Kirk Douglas (1916-2020): A star of Hollywood’s Golden Age


By: New York Times |

Updated: February 6, 2020 9:35:32 am


Kirk Douglas, Kirk Douglas dead, Kirk Douglas no more, Kirk Douglas age, Kirk Douglas movies Kirk Douglas was 103.

Written by Robert Berkvist

Kirk Douglas, one of the final surviving film stars from Hollywood’s golden age, whose rugged beauty and muscular depth made him a commanding presence in celebrated movies like Lust for Life, Spartacus and Paths of Glory, died on Wednesday at his house in Beverly Hills, California. He was 103.

His son actor Michael Douglas introduced the dying in an announcement on his Facebook web page.

Douglas had made an extended and tough restoration from the consequences of a extreme stroke he suffered in 1996. In 2011, cane in hand, he got here onstage on the Academy Awards ceremony, good-naturedly flirted with the co-host Anne Hathaway and jokingly stretched out his presentation of the Oscar for greatest supporting actress.

By then, and much more in order he approached 100 and largely dropped out of sight, he was one of the final flickering stars in a Hollywood firmament that few in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater on that Oscars night may have identified besides by way of viewings of previous motion pictures now referred to as classics. A huge quantity filling the corridor had not even been born when he was at his screen-star peak, the 1950s and ’60s.

But in these years Kirk Douglas was as massive a star as there was — a member of a pantheon of main males, amongst them Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who rose to fame within the postwar years.

And just like the others he was immediately recognizable: the jutting jaw, the dimpled chin, the piercing gaze and the breaking voice, the final making him irresistible fodder for comedians who specialised in impressions.

Three Movies a Year

In his heyday Douglas appeared in as many as three motion pictures a 12 months, typically delivering critically acclaimed performances. In his first 11 years of movie appearing, he was nominated thrice for the Academy Award for greatest actor.

He was identified for manly roles, in Westerns, conflict motion pictures and Roman-era spectacles, most notably Spartacus (1960). But in 80 motion pictures throughout a half-century he was equally at house on imply metropolis streets, in smoky jazz golf equipment and, as Vincent van Gogh, amid the flowers of Arles within the south of France.

Many of his earlier movies have been forgettable — variations on well-worn Hollywood themes — and moviegoers have been gradual to acknowledge some of his greatest work. But when he discovered the fitting position, he proved he might be excellent certainly.

Early on he was hailed for his performances as an unprincipled Hollywood producer, reverse Lana Turner, in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and as van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). Each introduced an Oscar nomination.

Many critics thought he ought to have gotten extra recognition for his work in two movies specifically: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), through which he performed a French colonel in World War I making an attempt vainly to forestall the execution of three harmless troopers, and Lonely Are the Brave (1962), an offbeat Western about an growing old cowboy.

Early on Douglas created a distinct segment for himself, specializing in characters with a tough edge and one thing slightly 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.

Douglas didn’t disagree. “I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” he instructed The Times in an interview in 1984. “I don’t find virtue photogenic.”

Yet he typically managed to win audiences’ sympathy for even the blackest of his characters by suggesting a component of weak point or torment beneath the floor.

“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 solely time that self-discipline almost cracked was throughout 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 expertise was so scary, he added, that for a very long time he was reluctant to look at the movie.

“While we were shooting,” he stated, “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 shuffling gait.”

Most individuals who labored with Douglas have been both awed by his self-confident depth or delay by it. He was proud of his muscular physique and bodily prowess and repeatedly rejected the use of stuntmen and stand-ins, satisfied he may do nearly something the state of affairs required.

Preparing for Champion, he educated for months with a retired prizefighter. He took trumpet classes with Harry James for Young Man With a Horn (though James did the precise taking part in on the movie’s soundtrack). He grew to become a talented horseman and discovered to attract a six-shooter with spectacular velocity, lending authenticity to his Doc Holliday when he and Lancaster, as Wyatt Earp, blazed away on the Clanton gang within the closing shootout in Gunfight on the O.Okay. Corral (1957).

Kirk Douglas Kirk Douglas on the set of the film Once Is Not Enough in Central Park in New York, on April 12, 1974. (Jack Manning/The New York Times)

The Ragman’s Son

The engine that drove Douglas to realize, many times, was his household historical past.

He was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, a small metropolis 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 kids, six of them sisters. By the time he started attending college, the household identify had been modified to Demsky and Issur had grow to be Isadore, promptly incomes him the nickname Izzy.

The city’s mills didn’t rent Jews, so his father, Herschel (often called Harry), grew to become a ragman, a collector and vendor of discarded items. “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,” Douglas wrote. “And I was the ragman’s son.”

A highly effective man who drank closely and obtained into fights, the elder Demsky was typically an absentee father, letting his household fend for itself.

Money for meals was desperately brief a lot of the time, and younger Izzy discovered that survival meant arduous work. He additionally discovered about anti-Semitism. “Kids on every street corner beat you up,” he wrote.

Douglas as soon as estimated that he had held down no less than 40 totally different jobs — amongst them delivering newspapers and washing dishes — earlier than he discovered success in Hollywood. After graduating from highschool, he hitchhiked north to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and was admitted and given a university mortgage.

He grew to become a varsity wrestler there and, regardless of being rejected by fraternities as a result of he was Jewish, was elected president of the scholar physique in his junior 12 months — a primary for the St. Lawrence campus.

By that point he had determined that he needed to be an actor. He obtained a summer season job as a stagehand on the Tamarack Playhouse within the Adirondacks and was given some minor roles. He traveled to New York City to check out for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and carried out properly, however he was instructed no scholarships have been accessible.

A New Name, a New Start

It was on the Tamarack, the summer season after he graduated from school, that he determined to vary his identify legally to one thing he thought extra befitting an actor than Isadore Demsky. (When he selected Douglas, he wrote, “I didn’t realize what a Scottish name I was taking.”)

Returning to New York, he studied appearing for 2 years, performed in summer season inventory and made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again.

The subsequent 12 months he enlisted within the Navy and was educated in anti-submarine warfare. He additionally renewed his friendship with Diana Dill, a younger actress he had met on the American Academy. They married in 1943, simply earlier than he shipped out throughout World War II because the communications officer of Patrol Craft 1139. They had two sons, Michael and Joel, earlier than divorcing in 1951. She died in 2015.

In 1954 Douglas married Anne Buydens, and so they too had two sons, Peter and Eric. All his sons went into the movie business, both appearing or producing. Michael did each.

Eric Douglas died of an unintentional overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs in 2004 on the age of 46.

In addition to his son Michael, Kirk Douglas is survived by his spouse and his two different sons, in addition to 5 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After being injured in an unintentional explosion, Douglas was discharged from the Navy in 1944. He returned to New York, did some stage work after which headed for Hollywood.

He made his display screen debut in 1946 in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, taking part in a weakling who’s witness to a homicide. In a big-name forged that additionally included Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Judith Anderson, Douglas greater than held his personal. He was equally strong in I Walk Alone, a 1948 movie noir through which he performed the heavy within the first of his half-dozen pairings along with his shut pal Burt Lancaster.

But it was the 1949 movie Champion, produced by the younger Stanley Kramer, that made him a star. As Midge Kelly, a ruthless younger prizefighter, he introduced a chilling portrait of ambition run wild and earned his first Oscar nomination.

He needed to wait almost 50 years, nonetheless, earlier than he truly obtained the golden statuette, for lifetime achievement. He by no means received a aggressive Oscar.

The doorways opened extensive for him after Champion. A 12 months later he appeared in Young Man With a Horn, within the title position of a troubled jazz trumpet participant modeled on Bix Beiderbecke.

In brief order got here The Glass Menagerie (1950), the display screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play a few timid younger lady (Jane Wyman) who finds solace in her fantasies, with Douglas because the gentleman caller; Ace within the Hole (1951), through which he performed a cynical reporter manipulating a life-or-death state of affairs; and, additionally in 1951, Detective Story, primarily based on Sidney Kingsley’s play, through which Douglas performed an overzealous New York detective who invitations his personal destruction. Crowther of The Times wrote that Douglas’ efficiency was, “detective-wise, superb.”

Despite his film-star standing and all the trimmings that got here with it — his autobiography chronicles his many sexual conquests — Douglas nonetheless hungered for fulfillment within the theater. As it turned out he had just one extra alternative.

In 1963 he seized the prospect to play the lead position within the Broadway adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s novel about authority and particular person freedom, set in a psychological hospital. Douglas, to blended critiques, performed Randle P. McMurphy, the all-too-sane affected person who’s finally destroyed by the system. (Jack Nicholson performed the half in Milos Forman’s 1975 movie adaptation.)

A few years earlier Douglas, who had labored his method free of a studio contract and shaped his personal firm, Bryna Productions, made waves in Hollywood when he launched into a movie model of Spartacus, Howard Fast’s novel of slave revolt in historical Rome.

He determined not solely to rent Dalton Trumbo — who had been blacklisted throughout the McCarthy period on suspicion of communist sympathies — to jot down the screenplay, but in addition to place Trumbo’s identify within the credit moderately than one of the pseudonyms he had been utilizing.

“We all had been employing the blacklisted writers,” 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 a system.”

(Douglas’ position in Trumbo’s redemption — though some individuals say he overstated it — was dramatized within the 2015 biographical movie Trumbo, a movie he praised, telling The Telegraph of London that “its spirit is true to the man I admired.” Dean O’Gorman performed Douglas.)

Spartacus, launched in 1960, was Douglas’ third blood-and-thunder spectacle set within the historical previous. In Ulysses (1955), as Homer’s wandering hero, he survived legendary perils to return to his trustworthy Penelope (Silvana Mangano). In The Vikings (1958), he and Tony Curtis have been forged as half brothers who, ignorant of their blood ties, battle for management of a Norse kingdom. And in Spartacus it was Douglas, within the title position, who led his rebellious fellow slaves in opposition to the Roman legions (performed by 5,000 Spanish troopers).

One of the final cast-of-thousands spectacles to return out of Hollywood, Spartacus was notable as properly for its worldwide forged, which included Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, and for its proficient younger director, Stanley Kubrick, who had additionally directed Douglas in Paths of Glory. Most critics weren’t impressed, however the film’s recognition has been lengthy lasting. It was restored and rereleased in 1991.

Of all his movies, Douglas was proudest of Lonely Are the Brave, additionally written by Trumbo, which Douglas insisted on making on a small budget and in opposition to studio recommendation. “I love the theme,” he stated, “that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you.”

Douglas made many extra movies within the years forward, however none fairly lived as much as his work of the 1950s and early ’60s. There have been extra 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 final film he made with Burt Lancaster.

There have been extra army roles. He was an Air Force colonel who foils an anti-government plot in Seven Days in May, a 1964 Cold War thriller that additionally 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 performed Gen. George S. Patton, and in The Final Countdown (1980) he commanded a nuclear-powered plane service.

As fewer movie roles got here his method, Douglas turned to tv. In the HBO film Draw! (1984), he was an growing old outlaw pitted in opposition to James Coburn as a drunken sheriff. In the CBS film Amos (1985), he was a feisty nursing-home resident battling a tyrannical nurse performed by Elizabeth Montgomery.

Kirk Douglas dead Kirk Douglas presents the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role on the 83rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 27, 2011. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

Setbacks and Triumphs

There have been setbacks in his private life. In 1986 Douglas was fitted with a pacemaker to right an irregular heartbeat. In 1991 he survived a helicopter crash that left two different individuals useless. In January 1996 he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with severely impaired speech and melancholy so deep, he later stated, that he thought-about suicide.

But he fought his method again, and by March he was in a position to seem on the Academy Awards ceremony, talking haltingly, to simply accept an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

By then he may add that statuette to his different lifetime awards: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, introduced by President Jimmy Carter simply days earlier than Carter left workplace in 1981, and a Kennedy Center Honors award, introduced in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

In addition to appearing and producing, Douglas discovered time to jot down. Besides The Ragman’s Son, he was the writer of a quantity of books, together with the novels Dance With the Devil, The Gift and Last Tango in Brooklyn. Besides his ebook on Spartacus, his memoirs embrace My Stroke of Luck (2001), about his restoration 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 along with his spouse to construct 400 playgrounds in Los Angeles and establishing the Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women, for the therapy of drug and alcohol dependancy; the Kirk Douglas High School, a program to assist troubled college students end their training; and the Kirk Douglas Theater, to nurture younger theatrical artists.

In 2015, on his 99th birthday, he and his spouse donated $15 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills towards the development of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion, a $35 million facility for the care of individuals within the trade with Alzheimer’s illness.

Douglas’ comeback from sickness prolonged to appearing as properly. In 1999, at 83, he starred within the comedy Diamonds, taking part in a former boxing champion who, whereas recovering from a stroke, embarks on a hunt for lacking jewels. It was his first movie look since his sickness. Critics judged the film forgettable, however Stephen Holden, writing in The Times, discovered Douglas’ “hard, gleaming performance” a saving grace.

The final movies through which he starred shared one thing of a theme: the reconciliation between fathers and sons. One was a comedy, It Runs within the Family (2003), through which his son was performed by his precise son Michael. The different was the drama Illusion (2004), through which he performed an ailing father in search of his estranged son.

Perhaps, collectively, they have been a becoming finale for the ragman’s son, an actor whose boyhood poverty and absent father have been by no means removed from his thoughts. “That’s what it’s all about,” he stated in describing what had pushed him. “That’s the core, that early part of you.”

Also Read | Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas passes away | Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito and others pay tribute to Kirk Douglas | A pictorial tribute to Spartacus actor Kirk Douglas

He additionally reconciled himself to superior age. In 2008, in an 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.”

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