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 romantic comedy Ninotchka (1939) 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). Douglas was one of 24 performers to win the Triple Crown of Acting. 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.
Douglas was born in Macon, Georgia, the son of Lena Priscilla (née Shackelford) (Aug. 9, 1868 – February 02, 1961) 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.
In addition to his Academy Awards, Douglas won a Tony Award for his Broadway lead role in the 1960 The Best Man by Gore Vidal, and an Emmy for his 1967 role in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
Douglas’ final completed screen appearance was in Ghost Story (1981). He did not finish shooting all of his scenes for the film The Hot Touch (1982) before his death; the film had to be edited to compensate for Douglas’ incomplete role.
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”.
The couple hired architect Roland Coate to design a home for them in 1938 on a three-acre lot they owned in Outpost Estates, Los Angeles. The result was a one-story, 6,748 square feet home.
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.
Douglas also staged Moor Born (1934), Mother Lode (1934) and Within the Gates (1934-1935) and produced Call Me Mister (1946-1948).
Sources: Internet Broadway Database and Playbill
|1931||Tonight or Never||Jim Fletcher|
|1932||Prestige||Captain Andre Verlaine|
|The Wiser Sex||David Rolfe|
|The Broken Wing||Philip ‘Phil’ Marvin|
|As You Desire Me||Count Bruno Varelli|
|The Old Dark House||Mr. Penderel|
|1933||The Vampire Bat||Karl Brettschneider|
|Nagana||Dr. Walter Tradnor|
|Counsellor at Law||Roy Darwin|
|1934||Dangerous Corner||Charles Stanton|
|Woman in the Dark||Tony Robson|
|1935||The People’s Enemy||George R. “Traps” Stuart|
|She Married Her Boss||Richard Barclay|
|Mary Burns, Fugitive||Barton Powell|
|Annie Oakley||Jeff Hogarth|
|The Lone Wolf Returns||Michael Lanyard|
|1936||And So They Were Married||Stephen Blake|
|The Gorgeous Hussy||John Randolph|
|Theodora Goes Wild||Michael Grant|
|1937||Women of Glamour||Richard “Dick” Stark|
|Captains Courageous||Frank Burton Cheyne|
|I Met Him in Paris||George Potter|
|Angel||Anthony “Tony” Halton|
|I’ll Take Romance||James Guthrie|
|1938||Arsène Lupin Returns||Arsène Lupin|
|There’s Always a Woman||William Reardon|
|The Toy Wife||George Sartoris|
|Fast Company||Joel Sloane|
|That Certain Age||Vincent Bullitt|
|The Shining Hour||Henry Linden|
|There’s That Woman Again||William Reardon|
|1939||Tell No Tales||Michael Cassidy|
|Good Girls Go to Paris||Ronald Brooke|
|Ninotchka||Count Léon d’Algout|
|The Amazing Mr. Williams||Police Lieutenant Kenny Williams|
|1940||Too Many Husbands||Henry Lowndes|
|He Stayed for Breakfast||Paul Boliet|
|Third Finger, Left Hand||Jeff Thompson|
|This Thing Called Love||Tice Collins|
|1941||That Uncertain Feeling||Larry Baker|
|A Woman’s Face||Dr. Gustaf Segert|
|Our Wife||Jerome “Jerry” Marvin|
|Two-Faced Woman||Larry Blake|
|1942||We Were Dancing||Nicholas Eugen August Wolfgang “Nikki” Prax|
|They All Kissed the Bride||Michael “Mike” Holmes|
|1943||Three Hearts for Julia||Jeff Seabrook|
|1947||The Sea of Grass||Brice Chamberlain|
|The Guilt of Janet Ames||Smithfield “Smitty” Cobb|
|1948||Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House||Bill Cole|
|My Own True Love||Clive Heath|
|1949||A Woman’s Secret||Luke Jordan|
|The Great Sinner||Armand de Glasse|
|1951||My Forbidden Past||Paul Beaurevel|
|On the Loose||Frank Bradley|
|1962||Billy Budd||The Dansker|
|1963||Hud||Homer Bannon||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Laurel Award for Top Male Supporting Performance
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated-Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
|1964||A Very Close Family||Father||TV movie|
|Advance to the Rear||Col. Claude Brackenbury|
|The Americanization of Emily||Adm. William Jessup||Nominated-Laurel Award for Best Supporting Performance, Male|
|Once Upon a Tractor||Martin||Short|
|Inherit the Wind||Henry Drummond||TV movie nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie|
|1966||Lamp at Midnight||Galileo Galilei||TV movie|
|The Crucible||Governor Danforth||TV movie|
|1968||Companions in Nightmare||Dr. Lawrence Strelson||TV movie|
|1970||The Choice||TV movie|
|Hunters Are for Killing||Keller Floran||TV movie|
|I Never Sang for My Father||Tom Garrison||New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
Nominated-Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated-Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated-Laurel Award for Best Dramatic Performance, Male
|1971||Death Takes a Holiday||Judge Earl Chapman||TV movie|
|1972||One Is a Lonely Number||Joseph Provo|
|The Candidate||John J. McKay|
|1973||The Going Up of David Lev||Grandfather||TV movie|
|1974||The Death Squad||Police Captain Earl Kreski||TV movie|
|Murder or Mercy||Dr. Paul Harelson||TV movie|
|1976||The Tenant||Monsieur Zy|
|1977||Twilight’s Last Gleaming||Zachariah Guthrie|
|Intimate Strangers||Donald’s father|
|1979||The Seduction of Joe Tynan||Senator Birney|
|Being There||Benjamin Rand||Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor (2nd place)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
|1980||The Changeling||Senator Joe Carmichael||Nominated-Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor|
|Tell Me a Riddle||David|
|1981||The Hot Touch||Max Reich|
|Ghost Story||Dr. John Jaffrey||(final film role)|
Source: Internet Movie Database
Partial television credits
|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|