Kirk Douglas: Icon of the golden age
He was an actor, a crusader for artistes’ rights, and a humanitarian
- Published 7.02.20, 1:25 PM
- Updated 8.02.20, 11:51 AM
- 4 mins read
Kirk Douglas, one of the last great stars of Hollywood’s golden age who died on Wednesday aged 103, was Spartacus. But he was a man of many parts: the self-styled “ragman’s son” who channelled a deep, personal anger through his chiselled jaw and steely blue eyes to bring to the screen some memorable and ruthless, alpha-male performances; a producer who fought for rights of artistes; and in later life, a humanitarian who travelled the globe on goodwill missions.
“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. After the performance, [my father] gave me my first Oscar: an ice cream cone.” -Kirk Douglas— The Academy (@TheAcademy) February 5, 2020
Goodbye to a Hollywood legend. pic.twitter.com/vnu1Hkb2FA
“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.”
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants, Douglas sold snacks to local mill workers to earn enough money to buy food. This was one of 40 jobs that Douglas estimated he did, including a stint in the US navy and a brief career as a professional wrestler before he made it to Hollywood and changed his name.
As news broke of Douglas’ death on Thursday, the film industry began expressing their condolences. Director Steven Spielberg said in a statement: “Kirk retained his movie star charisma right to the end of his wonderful life and I’m honoured to have been a small part of his last 45 years. 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.”
Douglas survived a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he fought on. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.
Among the top male stars of the first two decades post-WW II, Douglas 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. He was nominated for the best actor Academy Award for all these films, but lost — he would get an honorary Oscar in 1996.
Like Robert Mitchum, his co-star in Out of the Past, Douglas was not one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts.
He was as much at home playing a sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole as he was portraying the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story.
This independent streak led Douglas to form his own film company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother, in 1955. He took a risk on a young Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, films that feature two of Douglas’ finest performances. (Kubrick came on board Spartacus after Douglas fired Anthony Mann a few days into production.)
Kirk Douglas was one of those who stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee & Joe McCarthy by giving Dalton Trumbo an official on-screen credit for SPARTACUS, helping to bring an end to the blacklist era and letting writers write. R.I.P. #KirkDouglas pic.twitter.com/cFKu3qvmUL— John Boyne (@john_boyne) February 5, 2020
And Douglas walked the talk. He rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by publicly announcing that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo would script Spartacus, a key step in Hollywood’s rehabilitation of those who had been marked out for suspected communist sympathies.
Douglas made his screen debut in the 1946 film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers opposite Barbara Stanwyck, a role he bagged after producer Hal Wallis called him for a screen test on the suggestion of his acting school classmate Betty Joan Perske, who became famous as Lauren Bacall.
He 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.”
Douglas worked with some of the top directors such as Kubrick, Wilder, Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Sturges and John Huston. For good measure he made seven films opposite Burt Lancaster, running the gamut from the western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to the political thriller Seven Days in May.
One regret Douglas 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, but he never managed to make it into a film.
His son Michael and Saul Zaentz eventually produced the movie, which released in 1975 and collected five Academy Awards, including one for best picture. (It is one of three films to win all the Big 5 Oscars — those for best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay). He received half of Michael’s share of the profits, and his son often joked that it was the most money his dad had ever made as a producer.
Douglas once admitted that he cheated on both his wives. With his first wife, Diana Dill, he had Michael and Joel. They divorced in 1951. Three years later he married Anne Buydens. In his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas attributed his long life and the mellowing of his character to Anne, whom he met in Paris while filming Anatole Litvak’s Act of Love in 1953. Anne turned 100 last April.
He established the Douglas Foundation for making charitable donations and in 2015 he and Anne announced plans to give away his $80 million to a variety of causes.
He also reconciled himself to advanced age. In a 2008 essay in Newsweek (“What Old Age Taught Me”), Douglas wrote: “Years ago I was at the bedside of my dying mother, an illiterate Russian peasant. Terrified, I held her hand. She opened her eyes and looked at me. The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t be afraid, son, it happens to everyone.’ As I got older, I became comforted by those words.”
Written with inputs from agencies