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Melvyn Douglas was born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg in Macon, Georgia in 1901. His father was a Russian Jewish concert pianist who taught piano at colleges and his mother was of Scottish heritage. Melvyn knew he wanted to be an actor, and he dropped out of high school and joined touring stock companies. In 1928, he made a Broadway debut in A Free Soul playing the same part Clark Gable would play in the 1931 movie version. In 1930, he starred in Tonight or Never, and not only was the play a big success, but he acted with Helen Gahagan, and they married the next year (he had been previously married from 1925 to 1930). His wife continued on the stage, but made only one movie, She, in 1935. He made the movie version of Tonight or Never in 1931, and stayed in Hollywood. He had the rare ability to play leads in both dramas and comedy (and early in his career he made several low budget horror movies!). He took both leading and supporting roles. Perhaps his best remembered movie from this period was opposite Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. He joined the Army during World War II, and his wife, now known as Helen Gahagan Douglas, was elected to Congress for the first of three terms. After the war, Douglas started taking older supporting roles in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. But he was caught up in the HUAAC hearings, and while he wasn't blacklisted, he was "gray listed" meaning that the Hollywood studios would not hire him. In 1950, his wife ran for the U.S. Senate against young Richard Nixon, and Nixon accused her of being "soft" on Communism (he said she was "pink right down to her underwear") and she lost. Like so many others caught up in the Red hysteria, Douglas spent most of the 1950s on television, and on the stage. He won a Tony Award for his performance in The Best Man in 1960, and he won an Emmy for his 1967 TV role role in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Douglas made a strong return to movies in 1962 in Billy Budd, and the following year he was magnificent in Hud (opposite equally magnificent Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, and Brandon De Wilde). Douglas and Neal won Oscars, and Newman only lost because Sidney Poitier won his groundbreaking Oscar for Lillies of the Field. If you have never seen this wonderful movie, I urge you to see it ASAP! Douglas continued giving strong performances as he grew older, and perhaps his finest of his career was in I Never Sang For My Father (nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for this film) in 1970, opposite Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. In 1979, he won a second Oscar for Being There. In 1980, his wife of nearly 50 years passed away, and Douglas passed away the following year. There have been few actors who have won an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy, as Douglas did. There have been few who were equally comfortable in comedy and drama, and who were willing to alternate between lead roles and supporting ones, and few who were able to pass seamlessly from young actor to middle aged actor to old actor, and yet Melvyn Douglas is the only one I can think of who did all these rare feats, and did them superbly!
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