Actress Diana Douglas, Mother of Michael and Ex-Wife of Kirk, Dies at 92

Diana Douglas - P

The Bermuda native memorably worked with her ex-husband, two sons and grandson in the 2003 film 'It Runs in the Family.'

Actress Diana Douglas, the first wife of Kirk Douglas and the mother of Michael Douglas, has died. She was 92.

Douglas, who was married to the legendary actor from 1943 until their divorce in 1951, then starred in two films with her ex-husband, died Friday from cancer at the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills, said Donald Webster, her husband of 15 years.

In the 2003 film It Runs in the Family, about a dysfunctional New York clan, Diana played devoted matriarch Evelyn Gromberg opposite Kirk as her husband, Michael (who also produced the movie) as her son and Cameron Douglas (Michael’s son with Diandra Douglas) as her grandson. Joel Douglas, her other child with Kirk, served as an associate producer. It was her final film.

Kirk, now 98, married Anne Buydens in 1954, and they recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. In 1956, Diana wed Bill Darrid, a Broadway producer and novelist who helped raise her two young boys; their marriage ended with his death in 1992.

“I’ve always enjoyed Kirk’s sense of humor, even when I was angriest at him,” Diana said in a 2011 interview. “He could always make me laugh, somehow, which annoyed the hell out of me. But then I think we both decided too, when the time of divorce came, that we had to maintain a certain amount of civility because of the children.

“I know Michael has said since being an adult that he was always very grateful that we never did badmouth each other. Sometimes we probably wanted to. And also, I think that after [Kirk] got married to Anne, [she] made it very much easier, because she and I cooperated very much in terms of bedtimes and what they could watch on television and that kind of thing.”

Reflecting on her marriage to the mercurial Douglas proved “useful” during the making of It Runs in the Family, she noted, “particularly the scene where we were dancing together. I think there were all sorts of things that we could call on. Actors are always looking for intense memories to call on.”

Years earlier, Douglas called on her to appear opposite him in The Indian Fighter (1955), the first film made by his production company, Bryna.

Born Diana Love Dill in Devonshire, Bermuda, where her father was the attorney general of the British territory (her family roots there reached back to the 1640s), she moved to New York and met Kirk while they were studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Chaperoned by her sister, Ruth, she headed to California after signing a contract for $200 a week with Warner Bros. (against Kirk's advice) and made her film debut in George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame (1942), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. But after a couple of years, she returned to New York.

She worked as a Powers Agency model, landing the cover of Life in May 1943 dressed in “frilly Gibson Girl spring fashions,” according to the magazine.

Kirk, now in the service, saw her Life cover and vowed to marry her, and they marched down the aisle under crossed swords during their navy wedding in New Orleans in November 1943.

However, their marriage began to fray just as he was preparing for his star-making turn in the fabled Ring Lardner boxing drama Champion (1949).

“After Joel was born [in 1947], she and I realized that we were not right for each other, and we divorced amicably,” Kirk wrote in his 2007 book, Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning.

Her résumé of 22 films also includes The Sign of the Ram (1948), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s House of Strangers (1949), Storm Over Tibet (1952), Monsoon (1952), Loving (1970), with Michael in The Star Chamber (1983) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987).

Diana portrayed the widowed rancher Annie Andersen on the 1974 ABC series The Cowboys (her character’s husband was played by John Wayne in the 1972 film on which the show was based). She was seen as Red Cross volunteer Mrs. Denman on The Waltons and as the headstrong Professor Tyler (and love interest of John Houseman's character) on another CBS drama, The Paper Chase.

Diana appeared in many live TV dramas of the 1950s and guest-starred on such series as The Web, Naked City, Flipper, Kung Fu, the Michael-starring The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, Lou Grant, Cagney & Lacey, The West Wing and ER. She also did a few stints as Martha Evans on the soap opera Days of Our Lives.

On Broadway, she starred in Dore Schary’s The Highest Tree and in Edward Albee’s Everything in the Garden, and one of her favorite roles was playing Queen Gertrude in the '80s opposite David Birney in Hamlet.

Asked by Michael to put her memories on paper for her grandson Cameron, she wrote 1999’s In the Wings: A Memoir, which included the revelation that she once dated the swashbuckling star Errol Flynn.

In her memoir, she revealed her personal philosophy: “Be courageous, be compassionate, and, for God’s sake, have fun!”

Survivors also include grandchildren Dylan and Carys; her daughter-in-law and Michael's wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones; and many nieces and nephews in the U.K., Bermuda and the U.S. A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles at a date to be announced.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

July 4, 2:22 p.m. The family now says that Ms. Douglas died Friday, so correcting the day of death.