Many actors and actresses can be considered staples of the industry, but few performers were as recognizable across decades as the great Kirk Douglas. A military veteran and one of the last remaining performers from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Douglas passed away from natural causes at the age of 103 on February 5, 2020 leaving behind a legacy most actors could only dream of amassing several Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe win, several Emmy nominations and numerous lifetime achievement awards during his lifetime. With news of his passing I felt it appropriate to honor this acting legend with a look back at his illustrious career. This is In Memoriam: Kirk Douglas.
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York in December of 1916 to Jewish immigrants Bryna and Herschel Danielovitch eventually adopting the last name Demsky and then legally changing his name to Kirk Douglas before his service in the armed forces. The only boy among seven children, Douglas and his family endured financial hardships in his early years while at the same time the future big screen legend gained an interest in acting starting in kindergarten after reciting The Red Robin of Spring before his class. This could be seen as his first public performance as the applause he received gave him the bug for performing. He appeared in several plays during his years at Amsterdam High School and decided acting was his passion and future. Despite his low income, Douglas literally talked his way into being accepted at St. Lawrence University where he earned a bachelor’s degree before his acting talents gained him attention from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. It was here that he met Betty Joan Perske, aka Lauren Bacall, who would go on to help Douglas establish himself as a working actor. He also met Diana Dill who would become Douglas’s first wife.
In the 1940s Douglas put his acting career on hold to serve in the United States Navy eventually serving in World War II as a communications officer. He was medically discharged in 1944. After his service he returned to New York City working in radio, theater and commercials as well as stage work where he made his big break in 1943’s “Kiss and Tell”. Lauren Bacall later convinced Douglas to pursue film helping him get the role in Hal B. Wallis’s “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” in 1946 which would serve as Douglas’s breakout performance. He would perform in seven other films in the 40s culminating in one of his most iconic performances in 1949’s “The Champion” as Michael Kelly earning him his first nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Actor.
The 50s were a huge decade for Douglas who appeared in at least one movie a year throughout the decade and at least two films in every year besides 1956. Films like “Young Man with a Horn”, “Ace in the Hole”, “Detective Story”, “Ulysses”, “Act of Love”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “Gunfight at O.K. Corral” and “Paths of Glory” all made him a household name while 1952’s “Bad & the Beautiful” and his only film in 1956, “Lust for Life” each earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. It was during this decade that many of Douglas’s most iconic performances were brought to the public eye including Odysseus in “Ulysses”, Ned Land, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Doc Holliday in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. It was also during this time that the public embraced Douglas as a Hollywood sex symbol with his chin cleft quickly becoming his most prominent physical feature.
The 1960s started off with possibly the most iconic role of Douglas’s career as the titular character in “Spartacus” which became the highest grossing film for Universal at the time and a multi-Oscar winner. Douglas also embraced his mid-career type casting as a military man in films like “Town Without Pity”, “Seven Days in May” and “Is Paris Burning” just to name a few. Like the previous decade, Douglas was featured in at least one movie every year throughout this period often appearing in more than one per calendar year. He also continued his Broadway career including heading up the first stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. While he did attempt to create a film based on the property, he eventually turned the rights over to his son and fellow future big-screen legend Michael Douglas who produced the Best Picture winning version in the 70s.
Speaking of the 70s Douglas continued his streak of film appearances throughout that decade as well although in 1976 he only appeared in the made for TV film “Victory at Entebbe” making it the first time since the 1940s that he had gone a year without a big screen feature. Among his notable films of this decade were “To Catch a Spy”, “There was a Crooked Man…” and the horror film “The Fury”. He would also direct two pictures, “Scalawag” and “Posse”, both of which featured him as an actor. Douglas began to slow down over the following ten years appearing in several movies throughout the 80s although there were several years where he wasn’t featured on the big screen. “The Man from Snowy River” and “Tough Guys” are among his more memorable features from this decade which also saw him co-hosting the 100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty alongside Angela Lansbury in 1986.
The 1990s marked the final decade of Kirk’s career on the big screen save for a few select projects in the 2000s. He started the decade in 1991 with “Oscar” and appeared in only three other films outside of documentaries and TV during that time including “Greedy” and “Diamonds” although the TV movie “The Secret” is also a highlight of the decade. Sadly, a stroke in 1996 all but forced Kirk Douglas into retirement as it effected his speech. However the actor underwent speech therapy in order to participate in the filming of “Diamonds” which saw him playing a boxer recovering from a stroke. This film also served as a full-circle production for Douglas as he starred alongside his old friend Lauren Bacall. The 2000s saw Kirk’s final big screen appearance in 2004’s “Illusion” while the prior year teamed him up with his son Michael and Grandson Cameron Douglas for the dramady “It Runs in the Family” which featured three generations of the Douglas family. Douglas made his final on-screen acting appearance in the 2008 TV movie “Empire State Building Murders”.
While some found him difficult to work with, Kirk Douglas became a respected mainstay of the industry and a Hollywood heartthrob although he himself was aware of his occasionally off-putting personality once calling himself a “son of a bitch” acknowledging his own aggressiveness which served as a big part of his acting success. His personal life saw him in two marriages, one with Diana Dill which led to the births of Joel and Michael Douglas before their 1951 divorce and a second to Anne Buydens who he married in 1954 having two sons, Peter Douglas and the late Eric Douglas. The two stayed together even though multiple cases of infidelity. Douglas practiced Judaism, the region of his childhood, in his later life after a near death experience in a helicopter led him to seek meaning in existence. He was a known philanthropist donating much of his own net worth to charities and even helped fund a high school musical in 2001 and donating millions to his alma mater St. Lawrence University. For his philanthropy and good will he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter in 1981. Douglas was a lifelong Democrat remaining outspoken on the political stage well into the 2000s.
Kirk Douglas was nothing short of a legend of the big and small screen. Embracing an acting approach that balanced the importance of determination and application made him a unique actor for the time eventually influencing countless other performers in his decades-long career. While he never won an Academy Award he did receive three Best Actor nominations and was recognized with an Honorary Award for 50 years of commitment to cinema in 1996. He earned three Golden Globe nominations including two for film and won in 1957 for Best Actor-Drama for “Lust for Life”. He was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1968 for Lifetime Achievement. His career honors also include three Emmy nominations, a lifetime achievement honor from the Screen Actors Guild, an AGI Life Achievement Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His accomplishments in the field of performing arts and his philanthropy also earned him numerous awards and recognition from lawmakers and several presidents of the United States.
Kirk Douglas was not only an amazing actor, but an astounding and generous human being aware of his flaws but always willing to be who he wanted to be. The world not only lost a great performer but a genuinely good man. RIP Spartacus!