If ever there was a movie star who looked like the guy next door, it was Paul Douglas. He had a short career because of an early death of a heart attack in 1959. (He was just 52.)
Make no mistake. Douglas was a true above-the-title star.
The former Paul Douglas Fleischer excelled on radio as an announcer (he was Jack Benny’s first announcer-straight man), then turned to the Broadway stage in Garson Kanin’s smash comedy hit, Born Yesterday, with Judy Holliday. (Douglas did NOT play his role as a thick-headed moneybags in the 1950 film version; Broderick Crawford did).
His foray into films was considered a gamble — one that paid off handsomely. His first movie was director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ A Letter To Three Wives, in which Douglas and Linda Darnell struck sparks. Interestingly, Douglas was tapped soon after to host the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony in March of 1950. Not bad for a new Hollywood arrival.
Douglas’s lumbering but genial style laced with self-deprecating humor made him an audience ‘good guy’ favorite. He was perfect for sports films including 1951’s Angels in the Outfield in which he plays a foul-mouthed Pittsburgh Pirates manager. And, of course, there were the law enforcement roles, notably in Elia Kazan’s tight 1950 thriller with Richard Widmark, Panic in the Streets.
We especially like Douglas’ anguished turn as genial fisherman two-timed by his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) in 1952’s Clash By Night. It’s a solid dramatic turn from an actor known principally for his way around comedy.
Douglas’ working man appeal belied an upper-crust personal backround. He was born to a well-off Philadelphia family (his father was well-heeled doctor), and at one point he was destined to enroll in Yale Univ. Douglas got sidetracked, however, by professional sports, which he parlayed into sports announcing on radio. Then into show biz.
In his last year on earth, Douglas starred as a baseball manager in an episode of The Twilight Zone: ‘The Mighty Casey.’ The actor had appeared disquietingly drawn and haggard in some scenes. Series creator Rod Serling wanted to reshoot. But Douglas died on the morning of Nov. 11, just after getting out of bed. Serling was forced to scrap the footage. Douglas’ role wound up being played by Jack Warden.
Similarly, director Billy Wilder had cast Douglas to play the adulterous corporate executive Jeff Sheldrake in 1960’s The Apartment, starring Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. Fred MacMurray wound up with the part.
The actor led an active personal life, marrying five times. Three years into her film career actress Jan Sterling became Douglas’ fifth wife. The marriage was apparently a happy one, and lasted until the actor’s death. (There they are below in happier days.)