A versatile actor equally at ease in comedy and drama, Paul Douglas‘ film career started at age 42 and lasted just 11 years.
Although he was interested in drama in high school, his early jobs centered around sports. After attending Yale, the Philadelphia native played professional football with his hometown’s Frankford Yellow Jackets. That led to radio gigs as a sports announcer and news commentator.
He made his Broadway debut in 1935 in the short-lived play Double Dummy. Eleven years later, he was back working in radio when Garson Kanin offered him the role of gruff scrap-metal tycoon Harry Brock in Born Yesterday. The comedy was a smash hit, running for 1642 performances over three years, and making stars of Douglas and his leading lady, Judy Holliday.
His film career started in 1949 with key supporting performances in A Letter to Three Wives and It Happens Every Spring. The latter, one of my favorite Douglas films, cast him as a likable baseball catcher on the St. Louis Cardinals. Ray Milland stars as a college professor who accidentally invents a formula that repels wood–so when he rubs it on a baseball, no one can hit the ball with a wooden bat. To earn money to marry his girl, Milland joins the Cardinals as a pitcher (it’s interesting to note that he cheats by using his formula on some pitches). When Douglas spots the formula in Milland’s locker one day, the pitcher tells him it’s hair tonic. That sets up one of the funniest scenes in this engaging film–and shows off Douglas’s marvelous skills as a comedian.
Lead roles and key supporting ones quickly followed: he was a soft-hearted gangster in Love That Brute (1950); a New Orleans police captain who works with Richard Widmark to prevent an epidemic in Panic in the Streets (1950); a sharp-tongued baseball manager whose team receives heavenly help in Angels in the Outfield (1951); a fisherman involved with Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952); and a businessman being blackmailed amid the corporate politics of Executive Suite (1954).
He played a corporate executive again in my favorite Douglas film: The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956). Paired again with Judy Holliday, Douglas plays a well-meaning CEO who doesn’t realize that his board of directors is fleecing the company’s stockholders. He and Holliday form one of the great screen couples. It’s a shame he didn’t reprise his Born Yesterday stage role opposite her. Allegedly, Douglas declined the part (eventually played by Broderick Crawford) because it was reduced for the 1950 film version. Douglas did, however, play Harry Brock in a 1956 TV broadcast of Born Yesterday opposite Mary Martin.
When Paul Douglas died of a heart attack at 52 in 1959, he was being considered for the Fred MacMurray role in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) and had just finished filming an installment of The Twilight Zone called “The Mighty Casey.” Series creator Rod Serlingnoted that Douglas hadn’t looked well during the production and, in light of the actor’s death, wanted to re-shoot it. When CBS balked, Serling used his own money to re-do the episode with Jack Warden in the Douglas role.
Paul Douglas was married five times. He walked down the aisle with actress Jan Sterling in 1950; they were still married at the time of his death.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!