Classic Hollywood:  Illeana Douglas’ ‘great bunch of stories’ includes one about Brando

Illena Douglas, actress and granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas, has written a book about her life called "I Blame Dennis Hopper."
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Illeana Douglas was a teenager when she visited the set of the 1979 film classic “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and her beloved grandfather Melvyn Douglas, who would win his second supporting actor Oscar for the satire.

An aspiring actress, Douglas was thrilled when her grandfather told her he wanted to give her advice. “I thought, here it is — words of wisdom,” Douglas recalled with a laugh.

They were words of wisdom but not what Douglas expected.

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“Wherever you are, whatever country you are in, if you don’t know what to order from room service, always go with the club sandwich,” he told her. “It will always be good.”

Douglas followed in her grandfather’s thespian footsteps, and even to this day Douglas always orders the room service club sandwich. “It’s the best advice I ever got.”

Going to visit her grandparents in New York was always magical for her. “The idea that people could live that way,” she said. “The thing that I remember from ‘Being There’ is that people would say, ‘We just love Mel. Everyone just loves Mel.’ He was just like an ambassador.”

And in working with Turner Classic Movies — she recently hosted its “Trailblazing Women” programming and participates in the TCM Classic Film Festival and TCM Cruise — people are telling her stories about her grandfather.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Douglas was enjoying lunch at Hugo’s in West Hollywood where 20 years ago she met one of her mentors, actor-photographer Roddy McDowall.

She had just auditioned for Gus Van Sant’s 1995 dark comedy, “To Die For,” in which Douglas earned strong reviews as Nicole Kidman’s ice-skating sister-in-law, when she joined McDowall (“How Green Was My Valley,” “Planet of the Apes”) at a table by the window.


Ever the shutterbug, he shot her photo that afternoon.

“Uncle Roddy,” she said, “ was such a gentleman, of course. That is one of those amazing things that happen in Hollywood where people become aware of you and you don’t even know how. We met and just instantly kind of hit it off.”

And being a classic film buff of the first order, Douglas relished dinners at McDowall’s house with his inner circle of friends, including Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld.

“They were all on a one-name basis,” said Douglas, 50. “He took me out to the Motion Picture Home and got me involved with them. He started me journal writing. I’m in the academy because of Roddy McDowall.”

Her relationship with “Uncle Roddy” is just one of the many fun, colorful and often poignant stories in Douglas’ episodic autobiography “I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies.”

For years, people told the naturally funny Douglas that she should write a book. “Any time on a film set, people would say tell the story about this,” said Douglas, who played Robert De Niro’s character’s ill-fated pickup in her ex-boyfriend Martin Scorsese’s 1991 thriller “Cape Fear” and starred as an aspiring singer in Allison Anders’ 1996 “Grace of My Heart.”

“I never knew what the through-line would be other than they were a great bunch of stories,” noted Douglas.


Then she met director Mike Nichols. “It would never dawn on me that he would know who I am,” said Douglas. “He made this comment to me that ‘what I like about you is that you are both in and outside the movies.’ When he said that I started to find a way into the book.”

The title stems from what happened after her parents saw the 1969 counterculture classic “Easy Rider” starring Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson: Her father quit his job, became a hippie and started a commune. And just as quickly, the family became poor. Years later, she told Hopper about what had happened because of “Easy Rider.”

His response?

“Sorry,” he told her with a grin.

Douglas said if she had been wealthier she may not have become an actress. “I think growing up poor gave me a lot of empathy for people, for outsiders always having to work and understanding the life of people who work.”

She relates in her book meeting her idol Marlon Brando in 1996 in Scorsese’s suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel when he came for lunch to talk about a movie project.

Scorsese told her not to be a phony and definitely “don’t talk about acting! He hates that.”

Brando entered the room wearing a blue velour sweat suit.

“When the door opened I literally [almost] passed out,” said Douglas. “He had a larger-than-life presence that almost took the oxygen out of the room.”


She said Brando looked at her feet and remarked that she was inverting them like a little girl. “I felt him gazing at me and he said, ‘That means you’re insecure. What do you have to be insecure about?’”

Douglas decided to throw caution to the wind. She said she couldn’t just be “Marty’s sophisticated European-looking girlfriend who sits in the corner and smiles. I just have to be myself and somehow being myself at least I won’t be phony. I started crying, and words began to tumble out.”

Douglas told him everything he meant to her. And then Brando got emotional. “My God, you’re a tuning fork,” he told her. “Now I’m crying.”