Director, Actor, Producer
Born November 9, 1909 in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, England, UK [now Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England, UK]
Robert Douglas' real last name was Finlayson - a Scots name - and perhaps it was that side of him that meant to do what he wanted to do. The males of the family had followed the military for several generations - his father and grandfather were commanders of the West Sussex regiment - but he decided on another road for his career. He was interested in acting and showed enough talent and potential to debut on stage at 16 and enter theater training for two years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London the next year. Using his given middle name as a professional surname, in 1930 he moved up to a feature role with an all-star cast in the London revival of "A Bill of Divorcement". Other choice roles followed quickly: "Kind Lady" with Sybil Thorndike and the "Last Enemy" with Laurence Olivier. Even then Douglas was destined for a trans-Atlantic career. At the end of that same year of 1930 he came to Broadway to do the American version of "Last Enemy" with Jessica Tandy. Still he was back in London in 1931 to open yet another page in his acting career with the potential to be found in film work. With a rather rugged, squared-off good looks and purposeful acting voice, he found further work in the movies - comedies at first. But he had less than a dozen roles through 1939, for he was pursuing yet another interest - and that on the other side of the stage with producing and directing plays in the West End beginning in 1932 at age 23. The few film roles nevertheless kept ramping up in significance. By 1937 his first lead dramatic role in Torpedoed (1937) tapped him for a real adventure. Bergfilms or mountain films, being a heroic if emotional epitomizing of Teutonic spirit against stark but beautiful nature, had been popular in Germany through the later silent era largely through the significant talents of German geologist-turned-director Arnold Fanck. His influenced on others included one of his leading men, a young Austrian World War I veteran officer of mountain troops named Luis Trenker. Trenker had already starred in two Fanck mountain films and was the first leading man (1926) of the controversial Leni Riefenstahl, Fanck's muse - of sorts. Fanck did the screenplay of a dramatic interpretation of the 1865 race between England, Switzerland, and Italy to first climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland for a 1928 film directed by Italian actor-director Mario Bonnard with Trenker as the historical Italian competitor 'Jean-Antoine Carrel'. Trencker, a gifted sort of Renaissance man of many talents, turned to being director, writer, and producer as well in 1930. After several of his own Bergfilms and other efforts he decided to once again visit the Matterhorn subject in concert with British also actor-turned-director Milton Rosmer and then expatriate Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger to do a British version of his German rendition of the drama which he called The Mountain Calls (1938). Trenker directed and co-starred as Carrel-once again-in his version, while he co-directed as alpine action supervisor and again played Carrel in the British version The Challenge (1938). Historically, the race was won by a little known young British mountaineer, 'Edward Whymper', and Douglas with a striking theatrical resemblance to Whymper got the part. Due to Trenker's expertise as a mountaineer, the climbing sequences are very realistic and even the somewhat over dramatic dialog is stirring. Of the two films fortunately Douglas was perhaps the best remembered performer, although the German version on a whole was the more even, largely due to Trenker's considerable abilities as the go-to guy for just about anything needed to put a film in the can. For Douglas it was a busy 1939 with film work capped by his being one of the first British actors to enlist as World War II loomed. He became a Royal Navy pilot and would serve until 1946. He did one more British film and also produced, directed, and starred in "Lighten Our Darkness" on stage in London before heading over the Atlantic for good in 1947. He had been back to Broadway in 1931-32 and 1935 for two plays, the second, "Most of the Game", with his first wife, British actress Dorothy Hyson. And he had returned in 1942 for the musical "The Time, the Place, and the Girl". But now he had a Warner Bros. contract in hand and was on his way to a future in Hollywood. What followed was a few years of WB contract work that found Douglas the noble villain - and with his iron lipped scowl and a contrived harsh voice he could look any such part with a steady verve. He was first cast opposite a fast dissipating Errol Flynn, walking through the rather lackluster Adventures of Don Juan (1948). But he and Flynn got along fine and became friends and teamed again for Kim (1950), a much better film. A much more substantial role came to Douglas in the next year's The Fountainhead (1949), part of individualist Ayn Rand's corpus of heavy-handed hedonistic philosophy which amid the cast included vivacious-wholesome but downright sexy-newcomer Patricia Neal. With its dense and challenging dialog, Douglas considered it one of his favorite efforts. And there were other substantial amid many good efforts as Douglas moved into the 1950s and toward some freelance studio hopping. But certainly he was much in demand if not something of a fixture as the less than noble noble in such well known literary yarns as Ivanhoe (1952) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and the concocted At Sword's Point (1952) all in one year. By the mid 1950s he was spending half his time exploring acting on the small screen and like his now more modest movie parts as a more senior character actor. But Douglas was not one to waste time. He was noticeably absent from acting in 1956 for the very reason that he had returned to Broadway - not as an actor but as a director (and producer for one) of four original comedy plays through that year. Though he had occasional roles into the late 1970s, Douglas launched into an unusually prolific life as a TV director starting in 1960. As such he supervised the shooting of nearly 40 episodic series - a full spectrum of popular shows from his start with "Maverick" and the list of heartthrob private eye series, to TV playhouse productions, many other westerns, law and order fare, and varied dramas. In many cases he returned to do multiple episodes, and in fact he became a directorial regular (16 episodes) on the World War II drama "Twelve O'Clock High", during its sagging second and third seasons, no doubt his own air combat experience being a telling factor in his longevity. Douglas's one directorship on the big screen was for the British well regarded if economic spy thriller Night Train to Paris (1964). Still active as a TV director in 1982, Douglas thereafter retired but continued to appear on TV, providing historical perspective of the movie past, one in particular being his remembrances of an old friend in the 1983 documentary "Errol Flynn: Portrait of a Swashbuckler". At nearly 90 years old Robert Douglas passed away after as thoroughly an engaging film life as could ever be imagined.