Kirk Douglas, the son of a ragman who channeled a deep, personal anger through a chiseled jaw and steely blue eyes to forge one of the most indelible and indefatigable careers in Hollywood history, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 103.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” son Michael Douglas wrote on his Instagram account. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the Golden Age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
Douglas walked away from a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he refused to give in. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.
Nominated three times for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) — Douglas was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 1996. Arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era, he acted in more than 80 movies before retiring from films in 2004.
“Kirk retained his movie star charisma right to the end of his wonderful life, and I’m honored to have been a small part of his last 45 years,” Steven Spielberg said in a statement. “I will miss his handwritten notes, letters and fatherly advice, and his wisdom and courage — even beyond such a breathtaking body of work — are enough to inspire me for the rest of mine.”
The father of two-time Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Michael Douglas, the Amsterdam, New York, native first achieved stardom as a ruthless and cynical boxer in Champion. In The Bad and the Beautiful, he played a hated, ambitious movie producer for director Vincente Minnelli, then was particularly memorable, again for Minnelli, as the tormented genius Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.
Perhaps most importantly, Douglas rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by producing and starring as a slave in Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, making the actor a hero to those blacklisted in Hollywood. The film became Universal’s biggest moneymaker, an achievement that stood for a decade.
Douglas’ many honors include the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The broad-chested Douglas often bucked the establishment with his opinions, and he had the courage to back them up. “I’ve always been a maverick,” he once said. “When I was new in pictures, I defied my agents to make Champion rather than appear in an important MGM movie they had planned for me [The Great Sinner, which wound up starring Gregory Peck]. Nobody had ever heard of the people connected to Champion, but I liked the Ring Lardner story, and that’s the movie I wanted to do. Everyone thought I was crazy, of course, but I think I made the right decision.”
Never one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts, Douglas played classic heels in a number of films. In 1951, he showed a keen flair for portraying strong-minded characters like the sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He played more sympathetic types in Out of the Past (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) as Doc Holliday, Paths of Glory (1957) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).
Douglas was very particular in his role selection. “If I like a picture, I do it. I don’t stop to wonder if it’ll be successful or not,” he said in a 1982 interview. “I loved Lonely Are the Brave and Paths of Glory, but neither of them made a lot of money. No matter; I’m proud of them.”
His independent nature led him in 1955 to form his own independent film company, Bryna Productions. In the post-World War II era, Douglas was the first actor to take control of his career in this manner. Captaining his own ship, he soon launched a number of heady projects. Most auspiciously, he took a risk on a young Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, films that feature two of Douglas’ finest performances. (He hired Kubrick for the latter after firing Anthony Mann a week into production.)
Indeed, Douglas backed his artistic and political opinions with action: His public announcement that blacklisted writer Trumbo would script Spartacus was a key moment in Hollywood’s re-acceptance of suspected communist figures.
During a Tonight Show appearance in August 1988 to promote his first book, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas told Johnny Carson that he often drew from personal experience for his work on film.
“What I found out when I wrote this book is I have a lot of anger in me,” he said. “I’m angry about things that happened many, many years ago. I think that anger has been a lot of the fuel that has helped me in whatever I’ve done.”
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in the industrial town of Amsterdam. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, raised seven children, and as soon as he was old enough, Douglas went to work to help support the family.
He put himself through St. Lawrence University by working as a janitor. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree, Douglas moved to Manhattan where, as a result of a single reading for the head of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, received a special scholarship.
Soon after graduating from the academy in 1941, Douglas made his Broadway debut in Spring Again, starring Grace George and C. Aubrey Smith, playing a singing messenger boy. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy, attending the Midshipman School at Notre Dame, and was commissioned an ensign. He served on anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific as a communications officer until 1944, when he was honorably discharged as a lieutenant.
Returning to civilian life and Broadway, Douglas replaced Richard Widmark as the juvenile lead in Kiss and Tell and appeared in Trio and Star in the Window. It was his widely praised performance in The Wind Is Ninety that brought him to Hollywood’s attention. The year was 1946, and, at the suggestion of Lauren Bacall, producer Hal Wallis invited him to come to California for a screen test. Wallis was so impressed with Douglas that he cast him in the lead opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
Douglas would work with some of the century’s top directors, starring in such memorable films as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and There Was a Crooked Man (1970), John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger.
For Bryna, Douglas also starred in The Indian Fighter (1955), The Vikings (1958), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Brotherhood (1968).
One regret the actor-producer had was with one of his longtime pet projects, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Douglas starred as Randle Patrick McMurphy in the 1963 Broadway adaption of the Ken Kesey book and had optioned the project, but he never managed to make it into a film.
His son Michael and Saul Zaentz eventually produced the movie and, released in 1975, it collected five Academy Awards, including one for best picture. He received half of Michael’s share of the profits, and his son often joked that it was the most money dad had ever made as a producer.
“He’s completely inspirational,” Michael said during an interview at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival. “When you finally reach an age when you’re not feeling like you have to compete with your father and you can look at him [as an equal] … of course, that took me until I was 60.”
A man of restless energy and various interests, Douglas supported many causes and worked in public service. During the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson eras, he toured widely for the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. State Department as a goodwill ambassador, going on missions to South America, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.
In 1966, on behalf of the State Department, Douglas visited six Iron Curtain countries: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. He often regaled acquaintances about a visit to Yugoslavia, where he managed a private visit with President Tito, much to the chagrin of the British ambassador who had been waiting for weeks for such an opportunity.
When the baffled British ambassador asked Douglas how he’d managed it, he replied, “Mr. Ambassador, how many movies have you made?” Realizing that a Hollywood star was in a unique position to enter domains beyond even established professionals, he sagely used his celebrity status to meet important people from all walks of life.
Successive presidents recognized Douglas’ good works: A citation of his efforts was inserted into the Congressional Record. In 1981, he received the Medal of Freedom for his “significant cultural endeavors as an actor and a goodwill ambassador.”
Further honors came to him in 1968 when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, during its Golden Globe ceremony, presented him with the Cecil B. DeMille Award. (In January 2017, he made a surprising visit to the Globes, serving as a presenter with his daughter-in-law, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.)
Douglas’ humanitarian efforts earned him the American Award, presented by the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation. He was perhaps most proud of the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts conferred on him by his alma mater, St. Lawrence.
In March 2009, Douglas starred in an autobiographical one-man show, Before I Forget, at the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
While making a film in France, Douglas met Parisienne Anne Buyden. They were married in 1954 and had two sons, Peter and Eric. She’s 100 and survives him.
In May 2017, the actor’s 11th book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood, was published. (His first was his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son.)
On his 99th birthday, Douglas and his wife donated $15 million toward a new $35 million care center at the Motion Picture Television Fund home in Woodland Hills.
Sons Michael and Joel (a producer) were from Douglas’ 1943-51 marriage to actress Diana Dill, who died in 2015 at age 92.
It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103. To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband. Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet. Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son. #KirkDouglas
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