Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on Sept. 11. Volunteer today


Military and Veterans Discount

Contests and


Free AARP E-Books

Protecting Yourself Online for Dummies

Here's the mini guide you need to steer through the hazards with confidence.

Learn More


AARP Games - Play Now!


AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy

News & Politics Forums

Share your opinions on news and current events that matter most to you.

Join the discussion »

AARP Auto Buying Program



Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

Melvyn Douglas stars with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in the 1939 film Ninotchka, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. — Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan Douglas

Glamorous and urbane, earnest and committed, they were the first couple of New Deal liberalism during the formative years of Hollywood's political development.

Initially Melvyn was the driving force — a mainstay of sophisticated MGM comedies (renowned as "the man who made Garbo laugh" in the 1939 classic Ninotchka). Douglas also proved a born political organizer. He played a central role in building the lustrous Hollywood Popular Front groups that sought to mobilize opposition to Hitler and support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; in 1938, he took the lead in creating the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, Hollywood's first organization focused on electoral politics.

A popular and energetic campaigner, Douglas was rewarded for his activism in 1940 by becoming the first celebrity elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. That convention, ironically, marked the turning point at which his wife, a singer and actress with a deep commitment to the poor, assumed the family's leading political role: During the 1940 campaign, she appeared tirelessly for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, even accepting an appointment as the California Democratic Party's vice chairwoman.

In 1944, Helen was elected to Congress (FDR promoted her as the Democratic alternative to the arch and elegant Republican Rep. Clare Boothe Luce). She served three terms before losing the 1950 California Senate race to Richard Nixon, who famously branded her "the pink lady" and unfairly accused her of being a communist sympathizer. (In fact, both Helen and Melvyn had frequently sparred with communists in the Popular Front groups.)

Neither Douglas engaged much in politics thereafter; Melvyn was "gray-listed" as a "premature anti-Fascist," and he did not work regularly again until the 1960s. But more than any others in Hollywood's founding generation of activists, they demonstrated how many doors in Washington would open to politically engaged stars.

Next: Michael J. Fox >>

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

member benefit aarp financial service auto insurance

AARP® Auto Insurance Program from The Hartford offers members no-cost quotes.

membership benefit financial college aarp

Advice on saving for education from AARP® College Savings Solutions from TIAA-CREF.

AARP Credit card from Chase

Members can earn 3% cash back on purchases with the AARP® Credit Card from Chase.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points