Melvyn Douglas (born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg, April 5, 1901 – August 4, 1981) was an American actor. Douglas came to prominence in the 1930s as a suave leading man, perhaps best typified by his performance in the 1939 romantic comedy Ninotchka with Greta Garbo. Douglas later played mature and fatherly characters, as in his Academy Award–winning performances in Hud (1963) and Being There (1979) and his Academy Award–nominated performance in I Never Sang for My Father (1970). In the last few years of his life Douglas appeared in films with supernatural stories involving ghosts. Douglas appeared as "Senator Joseph Carmichael" in The Changeling in 1980 and Ghost Story in 1981 in his final completed film role.
MGM publicity photo of Douglas, c. 1939
Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg
April 5, 1901
Macon, Georgia, US
|Died||August 4, 1981 (aged 80)|
New York City, New York, US.
(m. 1925; div. 1930)
(m. 1931; died 1980)
|Relatives||Illeana Douglas (granddaughter)|
Douglas was born in Macon, Georgia, the son of Lena Priscilla (née Shackelford) and Edouard Gregory Hesselberg, a concert pianist and composer. His father was a Jewish emigrant from Riga, Latvia, then part of Russia. His mother, a native of Tennessee, was Protestant and a Mayflower descendant.
Douglas, in his autobiography, See You at the Movies (1987), wrote that he was unaware of his Jewish background until later in his youth: "I did not learn about the non-Christian part of my heritage until my early teens," as his parents preferred to hide his Jewish heritage. It was his aunts, on his father's side, who told him "the truth" when he was 14. He writes that he "admired them unstintingly"; and they in turn treated him like a son.
Though his father taught music at a succession of colleges in the U.S. and Canada, Douglas never graduated from high school. He took the surname of his maternal grandmother and became known as Melvyn Douglas.
Douglas developed his acting skills in Shakespearean repertory while in his teens and with stock companies in Sioux City, Iowa, Evansville, Indiana, Madison, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan. He served in the United States Army in World War I. He established an outdoor theatre in Chicago. He had a long theatre, film and television career as a lead player, stretching from his 1930 Broadway role in Tonight or Never (opposite his future wife, Helen Gahagan) until just before his death. Douglas shared top billing with Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton in James Whale's sardonic horror classic The Old Dark House in 1932.
He was the hero in the 1932 horror film The Vampire Bat and the sophisticated leading man in 1935's She Married Her Boss. He played opposite Joan Crawford in several films, most notably A Woman's Face (1941), and appeared opposite Greta Garbo in three films: As You Desire Me (1932), Ninotchka (1939) and Garbo's final film Two-Faced Woman (1941). One of his most sympathetic roles was as the belatedly attentive father in Captains Courageous (1937).
During World War II, Douglas served first as a director of the Arts Council in the Office of Civilian Defense, and he then again served in the United States Army rising to the rank of Major. According to his granddaughter Illeana Douglas, it was in Burma when he first met his future Being There co-star Peter Sellers, who was in the Royal Air Force during the war. He returned to play more mature roles in The Sea of Grass and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. In 1959 he made his musical debut playing Captain Boyle in the ill-fated Marc Blitzstein musical Juno, based on Seán O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.
From November 1952 to January 1953, Douglas starred in the DuMont detective show Steve Randall (Hollywood Off Beat) which then moved to CBS. In the summer of 1953, he briefly hosted the DuMont game show Blind Date. In the summer of 1959, Douglas hosted eleven original episodes of a CBS Western anthology television series called Frontier Justice, a production of Dick Powell's Four Star Television.
Douglas aged rapidly during the late 1950s and as he grew older, he took on older-man and fatherly roles, in such movies as Hud (1963), for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, The Americanization of Emily (1964), an episode of The Fugitive (1966), I Never Sang for My Father (1970), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and The Candidate (1972). He won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the comedy-drama Being There (1979). However, Douglas confirmed in one of his final interviews that he refused to attend the 52nd Academy Awards because he could not bear competing against child actor Justin Henry for Kramer vs. Kramer.
Douglas has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for movies at 6423 Hollywood Blvd. and one for television at 6601 Hollywood Blvd.
Douglas was married briefly to artist Rosalind Hightower, and they had one child, (Melvyn) Gregory Hesselberg, in 1926. Hesselberg, an artist, is the father of actress Illeana Douglas.
In 1931, Douglas married actress-turned-politician Helen Gahagan. They traveled to Europe that same year, and "were horrified by French and German anti-Semitism". As a result, they became outspoken anti-fascists, supporting the Democratic Party and Roosevelt's re-election.
Gahagan, as a three-term Congresswoman, was later Richard Nixon's opponent for the United States Senate seat from California in 1950. Nixon accused Gahagan of being soft on Communism because of her opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon went so far as to infamously call her "pink right down to her underwear". It was Gahagan who popularized Nixon's epithet "Tricky Dick".
Douglas and Gahagan had two children: Peter Gahagan Douglas (1933) and Mary Helen Douglas (1938). The couple remained married until Helen Gahagan Douglas' death in 1980 from cancer. Melvyn Douglas died a year later, in 1981, aged 80, from pneumonia and cardiac complications in New York City.
- A Free Soul (1928) as Ace Wilfong
- Back Here (1928) as Sergeant "Terry" O'Brien
- Now-a-Days (1929) as Boyd Butler
- Recapture (1930) as Henry C. Martin
- Tonight or Never (1931) as the Unknown Gentleman
- No More Ladies (1934) as Sheridan Warren
- Mother Lode (1934) as Carey Ried (also staged)
- De Luxe (1935) as Pat Dantry
- Tapestry In Gray (1935) as Erik Nordgren
- Two Blind Mice (1949) as Tommy Thurston
- The Bird Cage (1950) as Wally Williams
- The Little Blue Light (1951) as Frank
- Glad Tidings (1951) as Steve Whitney
- Time Out for Ginger (1952) as Howard Carol
- Inherit the Wind (1955) as Henry Drummond (replacement)
- The Waltz of the Toreadors (1958) as General St. Pé
- Juno (1959) as "Captain" Jack Boyle
- The Gang's All Here (1959) as Griffith P. Hastings
- The Best Man (1960) as William Russell
- Spofford (1967) as Spofford
Douglas also staged Moor Born (1934), Mother Lode (1934) and Within the Gates (1934-1935) and produced Call Me Mister (1946-1948).
Partial television creditsEdit
|Year||Series or miniseries||Role||Notes|
|1949||The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse||Richard Gordon||episodes "The Five Lives of Richard Gordon"|
"The Strange Christmas Dinner"
|1950||Lux Video Theatre||James Strickland||episode "To Thine Own Self"|
|Pulitzer Prize Playhouse||Eugene Morgan
Martin Luther Cooper
|episode "The Magnificent Ambersons"|
"Mrs. January and Mr. Ex"
|1952||Celanese Theatre||Archduke Rudolph von Habsburg||episode "Reunion in Vienna"|
|Steve Randall||Steve Randall||12 episodes|
|1955||The Ford Television Theatre||George Manners||episode "Letters Marked Personal"|
|1955–1956||The Alcoa Hour||Charles Turner
|episodes "Man on a Tiger"|
"Thunder in Washington"
|1957–1958||The United States Steel Hour||Census Taker
Dr. Victor Payson/Narrator
|episodes "Second Chance"|
"The Hill Wife"
|1957–1959||Playhouse 90||General Parker
|episodes "Judgement at Nuremberg"|
"The Return of Ansel Gibbs"
"The Plot to Kill Stalin"
"The Greer Case"
|1959||Frontier Justice||Host||11 episodes|
|1960||Sunday Showcase||Mark Twain||episode "Our American Heritage: Shadow of a Soldier"|
|1963||Ben Casey||Burton Strang||episode "Rage Against the Dying Light"|
|Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre||Pat Konke||episode "A Killing at Sundial"|
|1966||The Fugitive||Mark Ryder||episode "The 2130"|
|1967||CBS Playhouse||Peter Schermann||episode "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"|
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
|1972||Circle of Fear||Grandpa||episode "House of Evil"|
|1975||Benjamin Franklin||Benjamin Franklin||Miniseries|
|1977||ABC Weekend Special||Grandpa Doc||episode "Portrait of Grandpa Doc"|
Source: Internet Movie Database
|1942||Philip Morris Playhouse||No Time for Comedy|
|1942||Philip Morris Playhouse||Take a Letter, Darling|
- Nissenson, Hugh (January 18, 1987). "He Almost Made Garbo Laugh". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
- "1". ancestry.com. Archived from the original on 12 February 2015. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
- Vigil, Delfin (15 February 2009). "Illeana Douglas inspired by Melvyn's 'Being There'". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
- Burstein, Patricia (14 April 1980). "Oscar Nominee Melvyn Douglas Recalls 49 Years in Hollywood—and Reagan as a Democrat". People. Retrieved 12 May 2015.
- Mitchell, Gregory (1998-01-01). "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950". The New York Times. On the web. Retrieved 2019-09-04.
- Melvyn Douglas at the Internet Broadway Database
- "Roles List: Melvyn Douglas". Playbill.com. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
- Melvyn Douglas on IMDb
- "Philip Morris Playhouse". Harrisburg Telegraph. June 12, 1942. p. 13. Retrieved August 2, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. June 19, 1942. p. 21. Retrieved August 2, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Melvyn Douglas.|
- Melvyn Douglas on IMDb
- "Melvyn Douglas (1901–1981)" at the New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Melvyn Douglas at the TCM Movie Database
- Melvyn Douglas at the Internet Broadway Database
- Melvyn Douglas Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research
- Melvyn Douglas at Find a Grave
- Photographs and literature on Melvyn Douglas