The news that Kirk Douglas has died at the age of 103 is likely to provoke a different reaction to those that followed the passing of the likes of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Prince – cultural figures taken far too soon. To all intents and purposes, Douglas had a fantastic life, it’s rare for anyone to live to a century. But his death is significant in that it represents another loss from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a period when movie stars were truly magical and whose names brought the public in their droves to the cinemas.
In direct contrast to the life he would live, Douglas grew up in abject poverty. Born Issur Danielovitch on 9th December 1916 in Amsterdam, New York, his parents were Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire (in an area now known as modern-day Belarus). He was to be the only son. Growing up, he sold snacks to mill workers to buy milk and bread for his family. Before becoming an actor, he had more than forty jobs during his youth. His desire to be an actor began in kindergarten when he read the poem The Red Robin of Spring and cemented his decision after his education at Amsterdam High School. Unable to afford tuition for university, he talked his way into the dean’s office of St. Lawrence University and showed him a list of accolades, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1939. To pay back the loan, he worked as a janitor, gardener and in a carnival as a wrestler.
After meeting Lauren Bacall at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Douglas enrolled in the US Army, serving in World War II, before his honourable discharge in 1944. After initially focussing on a theatre career, Bacall recommended Douglas to producer Hal. B Wallis, who cast him in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the one and only time he played a weak-willed character on screen. After several projects, it was the 1949 film Champion that marked Douglas’ future journey on screen. Playing a tough, selfish boxer, it represented Douglas as a hard, edgy figure, an actor capable of brute strength as well as moments of quiet vulnerability. He earned his first Oscar nomination for the role. Douglas later stated he couldn’t be much of an actor without ‘vanity’.
The 1950s saw Douglas’ star rise further, appearing in films including Ace in the Hole (1951), Billy Wilder’s feature debut as a disgraced reporter, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), with Lana Turner, Lust for Life (1956), in which he played Van Gogh and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), which represented a lighter, comedic screen appearance. His most significant film of this time is arguably Paths of Glory (1957), a World War I drama that is one of the greatest of the anti-war films- his performance as French officer Colonel Dax is one of his very best, a bubbling portrayal of a man driven to despair by the horrors and injustices facing his men. Douglas would go on to say the film was Stanley Kubrick’s best work.
The role for which Douglas will be best remembered is in Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), in which he played the title role. He helped raise the film’s budget, and specifically chose blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, to write the script and gave him full credit, claiming later he helped break the blacklist. In truth, Trumbo was actually credited earlier by director Otto Preminger, but Douglas’ film was the bigger hit. His ‘I Am Spartacus’ speech is a sort of precursor to Mel Gibson’s later Braveheart (1995) and Aragorn’s speech in The Return of the King (2003). The film relaunched his career, and he would go on to work with the likes of John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Richard Harris. He described Lonely are the Brave (1962) as his own personal favourite film of his career.
Douglas directed two films in the 1970s, and appeared in films by Brian De Palma and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. His reputation as a tough actor caused numerous clashes with his directors, many of whom enjoyed their own power on the sets of his films. It was his intelligence and thorough studying of the script, reading other actors’ lines as well as his own, that led to these clashes. Douglas was unequivocal in his own personality, saying ‘I was born aggressive and I’ll die aggressive’, likely a throwback to his difficult, impoverished childhood. He was married twice, and had four sons, the eldest of whom, Michael Douglas, has had a career as varied and unique as his father’s. They co-starred in the film It Runs in the Family, alongside Michael’s son Cameron and his ex-wife Diana Dill. His youngest son, Eric, died in 2004 of a drug overdose. His final film role came in 2008, in the TV movie Empire State Building Murders.
Douglas suffered a stroke in 1996, which affected his mobility and speech, but his personality and wit still shone through. He was proud of his Judaism, having a Bar Mitzvah in 1999 at the age of 83. He and his second wife donated $40 million to an Alzheimer’s facility in Woodland Hills and his 100th birthday celebrations were attended by several famous faces including Steven Spielberg, Don Rickles and Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Douglas was a movie star in the true sense of the word, someone who was invested heavily in all aspects of the production, from writing through to producing. His tough-guy image stood in direct contrast to the shy, poor boy who had grown up during the Great Depression and who had to bluff his way into university. He was one of the last surviving actors who worked through Hollywood as it underwent the seismic changes that are still felt today and was truly a part of history. Olivia De Haviland (aged 103), from Gone with the Wind, is now the most enduring of those stars still living. His legacy, both in the hands of his family and the films he leaves behind, will endure as long as all those who have gone before him. Just as we now remember Cary Grant, James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, so in forty years will Kirk Douglas be talked about. Spartacus has taken his final charge, but what a journey he went on.
KIRK DOUGLAS (born 9th December 1916. Died 5th February 2020).