Melvyn Douglas

Melvyn Douglas

Studio publicity photo of Douglas, c. 1939
Born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg
(1901-04-05)April 5, 1901
Macon, Georgia, US
Died August 4, 1981(1981-08-04) (aged 80)
New York City, New York, US.
Occupation Actor, Singer
Years active 1927–1981
Spouse(s) Rosalind Hightower (1925–1930; divorced; 1 son)
Helen Gahagan (1931–1980; her death; 1 son, 1 daughter)

Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg (April 5, 1901 – August 4, 1981), better known as Melvyn Douglas, 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 took mature and fatherly roles 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).

Early life

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 immigrant from Riga, Latvia, then part of Russia. His mother, a native of Tennessee, was Protestant and a Mayflower descendant.[1][2] His maternal grandfather, George Shackelford, was a General and Civil War veteran.[3]

Douglas, in his autobiography, See You at the Movies (1987), writes 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 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.

With Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

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 with 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.[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 Douglas grew older, he took on the older-man and father 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 screen appearance was in Ghost Story (1981). He did not finish his role in the film The Hot Touch (1982) before his death. 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

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.[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 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.

Broadway roles,[8] except as noted.

Partial filmography

Year Film Role Notes
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 Woman in the Dark Tony Robson
Dangerous Corner Charles Stanton
1935 She Married Her Boss Richard Barclay
Mary Burns, Fugitive Barton Powell
Annie Oakley Jeff Hogarth
1936 The Gorgeous Hussy John Randolph
Theodora Goes Wild Michael Grant
1937 Captains Courageous Frank Burton Cheyne
I Met Him in Paris George Potter
Angel Anthony 'Tony' Halton
I'll Take Romance James Guthrie
1938 There's Always a Woman William Reardon
Arsène Lupin Returns Arsène Lupin
The Toy Wife George Sartoris
Fast Company Joel Sloane
That Certain Age Vincent Bullitt
The Shining Hour Henry Linden
1939 There's That Woman Again William Reardon
Tell No Tales Michael Cassidy
Ninotchka Count Léon d'Algout
The Amazing Mr. Williams Police Lieutenant Kenny Williams
Good Girls Go to Paris Ronald Brooke
1940 Too Many Husbands Henry Lowndes
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
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
1949 A Woman's Secret Luke Jordan
The Great Sinner Armand de Glasse
The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse Richard Gordon episode: The Five Lives of Richard Gordon
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
1951 My Forbidden Past Paul Beaurevel
On the Loose Frank Bradley
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
episode: Second Chance
episode: The Hill Wife
1957–1959 Playhouse 90 General Parker
Ansel Gibbs
Howard Hoagland
episode: Judgement 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
1962 Billy Budd The Dansker
1963 Ben Casey Burton Strang episode: Rage Against the Dying Light
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
Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre Pat Konke episode: A Killing at Sundial
1964 Advance to the Rear Col. Claude Brackenbury
The Americanization of Emily Adm. William Jessup Nominated-Laurel Award for Best Supporting Performance, Male
1965 Rapture Frederick Larbaud
Once Upon a Tractor Martin
Inherit the Wind Henry Drummond Nominated-Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
1966 The Fugitive Mark Ryder episode: The 2130
Lamp at Midnight Galileo Galilei
1967 Hotel Warren Trent
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
1968 Companions in Nightmare Dr. Lawrence Strelson
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 - Motion Picture Drama
Nominated-Laurel Award for Best Dramatic Performance, Male
Hunters Are for Killing Keller Floran TV film
1971 Death Takes a Holiday Judge Earl Chapman
1972 The Candidate John J. McKay
Circle of Fear Grandpa episode: House of Evil
Two Is a Happy Number Joseph Provo
1973 The Going Up of David Lev Grandfather TV film
1975 Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin TV miniseries
1976 The Tenant Monsieur Zy
1977 Twilight's Last Gleaming Zachariah Guthrie
Intimate Strangers Donald's father
ABC Weekend Special Grandpa Doc episode: Portrait of Grandpa Doc
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 Ghost Story Dr. John Jaffrey
The Hot Touch Max Reich

Source:"Melvyn Douglas". IMDb. Retrieved 10 October 2013. 

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1942 Philip Morris Playhouse No Time for Comedy[9]
1942 Philip Morris Playhouse Take a Letter, Darling[10]


  1. 1 2 3 Nissenson, Hugh (January 18, 1987). "He Almost Made Garbo Laugh". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  2. "1". Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  3. Archived November 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  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. "A Free Soul - Inside the Playbill Vault". Playbill Vault. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Melvyn Douglas". Playbill Vault. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  8. "Melvyn Douglas". IMDb. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  9. "Philip Morris Playhouse". Harrisburg Telegraph. June 12, 1942. p. 13. Retrieved August 2, 2015 via
  10. "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. June 19, 1942. p. 21. Retrieved August 2, 2015 via


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