By Patricia Burstein
April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

He made his movie debut opposite Gloria Swanson in 1931’s Tonight or Never and was one of Hollywood’s suavest leading men before becoming its peerless character actor. Of course, as Melvyn Douglas once said, “All acting if it’s any good is character acting.” He won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor in 1963 for Hud, and next week, at 79, Douglas is up once again in this category for Being There. He was born Melvyn Hesselberg in Macon, Ga., the son of a Russian-Jewish concert pianist and his Kentucky-bred wife, from whose Scottish origin Melvyn took his stage name. Douglas sold hats at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and read gas meters before finding his calling in the regional theater. After a brief first marriage, he wed one of his Broadway leading ladies, Helen Gahagan, in 1931. Melvyn wound up World War II a major, and Helen served three terms as a Democratic congresswoman from California until she was defeated for the U.S. Senate in a Red-scare smear campaign by Richard Nixon in 1950. The Douglases have a daughter, two sons (one by his previous marriage) and nine grandchildren. Until recently Douglas was in one of his busiest periods, shooting (in addition to Being There), The Seduction of Joe Tynan, The Changeling and the upcoming Tell Me a Riddle. But both Douglas and his wife are now ill—he with severe arthritis, diabetes and angina, and she with cancer. Inside their Manhattan co-op with its sweeping view of the Hudson, Douglas mused over his life, profession and world view with Patricia Burstein of PEOPLE.

You have survived so many of your leading ladies. Would you comment on them now?

I don’t feel any great pleasure in having outlived anybody, but I’m not too unhappy about still being around. As for commenting on them, I wouldn’t dare. Good Lord—I’d stick my head in a noose.

But didn’t you once liken Greta Garbo to a hippie?

She was definitely offbeat. All of the disappearing acts that she did from time to time were unusual. So many people thought it was an act. I never thought so. I thought it had to do with some real insecurity from which she suffered. I never had the feeling she was trying to be temperamental.

Did you personally find her mysterious?

Yes I did, when she was doing something of an erotic nature. Camille was a glowing example, one of the great female performances of all time. And I don’t mean eroticism in the sense of Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner. It was something much deeper than that. I imagine women would look at Garbo and sort of think to themselves, “My, my, there’s a woman who knows all there is to know about love.” That’s the feeling she gave you playing opposite her. Whenever we’d come to an erotic scene, a big change would come over her—a total change that I can’t explain.

Were you surprised by the revelations about Joan Crawford in the book Mommie Dearest?

No. About the time she adopted Christina I was working on A Woman’s Face with Joan. Every afternoon a nanny would bring Christina on the set, dressed to the hilt in pinafore dresses, peekaboo gloves and patent leather shoes—as though she had a part in the movie. Joan would play mother. It was obvious we were expected to stand around and watch this. It was pretty embarrassing, and one could not help thinking at the time that if this is the way a youngster is brought up, she is not going to turn out to be very happy.

How do today’s movies compare with those of the past?

I think by and large—leaving the very great Ernst Lubitsch out of it—that there are probably more interesting directors and actors around today than in those days that people now think were so wonderful and beautiful. I don’t share the intense nostalgia for those films that some people do.


The new films cover a much larger field of experience and have a veracity about them that was rare in the old pictures, so many of which were make-believe.

What are your thoughts about explicit sex on the screen?

A great deal of it is sheer exploitation, and the very little of it that I’ve seen is a bore. It’s obviously very profitable. But I worry that that kind of thing is creeping into high-class pictures.

Could you give an example?

American Gigolo. The whole thing was the corniest kind of soap opera. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more reputable stars indulging in explicit sex in the movies.

Does it sometimes work?

Yes. In The Last Picture Show, for example, because there was a purpose. Oh boy, it was valid. It had great significance. So did Midnight Cowboy.

Which of the old stars do you miss?

The people I miss in my life were those particularly close to me and were not necessarily stars or actors. I miss keenly a person like [the late Supreme. Court Justice] William O. Douglas, whom Helen and I both knew well.

Are you still politically active?

Helen and I belong to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans for Democratic Action. But we haven’t been well enough to attend public events.

Do you have any favorite among the presidential candidates?

John Anderson. He sounds intelligent, forthright and honest. But that sounds like all the things Jimmy Carter said about himself.

Didn’t Ronald Reagan back your wife when she ran for the Senate against Nixon in 1950?

Reagan was a Democrat then. He has his own explanations for turning Republican and conservative. I have mine. I guess they’re different ones. I think originally he became the mouthpiece for GE and became so beguiled by that role that he hasn’t recovered from it since. He was so attractive in hosting the General Electric Theater on television that after that they began sending him on tour to their big conventions with a manuscript they had written and which he proceeded to learn. He’s been mouthing those words pretty much ever since—or at least those sentiments.

Are you still angry about Nixon?

I don’t like to talk for Helen. I wouldn’t call it anger, but disappointment—a grieving that the electorate could be so easily taken in by this guy. Watergate was just on a larger scale, but Nixon was the same little dirty trickster. The cheapness of the whole thing worried Helen more. It was a sordid kind of cheapness. It wasn’t even the big stuff.

What does make you angry?

I used to get very angry about anything I considered unfair. There was a time when I could pick up a paper and get angry about something I read. But because of my age I don’t have the energy anymore. It takes energy to get mad.

How do you feel about women’s lib?

I’ve been married to it for almost 50 years. It’s nothing new to me. I take it as a matter of course.

How is your wife?

She is doing as well as can be expected. She has great pain in the hip and leg and had a total hip replacement. But she is not rid of the disease and is still on chemotherapy.

How do you spend your time?

I fill up my days trying to keep out of pain from an arthritic condition. I have diabetes, angina, the whole works. I’m full of Percodan, and as soon as it wears off I’m in pain.

As you approach your 80th birthday, are you afraid of dying?

No. I hate the idea of pain, though I would not classify that as fear. I would do anything to avoid pain, even taking LSD if it came to that.

Will you be going to the Academy A ward ceremonies next week?

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.