How a Poor Jewish Kid From Upstate New York Became Kirk Douglas -- Hollywood's Best-Loved Gladiator

Kirk Douglas
Joe Pugliese

On June 26, Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video will release a DVD boxed set of three of Douglas' finest films: 1950's Young Man With a Horn, 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful and 1956's Lust for Life. A portion of proceeds will go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund Home, which he and Anne Douglas, his wife of 58 years, have long supported.

The time is fast approaching when movie buffs curious to learn about Hollywood’s “Golden Age” -- that fabled time, more than a half-century ago, when studios were still run by moguls and employed directors and stars to churn out movies as if they were working on the production line of a dream factory -- will be able to consult only second-hand sources.

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The most high-profile men of that period, even those from the tail end of it who rose to prominence during and immediately after World War II, have dwindled far faster than the women, and today number only a few. There’s Mickey Rooney, 91, who was a child star; Ernest Borgnine, 95, and Eli Wallach, 96, who were character actors; and Stanley Donen, 88, who was a choreographer and later a director. However, all of that generation’s leading men -- Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, Gregory Peck, Van Johnson, Burt Lancaster, John Garfield, Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra, Richard Widmark, William Holden, Marlon Brando, and Glenn Ford -- are now gone, some for many years already.

All, that is, except for Kirk Douglas.

When one reaches a milestone age like 95, as Douglas did in December, it’s only natural to take stock of one’s life and try to gauge how one got there, where one is going, and what really matters. Earlier this month, it was my good fortune to document such stocktaking by Douglas over the course of two hours at his home in Beverly Hills. 52 years after the release of his most famous film, Spartacus, his thick hair, once blonde, is now snow white, and his speech is somewhat slurred as a result of a severe stroke that he suffered in 1996, but his memory and sense of humor proved to be as sharp as ever.

Douglas was the only boy among seven children born to a pair of Russian Jews who wound up in Amsterdam, a small town in upstate New York. His birth name was Issur Danielovitch, but his parents soon adopted the last name Demsky, and he eventually started using the first name Izzy. It’s something of a miracle that he ever made it out of Amsterdam, considering how poor his family was. Members of the small Jewish community in the largely anti-Semitic neighborhood, aware of his prowess at Hebrew studies, considered pooling their resources together to send him to rabbinical school. But Douglas says that he already knew what his ticket out would be: “I wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid in the second grade. I did a play, and my mother made a black apron, and I played a shoemaker. And my father, who never interested himself in what I was doing, was in the back, and I didn’t know it. After the performance, he gave me my first Oscar: an ice cream cone. I’ve never forgotten that.”

When a friend of Demsky’s came home from St. Lawrence University after his freshman year, he urged his pal to return with him in the fall. Demsky had only $163 to his name, but had earned good grades during high school, and decided to try to talk his way into a spot of his own. The two hitchhiked the entire way, including the last stretch of it on a fertilizer truck, so that when they arrived they “didn’t smell very good, and the Dean was sniffing.” Nevertheless, he was admitted with a loan that he repaid by working odd jobs when he wasn’t in classes. Then, one summer during college, he took a job at a summer stock playhouse in the Adirondacks, where he met a fellow actor and child of immigrants who had changed his name from George Sekulovich, and suggested that Demsky change his own to Kirk Douglas. (Karl Malden would become a lifelong friend and ultimately costar with Douglas’ son, Michael Douglas, on the seventies TV series The Streets of San Francisco.)

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Upon graduation in 1939, Douglas headed to New York, where he won a scholarship to the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There, he befriended a younger classmate named Betty Joan Perske, who would change his life, both before and after she changed her name to Lauren Bacall. Their lifelong friendship was cemented, he says, by one specific act of kindness on her part: “I had a thin coat that someone had given me, and it was winter, and she looked at that coat and thought I must be freezing, so she went to her uncle, talked him out of an overcoat, and gave it to me. I wore it for two years.” Not long after Douglas completed his two years at the American Academy, World War II broke out, and he enlisted in the Navy. At the conclusion of the war, he returned to New York and starred in roughly 10 theatrical productions, including a few on Broadway, but his career was going nowhere fast. (In his stage debut, he provided an echo from backstage for one word spoken by a character onstage.) Meanwhile, Bacall had moved to Hollywood and become a star opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, but had not forgotten about her old friend. “Again, she played a part in my life,” Douglas marvels. “There was a producer, Hal Wallis, who was going to New York, and she said, ‘Listen, when you go to New York, you must see an actor: Kirk Douglas.’” Wallis did see him, was impressed, and offered to test him for a role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946), so Douglas caught the next train to Hollywood. (Just four years later, he shared top billing on a picture, Young Man with a Horn, with Bacall.)

After Martha Ivers, Wallis wanted to put Douglas under a seven-year contract, like most stars of that era. Douglas recalls, “He said, ‘I want you to sign a seven-year deal, or I’ll drop you.’ Somehow, that made me mad. So I said, ‘Drop me!’ And he did. Now I was without a contract, which was rare in those days. But I survived.” He spent the next three years playing supporting parts, several in very good films like Out of the Past (1947) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Then, a pivotal moment arrived. He was offered a lot of money to act opposite Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck in a big-budget pic called The Great Sinner, but turned it down in order to instead star in a low-budget film with no other stars and for virtually no money. “[My agents] thought I was crazy… they were flabbergasted. I turned it down because I wanted to play a tough guy,” and the other film would provide him with a chance to do just that. As it turned out, The Great Sinner was a flop, whereas Champion, in which Douglas portrays a boxer who craves respect, became a huge hit, brought him a best actor Oscar nomination, and made him a star. (He can still recite from memory the line in the film to which he could most relate: “I'm not gonna be a ‘hey-you’ all my life. I wanna hear people call me ‘Mister’!”)

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After Champion, Douglas says, a lot of things in his life changed -- his anonymity evaporated, his price tag soared, and he got to play even meatier parts in more memorable films for top-notch directors, like an opportunistic journalist in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), a corrupt cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), a ruthless Hollywood producer in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), for which he received his second best actor Oscar nomination, and the tortured artist Vincent van Gogh in Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), for which he received his third. Other things, however, remained the same. When he made a trip back to Amsterdam to visit his friends and relatives, he found his father, who was now estranged from the family, at a local saloon, and had a conversation that he recounts as follows: “I came in. ‘Hi, Dad.’ [imitates his father’s grunt of acknowledgment] ‘I did a picture, Dad. Champion.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Did you see it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Did you like it?’ ‘Yeah.’ [long silence] Well, that was my meeting with my father. He was not impressed.” Douglas was never to be close with his father, something that seems to have always eaten at him. He doesn’t disagree with his own son Michael’s belief that “Dad is still looking for a pat on the back from his father.”

As for his mother, though, Douglas always had a soft spot. In the heart of his career, he craved “the opportunity to find some projects that I wanted to do,” so, in 1955, he did something that Burt Lancaster but few if any other actors had done at the time, and formed his own production company, which he named Bryna Productions, after his mother. The company produced several of the best films in which Douglas ever acted, including Paths of Glory (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964). He grins, “When I think of my mother, who couldn’t read or write, a legal peasant from Russia-- I took her in a limousine to Times Square, and I stopped the car, and I said [gesturing toward a massive billboard above], ‘See Ma? BRYNA PRESENTS THE VIKINGS!’ And my mother said, ‘America -- such a wonderful land!’”

It seems that it cannot be a coincidence that Douglas did some of his best work -- in Paths of Glory, Lonely Are the Brave (his personal favorite of his films), and certainly Spartacus -- when inhabiting characters who refuse to accept the way things are and instead fight to make them the way they ought to be.

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As we prepare to part, he remarks, “It’s nice to make a movie that people enjoy and that does something.” Which begs the question: does anyone else in Hollywood still remember how to do that?

* * *

(Films are listed in chronological order.)

Champion (1949)
“I didn’t think I was so tough until I did Champion; then I was a tough guy… Virtue is not photogenic, so I liked playing bad guys. But, whenever I played a ba
d guy, I tried to find something good in him, and that kept my contact with the audience.”

Young Man with a Horn (1950)
“[Recently my son Michael called me from the United Nations, where he was attending a meeting.] And he said, ‘Dad, I met a guy from Africa who is probably the world’s best trumpet player, and he said to me, ‘You know, after I saw your father in Young Man with a Horn, I became interested in the trumpet.’”

Ace in the Hole (1951)
“I thought that Billy Wilder was such a brilliant director… [That character was a lot to handle, so I asked him if I should tone him down a bit, but he told me to do just the opposite.] ‘Both knees! Give it both knees!’”

Detective Story (1951)
Lee Grant played a small part -- a shoplifter -- in Detective Story, and she got an Oscar nomination. She’s a wonderful girl. And, years later, she directed Michael and me and all our bunch in a family picture.”

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
“You know, it’s tough to make a movie about movies… We’re all too close to it. But The Bad and the Beautiful was very good. And Lana Turner, I think, did her best job; she was very good. I was good, too!”

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
“I sang in that! For a guy who can’t sing, I sang a lot. [sings] ‘Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads!’… All the young kids at that time knew that song. They made a disc of it professionally, and I said in an interview that my friend Frank Sinatra was jealous of me!”

Lust for Life (1956)
“Acting is make-believe. I never believe I’m the character; I want you to believe. But with Lust for Life, I got so involved with van Gogh… it really was frightening, because I felt like the character was overtaking me… It was a very, very interesting experience. I have never felt that way on any other picture.”

Paths of Glory (1957)
“I saw a little picture that Stanley Kubrick had done [the 1956 film The Killing], and I said, ‘Gee, he’s very talented.’ I called him and said, ‘Do you have any other projects?’ He said, ‘Yes, I have a project, but nobody wants to do it.’ And he sent me Paths of Glory. I said, ‘Stanley, this picture won’t make a nickel, but we have to do it.’”

Spartacus (1960)
“I was intrigued with the character of Spartacus, and I just had to make it. And, at the same time, we were going through a terrible period, the McCarthy era... I’m very proud that Spartacus broke the blacklist [by giving blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo screen credit], because that was very important… It happened at the right time for me. I was young enough to be foolish… It’s nice to make a movie that people enjoy and that does something.”

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
“I love that character and his relationship with his horse. And I always consider that my best movie. It was not a big success. It’s gotten to be more of a cult film right now… Again, Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay. It was the one time we never changed a word; it was perfect, like a hole in one.”