Melvyn Douglas

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Melvyn Douglas
MGM publicity photo of Douglas, c. 1939
Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg

(1901-04-05)April 5, 1901
DiedAugust 4, 1981(1981-08-04) (aged 80)
Years active1926–1981
Rosalind Hightower
(m. 1925; div. 1930)
(m. 1931; died 1980)
RelativesIlleana Douglas (granddaughter)
Military career
Service/branch United States Army
Rank Major

Melvyn Douglas (born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg, April 5, 1901 – August 4, 1981) was an American actor. Douglas came to prominence in 1929 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, including The Changeling in 1980 and Ghost Story in 1981, his last completed film role.

Early life[edit]

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 the Russian Empire. His mother, a native of Tennessee, was Protestant and a Mayflower descendant.[1][2]

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.[1]

Though his father, a prominent concert pianist, 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.


With Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

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 in the Special Services Entertainment Production Unit.[3] 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.[4] 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.

As he aged, Douglas 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.[5]

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.

Personal life[edit]

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.

Gahagan, as a three-term Congresswoman, was later Richard Nixon's opponent for the United States Senate seat from California in 1950.[1] 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".[6]

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-foot home.[7]

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.

Broadway roles[edit]

  • 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).

Sources: Internet Broadway Database[8] and Playbill[9]


Year Title Role Notes
1931 Tonight or Never Jim Fletcher
Prestige Captain Andre Verlaine
1932 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
Counsellor at Law Roy Darwin
1933 Nagana Dr. Walter Tradnor
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 Advance to the Rear Col. Claude Brackenbury
The Americanization of Emily Adm. William Jessup Nominated—Laurel Award for Best Male Supporting Performance
1965 Rapture Frederick Larbaud
Once Upon a Tractor Martin Short
1967 Hotel Warren Trent
1970 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 in a Motion Picture – Drama
Nominated—Laurel Award for Best Male Dramatic Performance
1972 One Is a Lonely Number Joseph Provo
The Candidate John J. McKay
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[10]

Partial television credits[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1949 The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse Richard Gordon Episodes: "The Five Lives of Richard Gordon" and "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"
Episode: "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
Jim Conway
Episode: "Man on a Tiger"
Episode: "Thunder in Washington"
1957–1958 The United States Steel Hour Census Taker
Dr. Victor Payson/Narrator
Episode: "Second Chance"
Episode: "The Hill Wife"
1957–1959 Playhouse 90 General Parker
Ansel Gibbs
Howard Hoagland
Episode: "Judgment at Nuremberg"
Episode: "The Return of Ansel Gibbs"
Episode: "The Plot to Kill Stalin"
Episode: "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"
1964 A Very Close Family Father TV movie
1965 Inherit the Wind Henry Drummond TV movie
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama
1966 The Fugitive Mark Ryder Episode: "The 2130"
Lamp at Midnight Galileo Galilei TV movie
1967 CBS Playhouse Peter Schermann Episode: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama
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
1971 Death Takes a Holiday Judge Earl Chapman TV movie
1972 Circle of Fear Grandpa Episode: "House of Evil"
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
1975 Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin Miniseries
1977 ABC Weekend Special Grandpa Doc Episode: "Portrait of Grandpa Doc"

Source: Internet Movie Database[10]

Radio appearances[edit]

Year Program Episode/source
1942 Philip Morris Playhouse No Time for Comedy[11]
1942 Philip Morris Playhouse Take a Letter, Darling[12]


  1. ^ a b c Nissenson, Hugh (January 18, 1987). "He Almost Made Garbo Laugh". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  2. ^ "1". Archived from the original on 12 February 2015. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  3. ^ p.58 Zimmers, Tighe E.Lyrical Satirical Harold Rome: A Biography of the Broadway Composer-Lyricist McFarland; Illustrated edition November 1, 2013
  4. ^ Vigil, Delfin (15 February 2009). "Illeana Douglas inspired by Melvyn's 'Being There'". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  5. ^ Burstein, Patricia (14 April 1980). "Oscar Nominee Melvyn Douglas Recalls 49 Years in Hollywood—and Reagan as a Democrat". People. Retrieved 12 May 2015.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Appleton, Marc (2018). Master Architects of Southern California 1920-1940: Roland E. Coate. Santa Barbara, California: Tailwater Press. pp. 194–197. ISBN 9780999666418.
  8. ^ Melvyn Douglas at the Internet Broadway Database
  9. ^ "Roles List: Melvyn Douglas". Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  10. ^ a b Melvyn Douglas at IMDb
  11. ^ "Philip Morris Playhouse". Harrisburg Telegraph. Harrisburg Telegraph. June 12, 1942. p. 13. Retrieved August 2, 2015 – via Open access icon
  12. ^ "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. Harrisburg Telegraph. June 19, 1942. p. 21. Retrieved August 2, 2015 – via Open access icon


  • Douglas, Melvyn; Tom Arthur (1986). See You at the Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-5390-7.

External links[edit]