Melvyn Douglas was an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony award–winning actor, whose film career began during the rush for “talkie” performers in the early 1930s. Born in Georgia, Douglas first experienced the spotlight when his parents entered him in baby shows throughout the state.
Melvyn Douglas was born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg on April 5, 1901, in Macon. His father, Edouard Hesselberg, was a musician who emigrated from Russia to the United States, where he met Douglas’s mother, Lena Shakelford. After a few years in Georgia, during which time Douglas won first prize in the 1903 Georgia State Fair Baby Show, his family moved to Toronto, Ontario, then Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father supported the family through piano lessons and performances. At the age of seventeen Douglas joined the army and served at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in a venereal disease ward.
After leaving the service in 1919, Douglas joined Shakespearean actor William Owen’s acting school in Chicago, Illinois, as a scholarship student. Under Owen’s guidance Douglas performed in The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It. In 1925 he joined Jessie Bonstelle’s theater company in Detroit, Michigan, and at Bonstelle’s request changed his name from Hesselberg to Douglas, his maternal grandmother’s maiden name. In Detroit Douglas married his first wife, Rosalind Hightower. The couple had a son, Gregory, but divorced soon after. In 1931, while performing in Tonight or Never with David Belasco’s theater company, he married his second wife, Helen Gahagan; their marriage lasted forty-nine years and produced two children. That same year Samuel Goldwyn signed Douglas to a contract to perform in the film version ofTonight or Never with Gloria Swanson.
Hollywood and the Army
Douglas spent most of the 1930s and 1940s performing in films for both MGM and Columbia Pictures and appeared on Broadway for a couple of years. His work at the time included such classics as Captains Courageous (1937) with Spencer Tracy, Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant. During that time Douglas became heavily involved in politics. After Helen witnessed and was appalled by Nazi support in Europe during a visit there in 1937, she and Douglas joined the liberal movement in California. Having supported Democrat Culbert Olsen’s gubernatorial campaign in 1938, Douglas became friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. He and Helen participated in Roosevelt’s campaign for president in 1940, and Douglas served as a delegate at the Chicago Democratic Convention that year.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Douglas became a strong supporter of entering World War II (1941-45) and was appointed head of the Office of Civilian Defense Arts Council in February 1942. The office organized artists’ talents in support of the war effort. In December of that year Douglas enlisted in the army as a senior recruit and in 1943 was assigned to serve in India, where he entertained troops who were opening supply lines to China. While Douglas was in India, Helen was elected to represent California’s Fourteenth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Douglas was released from the military in 1945 and continued to work in film until 1949. In 1950 his wife ran for a California senate seat but was defeated, amid accusations of her Communist sympathy, by Richard Nixon. Douglas spent the 1950s away from Hollywood, performing on numerous television programs and in the theater, including the role of Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind.
A Second Prime
In 1960 Douglas took the lead in Gore Vidal’s political play The Best Man. The performance won him a Tony Award for the year’s Best Actor in a Drama. After more than a ten-year absence from film, he appeared in 1962 in Billy Budd. He next played the role of Paul Newman’s father in Hud (1963), for which he earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 1968 he won an Emmy Award for his performance in Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night on CBS Playhouse 90. The award made him the fifth performer ever to win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Award, somewhat ironic considering his aversion to awards that choose one performance over another. Two years later he was nominated for another Oscar, this time for Best Actor, for his performance in I Never Sang for My Father (1970), but lost the award to George C. Scott in Patton. In 1980 Douglas won a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Benjamin Rand in Being There (1979). That same year, his wife died of bone marrow cancer. Douglas continued acting until his death from pneumonia on August 4, 1981, at the age of eighty.