Is This Really the Same Actor?

actordouglasWhile researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome.



I don’t always find this kind of disconnect between the two ends of a movie star’s career. Handsome, sophisticated Cary Grant epitomized every woman’s fantasy from the 1930s till his death in the 1980s. Stars such as Henry Fonda, John Wayne, William Powell, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers became senior citizens during my youth, but I never had any problems connecting their early careers with their later years. I accept the evolution of Crawford’s stardom from the shop girl in Grand Hotel to the hardened saloon-keeper in Johnny Guitar to blind matron in the premiere episode of Night Gallery.  Likewise, William Powell was as smooth and distinguished as the ship’s doctor in Mister Roberts as was in The Thin Man series. Even when Henry Fonda played against his star image when he starred as the cold-blooded gunfighter in Once Upon a Time in the West, it did not interfere with my appreciation for his long career playing principled protagonists who did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.



Perhaps the divide I see in Douglas’s career has something to do with his absence from the big screen during the 1950s and early 1960s, when he starred in television anthologies and worked on the Broadway stage. During that time, his leading-man good looks gradually faded and his voice became more gravely, but the movie audience was not witness to the evolution over the years. However, that would not be the case with another actor who has the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome—Walter Pidgeon. I remember Pidgeon as the straight-backed, cultivated Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet or the equally rigid but refined Florenz Ziegfeld in Funny Girl. This Walter Pidgeon could not possibly be the same actor who donned fancy uniforms to play singing princes in costume operettas in the early 1930s, such as Kiss Me Again, Sweet Kitty Bellairs, and Viennese Nights. Pidgeon spoke florid dialogue and sang operetta tunes in a pleasing baritone while romancing the likes of Vivienne Segal and Bernice Claire. In Kiss Me Again, his cohort in romance was Edward Everett Horton, unrecognizable under layers of makeup as the romantic second lead wooing a shy, aristocratic girl. This Horton was far different from the comic sidekick in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals just a couple of years later.



The Melvyn Douglas Syndrome predates Douglas himself. During the silent era, William Boyd was a matinee idol who made $100,000 per film and wooed beautiful starlets—a variation on Francis X. Bushman or even John Gilbert. In 1931, a case of mistaken identity put a damper on his career when he was erroneously identified in a newspaper article. The article ran a photo of him alongside a story about another actor with the same name (known in film history circles as William “Stage” Boyd), who was arrested for gambling and alcohol. Radio Pictures canceled Boyd’s contract. Though, he was not the actor who had been arrested, he did revel in the high life. Between 1917 and 1930, he married and divorced four times, gambled, drank, and spent his considerable earnings. After he lost his contract, he was broke and unemployable. In 1935, Harry “Pop” Sherman gave the 40-year-old actor the role of Hopalong Cassidy, and Boyd began to live by the code of morals espoused by the character.  It is hard to reconcile the straight-laced, avuncular Hopalong Cassidy with the sexy matinee idol William Boyd.

Walter Matthau became everyone’s favorite comic actor when he played cranky slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, costarring with Jack Lemmon. The two friends made several comedies together, most notably for Billy Wilder. Matthau earned full-fledged movie stardom with a series of comedies during the late 1960s and 1970s—Cactus Flower, A New Leaf, Plaza Suite, House Calls. He also played against that image in the occasional cop drama—The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. So, I was shocked the first time I saw him in the Elvis Presley movie, King Creole. Matthau played cruel crime boss Maxie Fields, who pushes teenagers into lives of crime and sadistically keeps girlfriend Carolyn Jones under his thumb. Early in his career, Matthau tended to play the heavy or other shady characters. He was the whip-cracking bad guy in The Kentuckian, a waterfront gang boss in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and a phony spy out to get Audrey Hepburn in Charade. It’s hard to think of craggy, slouching Walter Matthau as a deadly villain. From shoving Elvis around in King Creole to cracking one-liners with Jack Lemmon, Matthau had a wider range as an actor than his later star image might suggest.





As for actresses, Jane Fonda is a good candidate for the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. The outspoken actress with the shag haircut, whose politics during the Vietnam War are still controversial, seems far removed from the blonde starlet who debuted in 1960 as a cutesy college girl in Tall Story. Throughout the 1960s, Fonda’s career consisted of the types of roles available to Hollywood starlets:  American sweethearts (Barefoot in the Park; Period of Adjustment; Cat Ballou; Sunday in New York) and lusty bad girls (Hurry Sundown; The Chase). The turning point came with her role as Gloria in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which sealed her reputation as a serious actress. Roles became meatier; her cachet in Hollywood more powerful; and her politics more strident. Her hairstyle changed from the long, blonde locks of a Hollywood starlet to the boyish shag of an independent woman. Though Fonda tends to denigrate her movies prior to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, I enjoy the films from both ends of her career, especially the romantic comedies.



Are there any recent stars who may be candidates for the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome? Well, it is harder these days to find bona fide movie stars who experience lengthy careers. Movie stars are becoming scarce as the young viewers whom the studios work so hard to please prefer pre-established characters from other sources (comic books; graphic novels; teen lit) to actors who are interpreting a role. However, I might suggest George Clooney—the Cary Grant of our generation. Unlike Grant, Clooney began his career as a semi-regular on a couple of television sit-coms. He played a handyman on Facts of Life for 17 episodes, beginning in 1985. And, he was cast as plant foreman Booker Brooks on Rosanne for four seasons.  Smarmy and obnoxious, Brooks regularly harassed Rosanne’s sister, played by Laurie Metcalf. Even George Clooney must wonder if that skinny guy with the unruly head of hair is really him. I’m sure Melvyn Douglas understands.

30 Responses Is This Really the Same Actor?
Posted By Mieleoffski : July 7, 2014 2:29 pm

And, I remember Melvyn Douglas in ‘Being There’ & Matthau in ‘Strangers When We Meet’. Both were standout roles but, oh, so different.

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 4:52 pm

Douglas’ absence from the scree in the ’50′s due to the Mccarthy Era. His wife had already suffered defeat as the Ppink Lady” from Tricky Dick.

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 5:41 pm

Douglas’ absence from the screen in the ’50′s was due to the McCarthy era. His wife had already been smeared as “The Pink Lady” by Tricky Dick.

Posted By Stephen White : July 7, 2014 7:17 pm

I don’t know if it’s quite the same thing, but I’ve always divided Burt Lancaster’s career into Pre-Mustache and Mustache phases, considering him a really great actor in the former stage and a really hammy, bad actor in the latter stage (possible exception: I like him in Atlantic City). It’s like the mustache somehow caused him to forget how to act.

I think you could similarly divide Al Pacino’s career into pre and post Scarface, in which he went from an actor with marked subtlety to an egregious ham (there are a couple of exceptions – I like him in Heat, though he’s pretty hammy in that, too. Maybe it’s just because it’s such an entertaining movie even with him in it)

Posted By Emgee : July 7, 2014 7:25 pm

“It’s like the mustache somehow caused him to forget how to act.”

He did a pretty good job in The Leopard, moustache and all.

Posted By Mieleoffski : July 7, 2014 7:53 pm

I know that the wife of Melvyn Douglas, Helen Douglas was blacklisted for her political beliefs. How this was allowed in the United States, I will never know.
And, for those who belonged to the Communist Party – hey – it was NOT illegal to be a Commniist in the USA. So many people looked the other way!
Well, let me get off my soapbox now.

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 8:02 pm

At the time she encountered Tricky Dick, she was embarking on a political career, tho she had starred in the title role of She’35.

Posted By LD : July 7, 2014 8:06 pm

Ralph Bellamy was an actor I was familiar with on t.v. starting in the 1960′s and in the roles of FDR and Dr. Sapirstein in ROSEMARY’S BABY. It seemed to me that he played authority figures. Years later seeing some of his earlier work in THE AWFUL TRUTH and HIS GIRL FRIDAY I was pleasantly surprised but there was a definite disconnect between the bodies of work for me. I think there still is.

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 8:13 pm

Ralph Bellamy left movies for the stage because all he was getting were Ralph Bellamy parts-the third wheel, not getting the girl. Cary Grant even says he looks like Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 7, 2014 8:21 pm

Pacino and Bellamy are good candidates for the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. Good calls.

I know part of Douglas’s absence from the screen in the 1950s was due to McCarthyism, but he was luckier than some who were victims of the period. He appeared on live tv and on the stage, both of which were based in NYC.

Posted By george : July 7, 2014 9:06 pm

“It’s hard to think of craggy, slouching Walter Matthau as a deadly villain.”

I felt a similar disconnect when I saw Fred MacMurray playing a sleaze in THE APARTMENT, a coward in THE CAINE MUTINY and a conniving antihero in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Having first seen him on “My Three Sons” and his Disney comedies, it was hard to believe MacMurray had played heels — and played them so well!

Susan: Jane Fonda, like Melvyn Douglas, was also off the screen for over a decade. She made no movies between STANLEY AND IRIS (1990) and MONSTER-IN-LAW (2005). Seeing her reemerge in grandmotherly roles took some adjustment.

Posted By AL : July 7, 2014 9:16 pm

Melvin Douglas: THE CHANGELING. Ralph Bellamy: TRADE WINDS

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 9:38 pm

Fredric March is another actor who had a pretty noticeable split in his career between his early leading man parts and later character roles. Very good in both of them.

Posted By Bill : July 7, 2014 9:45 pm

March got his Oscar for Jekyll and Hyde, both leading man and character actor. Best Years of our Lives may have been the transitional role.

Posted By Doug : July 7, 2014 10:08 pm

Three more recent M.D. Syndrome actors: Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren.
Amazon has the book: “Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady”.
I agree with Mieleoffski that it isn’t (wasn’t) illegal to be a Communist in the USA.
whether you accept or reject that it was a valid concern, the fear in the country was that Communists were actively working to destroy and supplant our Democratic system of government by illegal means.
With that said, please let’s not get sidetracked by (ugh) politics.
I like Melvyn Douglas; if you haven’t seen it, seek out “Too Many Husbands” the gender swapped version of “My Favorite Wife” with Douglas and Fred MacMurray peacock strutting to woo ‘their’ wife, played by the great Jean Arthur.
Okay, one more candidate: Joan Blondell.

Posted By Stephen White : July 7, 2014 11:20 pm

Not too drift way off topic here, but I really wanted to spell moustache with an “o”, but I get the red underline thingy unless I remove the “o”. Am I wrong or is the spell check on this Website?

It’s always been hard for me to judge Lancaster’s performance in The Leopard because I’ve only ever seen it with an overdub that’s really obviously not his voice that jars me so much it’s hard for me to pay attention to anything else.

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : July 8, 2014 7:33 am

Melvyn Douglas Syndrome! Of course! I knew it had to have a name. How else to describe the Like-This-Then-Like-That careers of Shelley Winters, Robert Blake, and Leslie Nielsen?

Posted By Stephen White : July 8, 2014 8:49 am

Ooh, I thought of one! I can hardly reconcile the young, long n’ lean, dancin’ fool gooney bird Buddy Ebsen with the older guy who played Jed Clampett and especially Barnaby Jones.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 8, 2014 2:04 pm

It is fun that you all are coming up with other candidates for the MD Syndrome. All the names are good ones, esp. Buddy Ebsen.

Posted By george : July 8, 2014 7:39 pm

I remember my shock at seeing Eddie Albert, the nice guy of “Green Acres,” playing villains in Robert Aldrich movies (ATTACK!, THE LONGEST YARD, HUSTLE).

Posted By Sharon quinn : July 8, 2014 7:56 pm

The most incredible example of this disconnect is that of Henry Brandon, who created two of the most iconic villains of two very different genres. He is the melodramatic “Barnaby” in Laurel and Hardy’s “Babes in Toyland” and the terrifying “Scar” in “The Searchers”.

Posted By swac44 : July 9, 2014 2:37 pm

Good call Stephen, I was thinking of Buddy Ebsen just this past weekend while watching The Big Broadcast of 1938 where he does a tapdance number in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt (I think the tune was “Sing Before Breakfast”). My girlfriend wasn’t familiar with his hoofin’ days, and was rather gobsmacked when I pointed him out as the future Jed Clampett.

In some cases, I suppose it’s just a matter of getting older. I wonder how many drive-in movie patrons of the early ’60s watching the Beach Party series were familiar with Buster Keaton’s silent days, where his pratfalls were a great deal more dignified.

Posted By Bill : July 9, 2014 4:58 pm

High profile examples are Jimmy Stewart and Dick Powell. Audiences reported laughed at the trailers for Stewart’s first grim post-war western. Then they accepted JAMES Stewart. Dick Powell’s first noir, Murder My Sweet, changed its name from Farewell My Lovely, lest audiences think it was a musical.

Posted By kingrat : July 9, 2014 7:58 pm

One example still not mentioned is Elizabeth Taylor. After WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? she played many roles similar to Martha, though usually much less vivid.

Leslie Nielsen has been mentioned, and people who first saw him in AIRPLANE! can scarcely believe that he had earlier played romantic roles.

Posted By Debbie : July 11, 2014 5:15 pm

OMG, I thought I was the only person who obsessed about Melvyn Douglas in this way! I’m so glad it has been identified as a syndrome. I, too, obsess about the difference between Douglas in Ninotchka, Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House, A Woman’s Face, Captains Courageous etc., and the Douglas we see a mere 20-30 years later in that searing peformance in Hud and as a fading senator in The Seduction of Joe Tynan. How can it be? How could he have aged/changed so much in such a short time?? Maybe it’s plastic surgery that keep today’s actors from aging like that, I don’t know. But for Douglas, it seemed like Ninotchka and Hud were made 50 years apart. All that said, of course, he is one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. Love and admire him. I’m always happy to see his grandaughter, Ileana Douglas at all the TCM Film Festivals. Carrying on and honoring his legacy.

Posted By robbushblog : July 11, 2014 7:56 pm

Tom Hanks comes to mind as a current star whose career has had different stages. There used to be this funny guy with fluffy hair who did a lot of funny movies like Bachelor Party, Splash, and The Money Pit. Now, there’s “Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks” who makes serious dramas and much less fun than Indiana Jones archaeological mystery movies. I miss funny Tom Hanks.

Oh, and Communism actually was illegal:

Posted By Doug : July 12, 2014 12:06 am

Thanks, robbushblog-I was wrong about the illegality of the Communist party. Hope I don’t lose my internet mancard for admitting ignorance.

Posted By robbushblog : July 12, 2014 3:51 am

No sir, Doug. You are good to go. I don’t think that most people know that the Communist Party was actually made illegal.

Posted By Jenni : July 12, 2014 7:57 pm

Seconding Fred MacMurray here. My husband and I grew up seeing him in the Disney movies and My 3 Sons, when they would be rerun on tv(we weren’t born when he did the Disney films and I can barely remember watching My 3 Sons in its later, in color episodes when Beverly Garland had joined the show.) So, we were quite shocked when we saw him as the coward in The Caine Mutiney, so much so, that my husband said, “Mr. Douglas!”, in a tsk, tsk voice. We still do that now if we happen to catch him in a role as a baddie, etc.

Posted By Robin : July 15, 2014 5:14 am

Aren’t we just talking about actors who have range as opposed to those who play essentially the same role throughout their entire careers? Tom Hanks evolved, so did Guy Pearce, from hunky Australian TV teen to hunky cross-dresser in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to poor tormented Leonard in Memento. And what about Joan Crawford, going from silent film ingenue to harridan in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and those dreadful horror films? Sometimes the evolution is involuntary.

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