But it was the 1949 film “Champion,” produced by the young Stanley Kramer, that made him a star. As Midge Kelly, a ruthless young prizefighter, he presented a chilling portrait of ambition run wild and earned his first Oscar nomination.
He had to wait nearly 50 years, however, before he actually received the golden statuette, for lifetime achievement. He never won a competitive Oscar.
The doors opened wide for him after “Champion.” A year later he appeared in “Young Man With a Horn,” in the title role of a troubled jazz trumpet player modeled on Bix Beiderbecke.
In short order came “The Glass Menagerie” (1950), the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play about a timid young woman (Jane Wyman) who finds solace in her fantasies, with Mr. Douglas as the gentleman caller; “Ace in the Hole” (1951), in which he played a cynical reporter manipulating a life-or-death situation; and, also in 1951, “Detective Story,” based on Sidney Kingsley’s play, in which Mr. Douglas played an overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction. Mr. Crowther wrote that Mr. Douglas’s performance was, “detective-wise, superb.”
Despite his film-star status and all the trappings that came with it — his autobiography chronicles his many sexual conquests — Mr. Douglas still hungered for success in the theater. As it turned out he had only one more opportunity.
In 1963 he seized the chance to play the lead role in the Broadway adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey’s novel about authority and individual freedom, set in a mental hospital. Mr. Douglas, to mixed reviews, played Randle P. McMurphy, the all-too-sane patient who is ultimately destroyed by the system. (Jack Nicholson played the part in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation.)
A few years earlier Mr. Douglas, who had worked his way free of a studio contract and formed his own company, Bryna Productions, made waves in Hollywood when he embarked on a film version of “Spartacus,” Howard Fast’s novel of slave revolt in ancient Rome.
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