Melvyn Douglas

Melvyn Douglas
Melvyn Douglas
Born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg
April 5, 1901(1901-04-05)
Macon, Georgia, U.S.
Died August 4, 1981(1981-08-04) (aged 80)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1930–1981
Spouse Rosalind Hightower (divorced; 1 son)
Helen Gahagan (her death; 1 son, 1 daughter)

Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg (April 5, 1901 – August 4, 1981), better known as Melvyn Douglas, was an American actor.

Coming to prominence in the 1930s as a suave leading man (perhaps best typified by his performance in the 1939 romantic comedy Ninotchka), Douglas later transitioned into more mature and fatherly roles as in his Academy Award-winning performances in Hud (1963) and Being There (1979).


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 modeled" himself on them; 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 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).

During World War II, Douglas served first as a director of the Arts Council in the Office of Civilian Defense, and then in the United States Army. 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 Sean 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. He briefly hosted the DuMont game show Blind Date in the summer of 1953. 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.

In addition to his Academy Awards (see below), 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. As Douglas grew older, he took on the older-man and father roles, in such movies as The Americanization of Emily (1964), Hud (1963), for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, (1966) The Fugitive, The Candidate (1972) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the comedy-drama Being There (1979).

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 1925. Gregory 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. As a three-term Congresswoman, she 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.

Academy Awards and nominations

Year Award Film Outcome
1963 Best Supporting Actor Hud Won
1970 Best Actor I Never Sang for My Father Nominated
1979 Best Supporting Actor Being There Won

Partial filmography



  • Douglas, Melvyn; Tom Arthur (1986). See You At The Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. ISBN 0819153907. 

External links

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  • Douglas, Helen Mary Gahagan — ▪ American actress and politician née  Helen Mary Gahagan   born Nov. 25, 1900, Boonton, N.J., U.S. died June 28, 1980, New York, N.Y.       American actress and public official whose successful stage career was succeeded by an even more… …   Universalium

  • Douglas, Helen Gahagan — (1900 1980)    Born Helen Gahagan in New Jersey, Helen Douglas (she married actor Melvyn Douglas in 1931) attended Barnard College before starting an acting career in 1922. She was well known for theater and opera performances on Broadway,… …   Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era

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