I wrote a column last August on the actor Melvyn Douglas. As my readership has grown, I thought I would offer an updated version of it today, the 116th anniversary of his birth.The title of a 1953 MGM musical, I Love Melvin, best sums up my feelings about Melvyn Douglas, a wonderful actor who excelled in all mediums. There was nothing he ever did that wasn’t first rate or allowed for imagining anyone else in a role for which he was cast. Unfortunately, I never got to see him on stage, as the last play he did 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. Nowadays, 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 anything — count me in.
Melvyn Douglas circa 1940
He was born Melvyn Von Hesselberg in 1901 to an immigrant Jewish father from Latvia and Lena Shackelford, a southern belle, the daughter of Col. George Taliaferro Shackelford. So his roots had 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 when he searched for and found work all over the country, eventually leading him to Broadway. He had fine looks and genuine 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.
Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas share an infamous laugh in the classic film comedy Ninotchka (1939).
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 TV’s nothing like the enormous ones in most homes today. Seeing him in Ninotchka, Theodora Goes Wild and Captains Courageous inspired me. And as I got older, whaddya know? So did Melvyn Douglas. As the father to Paul Newman in Hud, he began an equally stellar career as a supporting character actor in a role which brought him an Academy Award. 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 was thrilled when as a teenager he began to take her interest in becoming an actress seriously. On a visit to him on a film set many years ago, Douglas pulled her aside and gave her some valuable advice. With no irony he told Illeana, “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.
The Douglases (shortly after their marriage in 1931).
Choosing not to return to Hollywood, Douglas went back to New York and the work that had first given him 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 marvelous 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). Those were the days.
Melvyn Douglas (far right) with fellow 1960 Tony winners Mary Martin (The Sound of Music), Jackie Gleason (Take Me Along), and Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker).
In his mid-sixties to late-seventies, there were so many great film performances from Douglas: 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. But his films are always with us. Catch one next time you can.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: