Theatre yesterday and today



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The title of a 1953 MGM musical, I Love Melvin, also best sums up my feelings about Melvyn Douglas, one of the finest actors America has ever produced (even if there is a variation on the spelling). There was nothing he ever did that wasn't exemplary, first rate or allowed for imagining anybody else for a role in which he was cast. Unfortunately, I never got to see him on stage, as the last play he appeared in on Broadway closed a year before I started going regularly as a teenager. So I doubled down and sought out films and television he did over the course of his long career since as long as I can remember. He died thirty-five years ago today and if Turner Classic Movies is playing a Melvyn Douglas film I've yet to see (or have seen many times already) I don't budge from the couch. If he's in it—anything—count me in.

Melvyn Douglas circa the height of his movie stardom (1940s)

Born Melvyn Von Hesselberg in 1901 to an immigrant Jewish father from Latvia, Douglas's mother, Lena Shackelford, a southern belle, was the daughter of Col. George Taliaferro Shackelford, with equal parts high-born and low-born: English (Mayflower descendants were part of her family tree) and Italian country folk (hence the Taliaferro). Young Melvyn grew up attending different schools all over the country, due to his father taking any job he could get as a music teacher. Never finishing high school, and lying about his age in order to serve in World War I, Douglas always harbored dreams of becoming an actor. After the armistice, those dreams became a reality and the theatre he did wherever he could find work took him eventually to Broadway. He had good looks and real style, but it took him a long time to become a good actor, as he would tell more than one interviewer in the course of his lifetime.

The first line of his New York Times obituary called Douglas "a debonair performer," which was entirely accurate. In films of the 1930s and 40s, he played opposite some of the greatest female stars (Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Joan Crawford) at a time when the motion picture industry's hold on its audiences gripped a nation first debilitated by the Great Depression, then brought together by the Second World War. He had that rare ability to sublimate his own personality to a larger than life actress like Greta Garbo (in three films) without coming off as weak or sexless. He had tremendous charisma, exquisite comic timing, and though only half-Jewish, was actually the only leading man in those Golden Days of Hollywood that had any Jewish blood in him at all. I can recall the particular pride my parents took in Douglas's background when he would show up on TV in some film during my childhood, and they would point to him and say, "He's a Jew, you know." I didn't, and liked hearing it, as it gave me a sense of personal pride in a people for whom I was beginning to find an affiliation, more on a professional level than a religious one, but a connection all the same.

It was while watching these films that I became a devoted fan of Douglas's work, though most were cut mercilessly for commercials and viewed on tiny screens nothing like the enormous ones in most homes today. Seeing him in Ninotchka, Theodora Goes Wild and Captains Courageous was inspiring. Oh, what great films he was in! Then, as I got older, so did Melvyn Douglas. As the father to Paul Newman in Hud, he was perfection. It was the beginning of the secondary aspect of his acting career as a character actor and this role brought him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He then proceeded to play a series of grand old men in film and television. A TV movie that aired in 1967, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, written by Loring Mandel, was a harrowing story that had a profound impact on me as a young ten-year-old. As a man dealing with giving up his freedom for a new life in a nursing home, Douglas won an Emmy Award. And though I've spent years trying to find a DVD of it, I'm finally willing to give in to the fact that it seems to no longer exist.

Douglas's granddaughter, the wonderful actress Illeana Douglas, loved her grandfather who she called a "kind, talented man." And according to a recent Los Angeles Times interview, as a young, aspiring actress, she was thrilled visiting Douglas on a film set many years ago when he pulled her aside to give her some advice. With no irony he told his grandchild: "Wherever you are, whatever country you are in, if you don't know what to order from room service, always go with the club sandwich. It will always be good."

How do you not love someone like that? And I haven't even delved into all Douglas contributed to the greater good alongside his wife, the former three-term Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, famously smeared as a "Red" in her Senate election campaign of 1950 against the young and aggressive Richard M. Nixon. Close friends of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Douglases were founders and key member of many organizations including the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Motion Picture Artists Committee, which opposed fascism. A true patriot, he enlisted in the service at age forty after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Assigned to the China-Burma-India sector, he took four years off at the height of his film career, ending up an Army major.

Choosing not to return to Hollywood, Douglas returned to New York and the work that had first given him so much satisfaction. With the theatre being evanescent, one can only imagine the caliber of performance he gave in the original Broadway production of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, for which he received a Tony Award as Best Actor. It had to have been exceptional: his competition was his co-star Lee Tracy (who would be nominated for an Oscar when the film version was made five years later), Sidney Poitier (A Raisin in the Sun), George C. Scott (The Andersonville Trial) and Jason Robards (Toys in the Attic). As a replacement in 1955 for Paul Muni in the original Broadway production of Inherit the Wind, imagination isn't necessary as Douglas can be viewed by way of a television production of the play taped ten years later in 1965. As Henry Drummond (opposite the play's original Matthew Brady, Ed Begley), Douglas is brilliant as the articulate lawyer based on Clarence Darrow, albeit in a truncated version of the play squeezed into a ninety-minute time slot (with commercials).

There were many more great performances from Douglas while in his mid-sixties to late-seventies: Billy Budd, The Americanization of Emily, The Candidate, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and I Never Sang For My Father, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor. His final nomination came for 1979's Being There, and when Douglas was asked by a People Magazine reporter if he would be going to that year's ceremonies, he replied. "No. It has been said an actor has no chance against a child or an animal. Justin Henry's up for Kramer vs. Kramer and Mickey Rooney's up for The Black Stallion."

Sadly, we missed out on what might have been a great speech by Douglas. For on that evening he won his second Oscar.

He died at age 80 a little over a year later.

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