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NY Times, Feb. 6, 2020
Kirk Douglas, a Star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dies at 103
By Robert Berkvist
Kirk Douglas, one of the last surviving movie stars from Hollywood’s
golden age, whose rugged good looks and muscular intensity made him a
commanding presence in celebrated films like “Lust for Life,”
“Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” died on Wednesday at his home in
Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 103.
His son the actor Michael Douglas announced the death in a statement on
his Facebook page.
Mr. Douglas had made a long and difficult recovery from the effects of a
severe stroke he suffered in 1996. In 2011, cane in hand, he came
onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, good-naturedly flirted with the
co-host Anne Hathaway and jokingly stretched out his presentation of the
Oscar for best supporting actress.
By then, and even more so as he approached 100 and largely dropped out
of sight, he was one of the last flickering stars in a Hollywood
firmament that few in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater on that Oscars evening
could have known except through viewings of old movies now called
classics. A vast number filling the hall had not even been born when he
was at his screen-star peak, the 1950s and ’60s.
But in those years Kirk Douglas was as big a star as there was — a
member of a pantheon of leading men, among them Burt Lancaster, Gregory
Peck, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who rose to fame in the postwar years.
And like the others he was instantly recognizable: the jutting jaw, the
dimpled chin, the piercing gaze and the breaking voice, the last making
him irresistible fodder for comedians who specialized in impressions.
Three Movies a Year
In his heyday Mr. Douglas appeared in as many as three movies a year,
often delivering critically acclaimed performances. In his first 11
years of film acting, he was nominated three times for the Academy Award
for best actor.
He was known for manly roles, in westerns, war movies and Roman-era
spectacles, most notably “Spartacus” (1960). But in 80 movies across a
half-century he was equally at home on mean city streets, in smoky jazz
clubs and, as Vincent van Gogh, amid the flowers of Arles in the south
Many of his earlier films were forgettable — variations on well-worn
Hollywood themes — and moviegoers were slow to recognize some of his
best work. But when he found the right role, he proved he could be very
Early on he was hailed for his performances as an unprincipled Hollywood
producer, opposite Lana Turner, in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952),
and as van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). Each brought an Oscar nomination.
Where to Stream ‘Spartacus’ and Other Great Kirk Douglas MoviesFeb. 5, 2020
Many critics thought he should have gotten more recognition for his work
in two films in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957),
in which he played a French colonel in World War I trying vainly to
prevent the execution of three innocent soldiers, and “Lonely Are the
Brave” (1962), an offbeat western about an aging cowboy.
Early on Mr. Douglas created a niche for himself, specializing in
characters with a hard edge and something a little unsavory about them.
His scheming Hollywood producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” was “a
perfect Kirk Douglas-type bum,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote.
Mr. Douglas did not disagree. “I’ve always been attracted to characters
who are part scoundrel,” he told The Times in an interview in 1984. “I
don’t find virtue photogenic.”
Yet he often managed to win audiences’ sympathy for even the blackest of
his characters by suggesting an element of weakness or torment beneath
“To me, acting is creating an illusion, showing tremendous discipline,
not losing yourself in the character that you’re portraying,” he wrote
in his best-selling autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988). “The actor
never gets lost in the character he’s playing; the audience does.”
‘Going Over the Line’
The only time that discipline nearly cracked was during the filming of
“Lust for Life.” “I felt myself going over the line, into the skin of
van Gogh,” he wrote. “Not only did I look like him, I was the same age
he had been when he committed suicide.” The experience was so
frightening, he added, that for a long time he was reluctant to watch
“While we were shooting,” he said, “I wore heavy shoes like the ones van
Gogh wore. I always kept one untied, so that I would feel unkempt, off
balance, in danger of tripping. It was loose; it gave him — and me — a
Most people who worked with Mr. Douglas were either awed by his
self-confident intensity or put off by it. He was proud of his muscular
physique and physical prowess and regularly rejected the use of stuntmen
and stand-ins, convinced he could do almost anything the situation required.
Preparing for “Champion,” he trained for months with a retired
prizefighter. He took trumpet lessons with Harry James for “Young Man
With a Horn” (although James did the actual playing on the film’s
soundtrack). He became a skilled horseman and learned to draw a
six-shooter with impressive speed, lending authenticity to his Doc
Holliday when he and Lancaster, as Wyatt Earp, blazed away at the
Clanton gang in the final shootout in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957).
The engine that drove Mr. Douglas to achieve, again and again, was his
The Ragman’s Son
He was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y., a
small city about 35 miles northwest of Albany. As he put it in his
autobiography, he was “the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants
in the WASP town of Amsterdam,” one of seven children, six of them
sisters. By the time he began attending school, the family name had been
changed to Demsky and Issur had become Isadore, promptly earning him the
The town’s mills did not hire Jews, so his father, Herschel (known as
Harry), became a ragman, a collector and seller of discarded goods.
“Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the
families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the
ladder,” Mr. Douglas wrote. “And I was the ragman’s son.”
A powerful man who drank heavily and got into fights, the elder Demsky
was often an absentee father, letting his family fend for itself.
Money for food was desperately short much of the time, and young Izzy
learned that survival meant hard work. He also learned about
anti-Semitism. “Kids on every street corner beat you up,” he wrote.
Mr. Douglas once estimated that he had held down at least 40 different
jobs — among them delivering newspapers and washing dishes — before he
found success in Hollywood. After graduating from high school, he
hitchhiked north to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and was
admitted and given a college loan.
He became a varsity wrestler there and, despite being rejected by
fraternities because he was Jewish, was elected president of the student
body in his junior year — a first for the St. Lawrence campus.
By that time he had decided that he wanted to be an actor. He got a
summer job as a stagehand at the Tamarack Playhouse in the Adirondacks
and was given some minor roles. He traveled to New York City to try out
for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and performed well, but he was
told no scholarships were available.
It was at the Tamarack, the summer after he graduated from college, that
he decided to change his name legally to something he thought more
befitting an actor than Isadore Demsky. (When he chose Douglas, he
wrote, “I didn’t realize what a Scottish name I was taking.”)
Returning to New York, he studied acting for two years, played in summer
stock and made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union
messenger in “Spring Again.”
The next year he enlisted in the Navy and was trained in antisubmarine
warfare. He also renewed his friendship with Diana Dill, a young actress
he had met at the American Academy. They married in 1943, just before he
shipped out during World War II as the communications officer of Patrol
Craft 1139. They had two sons, Michael and Joel, before divorcing in
1951. She died in 2015.
In 1954 Mr. Douglas married Anne Buydens, and they too had two sons,
Peter and Eric. All his sons went into the film business, either acting
or producing. Michael did both.
Eric Douglas died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription
pills in 2004 at the age of 46.
In addition to his son Michael, Mr. Douglas is survived by his wife and
his two other sons, as well as five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
After being injured in an accidental explosion, Mr. Douglas was
discharged from the Navy in 1944. He returned to New York, did some
stage work and then headed for Hollywood.
He made his screen debut in 1946 in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,”
playing a weakling who is witness to a murder. In a big-name cast that
also included Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Judith Anderson, Mr.
Douglas more than held his own. He was equally solid in “I Walk Alone,”
a 1948 film noir in which he played the heavy in the first of his
half-dozen pairings with his close friend Burt Lancaster.
First Shot at an Oscar
But it was the 1949 film “Champion,” produced by the young Stanley
Kramer, that made him a star. As Midge Kelly, a ruthless young
prizefighter, he presented a chilling portrait of ambition run wild and
earned his first Oscar nomination.
He had to wait nearly 50 years, however, before he actually received the
golden statuette, for lifetime achievement. He never won a competitive
The doors opened wide for him after “Champion.” A year later he appeared
in “Young Man With a Horn,” in the title role of a troubled jazz trumpet
player modeled on Bix Beiderbecke.
In short order came “The Glass Menagerie” (1950), the screen adaptation
of Tennessee Williams’s play about a timid young woman (Jane Wyman) who
finds solace in her fantasies, with Mr. Douglas as the gentleman caller;
“Ace in the Hole” (1951), in which he played a cynical reporter
manipulating a life-or-death situation; and, also in 1951, “Detective
Story,” based on Sidney Kingsley’s play, in which Mr. Douglas played an
overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction. Mr.
Crowther of The Times wrote that Mr. Douglas’s performance was,
Despite his film-star status and all the trappings that came with it —
his autobiography chronicles his many sexual conquests — Mr. Douglas
still hungered for success in the theater. As it turned out he had only
one more opportunity.
In 1963 he seized the chance to play the lead role in the Broadway
adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey’s novel about
authority and individual freedom, set in a mental hospital. Mr. Douglas,
to mixed reviews, played Randle P. McMurphy, the all-too-sane patient
who is ultimately destroyed by the system. (Jack Nicholson played the
part in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation.)
A few years earlier Mr. Douglas, who had worked his way free of a studio
contract and formed his own company, Bryna Productions, made waves in
Hollywood when he embarked on a film version of “Spartacus,” Howard
Fast’s novel of slave revolt in ancient Rome.
He decided not only to hire Dalton Trumbo — who had been blacklisted
during the McCarthy era on suspicion of Communist sympathies — to write
the screenplay, but also to put Mr. Trumbo’s name in the credits rather
than one of the pseudonyms he had been using.
“We all had been employing the blacklisted writers,” Mr. Douglas wrote
in a 2012 memoir, “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the
Blacklist.” “It was an open secret and an act of hypocrisy, as well as a
way to get the best talent at bargain prices. I hated being part of such
(Mr. Douglas’s role in Trumbo’s redemption — although some people say he
overstated it — was dramatized in the 2015 biographical film “Trumbo,” a
film he praised, telling The Telegraph of London that “its spirit is
true to the man I admired.” Dean O’Gorman played Mr. Douglas.)
“Spartacus,” released in 1960, was Mr. Douglas’s third blood-and-thunder
spectacle set in the ancient past. In “Ulysses” (1955), as Homer’s
wandering hero, he survived legendary perils to return to his faithful
Penelope (Silvana Mangano). In “The Vikings” (1958), he and Tony Curtis
were cast as half brothers who, ignorant of their blood ties, battle for
control of a Norse kingdom. And in “Spartacus” it was Mr. Douglas, in
the title role, who led his rebellious fellow slaves against the Roman
legions (played by 5,000 Spanish soldiers).
One of the last cast-of-thousands spectacles to come out of Hollywood,
“Spartacus” was notable as well for its international cast, which
included Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter
Ustinov, and for its talented young director, Stanley Kubrick, who had
also directed Mr. Douglas in “Paths of Glory.” Most critics were not
impressed, but the movie’s popularity has been long lasting. It was
restored and rereleased in 1991.
Of all his films, Mr. Douglas was proudest of “Lonely Are the Brave,”
also written by Mr. Trumbo, which Mr. Douglas insisted on making on a
small budget and against studio advice. “I love the theme,” he said,
“that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you.”
Mr. Douglas made many more films in the years ahead, but none quite
lived up to his work of the 1950s and early ’60s. There were more
westerns: “The Way West” (1967), with Robert Mitchum and Richard
Widmark; “There Was a Crooked Man ...” (1970), with Henry Fonda; and “A
Gunfight” (1971), with Johnny Cash. “Tough Guys” (1986), a comedy, was
the last movie he made with Burt Lancaster.
There were more military roles. He was an Air Force colonel who foils an
antigovernment plot in “Seven Days in May,” a 1964 Cold War thriller
that also starred Lancaster. He was a naval aviator in “In Harm’s Way”
(1965) and a Norwegian saboteur in “The Heroes of Telemark” (1966). In
“Is Paris Burning?” (1966) he played Gen. George S. Patton, and in “The
Final Countdown” (1980) he commanded a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
As fewer film roles came his way, Mr. Douglas turned to television. In
the HBO movie “Draw!” (1984), he was an aging outlaw pitted against
James Coburn as a drunken sheriff. In the CBS movie “Amos” (1985), he
was a feisty nursing-home resident battling a tyrannical nurse played by
Setbacks and Triumphs
There were setbacks in his personal life. In 1986 Mr. Douglas was fitted
with a pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat. In 1991 he survived
a helicopter crash that left two other people dead. In January 1996 he
suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with seriously impaired
speech and depression so deep, he later said, that he considered suicide.
But he fought his way back, and by March he was able to appear at the
Academy Awards ceremony, speaking haltingly, to accept an honorary Oscar
for lifetime achievement.
By then he could add that statuette to his other lifetime awards: the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Jimmy Carter just
days before Mr. Carter left office in 1981, and a Kennedy Center Honors
award, presented in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.
In addition to acting and producing, Mr. Douglas found time to write.
Besides “The Ragman’s Son,” he was the author of a number of books,
including the novels “Dance With the Devil,” “The Gift” and “Last Tango
in Brooklyn.” Besides his book on “Spartacus,” his memoirs include “My
Stroke of Luck” (2001), about his recovery and comeback, and “Let’s Face
It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning” (2007).
In his later years he devoted his time to charity, campaigning with his
wife to build 400 playgrounds in Los Angeles and establishing the Anne
Douglas Center for Homeless Women, for the treatment of drug and alcohol
addiction; the Kirk Douglas High School, a program to help troubled
students finish their education; and the Kirk Douglas Theater, to
nurture young theatrical artists.
In 2015, on his 99th birthday, he and his wife donated $15 million to
the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills toward the
construction of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion, a $35 million facility
for the care of people in the industry with Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Douglas’s comeback from illness extended to acting as well. In 1999,
at 83, he starred in the comedy “Diamonds,” playing a former boxing
champion who, while recovering from a stroke, embarks on a hunt for
missing jewels. It was his first film appearance since his illness.
Critics judged the movie forgettable, but Stephen Holden, writing in The
Times, found Mr. Douglas’s “hard, gleaming performance” a saving grace.
The last films in which he starred shared something of a theme: the
reconciliation between fathers and sons. One was a comedy, “It Runs in
the Family” (2003), in which his son was played by his actual son
Michael. The other was the drama “Illusion” (2004), in which he played
an ailing father in search of his estranged son.
Perhaps, together, they were a fitting finale for the ragman’s son, an
actor whose boyhood poverty and absent father were never far from his
mind. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said in describing what had
driven him. “That’s the core, that early part of you.”
He also reconciled himself to advanced age. In 2008, in an essay in
Newsweek (“What Old Age Taught Me”), Mr. 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.”
William McDonald and Julia Carmel contributed reporting.
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