He was born Issur Danielovitch, a ragman’s son. He died Kirk Douglas, a Hollywood king.
Douglas, the muscular, tempestuous actor with the dimpled chin, lived out an epic American story of reinvention and perseverance, from the riches he acquired and risked to the parts he took on and the boundaries he defied. Among the most popular, versatile and recognisable leading men of the 20th century, he could will himself into a role or a favourite cause as mightily as he willed himself out of poverty.
Douglas, who died February 5 at 103, was a force for change and symbol of endurance. He is remembered now as a final link to a so-called ‘Golden Age’, the father of Oscar winner Michael Douglas and a man nearly as old as the industry itself. But in his prime, he represented a new kind of performer, more independent and adventurous than Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and other greats of the studio era of the 1930s and 1940s, and more willing to speak his mind.
His career began at the peak of the studios’ power and ended in a more diverse, decentralised age that he helped bring about.
Reaching stardom after the Second World War, he was as likely to play cads (the movie producer in ‘Bad and the Beautiful’, the journalist in ‘Ace in the Hole’) as he was suited for the hero-slave in ‘Spartacus’, as alert to the business as he was at home before the camera. He was producing his own films at a time most movie stars were content to act and was working with an enviable range of directors, from a young Stanley Kubrick to a middle-aged John Huston, from a genius of noir like Jacques Tourneur to such master satirists as Billy Wilder and Joseph L Mankiewicz.
Acting served as escape and as confession. His favourite among dozens of films was the contemporary Western ‘Lonely are the Brave’, which came out in 1962 and included a line of dialogue Douglas called the most personal he ever spoke: “I’m a loner clear down deep to my very guts.”
He never won a competitive Oscar, but he received an honorary one, along with a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, an honorary Golden Globe and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
ENDING THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
His standing came in part from his role in the downfall of Hollywood’s blacklist, which halted and ruined the careers of writers suspected of pro-Communist activity or sympathies.
By the end of the 1950s, the use of banned writers was widely known within the industry, but not to the general public. Douglas, who years earlier had reluctantly signed a loyalty oath to get the starring role in ‘Lust for Life’, delivered a crucial blow when he openly credited the blacklisted Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo for script work on ‘Spartacus’, the Roman epic about a slave rebellion that was released in 1960.
“Everybody advised me not to do it because you won’t be able to work in this town again and all of that. But I was young enough to say to hell with it,” Douglas, criticised at times for taking undue credit for bringing down the blacklist, said about ‘Spartacus’ in 2011. “I think if I was much older, I would have been too conservative: ‘Why should I stick my neck out?’”
The most famous words in a Douglas movie were said about him, not by him, in ‘Spartacus’. Roman officials tell a gathering of slaves their lives will be spared if they identify their leader. As Douglas rises, a growing chorus of slaves jump up and shout, “I’m Spartacus!” Douglas stands silently, a tear rolling down his face.
Life was not a role to be underplayed. His outbursts frightened co-workers and family members alike. He was compulsive about preparing for movies and a supreme sufferer on camera.
Issur Danielovitch was born in 1916 to an impoverished family in Amsterdam, New York. His name evolved over time. He called himself Isidore Demsky until he graduated from St Lawrence University. He took the name Kirk Douglas as he worked his way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, choosing ‘Douglas’ because he wanted his last name still to begin with ‘D’ and ‘Kirk’ because he liked the hard, jagged sound of ‘K’.
Beginning in 1941, Douglas won a series of small roles on Broadway, served briefly in the Navy and received a key Hollywood break when an old friend from New York, Lauren Bacall, recommended he play opposite Barbara Stanwyck in ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’.
He gained further attention as a tough guy in the classic 1947 film noir ‘Out of the Past’, although a more typical role was as a schoolteacher in Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning ‘A Letter to Three Wives’. His real breakthrough came as an unscrupulous boxer in 1949’s ‘Champion’, a low-budget film produced by a then-little known Stanley Kramer that his agents disparaged.
He had long desired creative control and was followed by a run of successes that gave him the clout to form Bryna Productions (named after his mother) in 1955, and a second company later. Many of his movies, such as Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’, ‘The Vikings’, ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Seven Days in May’, were produced by his companies.
His first marriage, to Diana Dill, ended in 1951. Three years later, he married Anne Buydens, whom he met in Paris while he was filming ‘Act of Love’ and she was a publicist.
Douglas had two children with each of his wives and all went into show business, against their father’s advice. Besides Michael, they are Joel and Peter, both producers, and Eric, an actor with several film credits who died of a drug overdose in 2004.
A stroke in 1996 seemed to end his film career, but Douglas returned three years later with ‘Diamonds’, which he made after struggling to overcome speech problems.
“I thought I would never make another movie unless silent movies came back,” he joked.
His books included ‘The Ragman’s Son’, the novels ‘Dance With the Devil’ and ‘The Gift’ and a short work on the making of ‘Spartacus’.
“You know, I never wanted to be a movie actor,” Douglas said in 2009. “My goal in life was to be a star on the stage. Now I know how to do it. Build your own theatre.”