Lionel Atwill


Born: March 1, 1885, Croydon, United Kingdom

Died: April 22, 1946, Pacific Palisades, CA


Lionel Atwill was born on March 1st 1885 in Croydon into a wealthy family and was educated at London’s prestigious Mercer School to become an architect. His interests lay however in acting and he made his stage debut at the Garrick Theatre, London in 1904 at the age of 20. He acted and improved regularly thereafter, especially in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.  Atwill went  to the US in 1915 and would appear in some 25 plays on Broadway between 1917 and 1931. The future was however in movies and he was already trying his hand in silent films by 1918.

In 1931, in spite of often directing and producing in addition to his acting, he turned his back on his successful stage career. From here on he worked in Hollywood and his appearance in Doctor X in 1932 introduced him to the horror genre. He had a deep and full voice and this along with the British accent that served him well on the stage, also helped in his film career.That voice and his assertive demeanour made Atwill a natural for the tough guy roles that were to be his trade mark. As shady noblemen and mad doctors, but also gruff military men and police inspectors (usually with a signature moustache), he worked steadily through the 1930s.

From here on you could argue that his presence in horror movies was out pacing our duo Karloff and Lugosi. We had Murders in the Zoo with its grisly revenge plot, seeing Atwill sewing a man’s lips together ‘ You’ll never lie to a friend again’ and cackling ‘ You’ll never kiss another man’s wife’ He appeared with the female  icon of the time, Fay Wray in three films.

He had the chance to show a broader character as the tyrannical but unforgettable Col. Bishop in Captain Blood (1935). Praise must be given for his role as the crazed and disfigured sculptor in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) where Wray unveils Atwill’s wax face to reveal the burned monster he really was. Her scream was something that came back to haunt the viewer time and time again.

He eventually appeared in five consecutive Frankenstein films alongside the horror icons, which proved his class and popularity beyond any shadow of a doubt. Let’s note his Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939), where he agrees to a game of darts with Basil Rathbone and proceeds to impale the darts through the right sleeve of his uniform (the character sported a wooden right arm).

He sends himself up with rolling and blustering dialogue as the glory-hog ham stage actor Rawitch in the classic To Be or Not to Be (1942) with Jack Benny. Other notable appearances were in The Wrong Road (1937) and as Dr James Mortimer in the 20th Century Fox’s film version of the Hounds of the Baskervilles (1939). He also played the arch villain Professor Moriarty in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Atwill, however,  effectively ruined his burgeoning film career in 1943 after he was implicated in what was described as an “orgy” at his home. Not to dwell here as it is his film career that we need to explore, other than to say on October 14, 1942, Lionel Atwill was sentenced to five years’ probation on a perjury conviction stemming from his grand jury testimony the previous year. He had lied to shield some friends.

He was thereafter kept employed on Poverty Row with only brief periods of employment by Universal Pictures, while the rest of Hollywood turned its collective back on him. He is more remembered for the horror films generally, than for his better efforts, but these have fuelled his continued popularity and a bid by the Southern California Lionel Atwill Fan Club to petition for a Hollywood Blvd. star (he never received one).

From my point of view ?  He first came to my attention, not because of his horror roles, but from his appearances as the ‘baddie’ in Saturday morning picture serials. Junior G-Men of  the Air (1942), where he played the evil baron, head of the Black Dragons who was eventually defeated by my heroes of the time, the Dead End Kids. We had  Raiders of Ghost City (1944) and  Captain America (1944). Atwill eventually died of lung cancer whilst working on one of these low budget epics namely, The Lost City of the Jungle (1946). He died before completing the serial, his remaining scenes being completed using a double.

Apart from the scandle which effectively finished his career he also had a controversial domestic life. He was married four times, namely

Phyliss Ralph 1913                                   Divorced 1919 In 1941 their son, John Arthur                                                                                                Atwill (born 1914), was killed in action aged 26

Elsie Mackay 1920                                     Divorced 1928

Louise Cromwell Brooks 1930              Divorced 1943

Mary Paula Shilstone 1944                     Until his death 1946

To sum up, an actor who you readily recognised on the screen who whilst never reaching the fame achieved by Karloff or Lugosi always added his own little bit of magic to the roles he played. Whenever he appeared it always reminded me of the Fred Astaire song lyrics ‘ There may be trouble ahead’ and I was never disappointed.

A class act ! or


Eve’s Daughter (1918)

The Eternal Mother (1920)

Doctor X (1932)

The Vampire Bat (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

The Sphinx (1933)

The Song of Songs (1933)

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

The Solitaire Man (1933)

The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933)

Nana (1934)

Beggars in Ermine (1934)

Stamboul Quest (1934)

The Firebird (1934)

The Age of Innocence (1934)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

The Murder Man (1935)

Rendezvous (1935)

Captain Blood (1935)

Till We Meet Again (1936)

Lancer Spy (1937)

The Wrong Road (1937)

The Great Garrick (1937)

Three Comrades (1938)

The High Command (1938)

The Great Waltz (1938)

The Mad Empress (1939)

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The Sun Never Sets (1939)

The Three Musketeers (1939)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The Gorilla (1939)

Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)

Balalaika (1939)

The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939)

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

Johnny Apollo (1940)

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

Boom Town (1940)

Girl in 313 (1940)

Man Made Monster (1941) re-released as The Atomic Monster

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Junior G-Men of the Air (1942 serial)

Pardon My Sarong (1942)

Cairo (1942)

Night Monster (1942)

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx – Dr. Fish (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Captain America (1944 serial)

Lady in the Death House (1944)

Raiders of Ghost City (1944 serial)

Secrets of Scotland Yard (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Fog Island (1945)

Crime, Inc. (1945)

House of Dracula (1945)

Lost City of the Jungle (1946 serial)