter to ask, “Why is it that in the pictures your monocle always stays on, but at home it always falls in the soup?”
The Atwill’s opulent homes made the news, too. A mansion evaluated at $42,000 burned to the ground in the California fires of October 1935, and coastal storm in December 1936 destroyed two of Atwill’s homes, said to be undermined and sliding into the ocean along with $12,000 worth of antique furniture. The Atwills’ estate in Green Springs, Maryland, where they had married, was burglarized twice in August 1937. The house had served as a honeymoon retreat for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
All the press attention turned sour shortly after the Atwills separated in 1939, the Mrs. retiring to a mansion in Palm Springs. Atwill became the focus of a highly publicized, career-crippling scandal over a Christmas 1940 party held at his Malibu home. Guests, some possibly underaged, were said to have cavorted in the nude on a tiger skin rug while stag movies were screened. In a court appearance, an emphatic Atwill claimed that he was “absolutely not guilty”, resulting in a felony charge for perjury. Then came the tragic news, in 1941, that his 26-year old son, John Arthur, had been killed in action.
Atwill’s perjury case would be dismissed in 1943, after the actor came clean and said he had “lied like a gentleman” to protect his family and friends from embarrassment. The judge recognized that the American censor board, the Hays Office, had restricted the actor’s appearance in films. “It would constitute unusual punishment to continue this situation,” Judge McKay noted, “which would prevent the defendant from earning a living.” But the damage was done, with Atwill already relegated to B-pictures and threadbare serials.
Lionel Atwill remarried in 1944 and fathered a son, Anthony, but the actor’s health declined and he died on April 22, 1946, after a long, debilitating battle with pneumonia. He was 61.
Lobby cards: Heritage Auctions.