One of my favourite Hollywood actors died last week at the age of 103. My earliest recollection of Kirk Douglas was in the 1960 epic historical movie Spartacus in which he played the title role, inspired by the life story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in Roman antiquity, and the events of the Third Servile War.
With his distinctive voice, strapping physique, cleft chin and his display of courage, bravery and leadership in the movie, to me he was my hero and quintessential man of honour to the end.
Born on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Douglas grew up poor. His father who had been a horse trader in Russia got himself a horse and a small wagon and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels and dimes. Living with an alcoholic and physically abusive father, Douglas had an unhappy childhood. While his father drank up the little money they had, he and his mother and sisters endured crippling poverty.
While in kindergarten Douglas recited the poem The Red Robin of Spring to great applause and he decided he wanted to be an actor. Growing up, he sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread for his family. Later, in his youth he delivered newspapers and held more than 40 jobs before he became an actor. He supported himself while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
When he enlisted in the US Navy during World War II, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas and was medically discharged in 1944 for injuries sustained from the accidental dropping of a depth charge.
After a brief stint on Broadway, Douglas made his first Hollywood film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring with Barbara Stanwyck. Three years later, he gave a breakthrough performance as a boxer who stops at nothing to make it to the top in Champion (1949). He amazed audiences and critics alike in his portrayal of Midge Kelly in the film, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
A much sought-after actor, Douglas worked with many leading directors, including Billy Wilder for 1951’s Ace in the Hole. However, it was his work with Vincente Minnelli that led to two of his greatest performances: morally bankrupt movie executive Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and troubled artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). Douglas earned an Academy Award nomination for each of those films.
In addition to his critical acclaim, Douglas was also a big box office hit. Over the years, he often appeared with his friend and fellow Hollywood heavyweight Burt Lancaster, in such movies as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), a Western drama, The Devil’s Disciple (1959) and Seven Days in May (1964). Working with director Stanley Kubrick, he also starred in the World War I drama Paths of Glory (1957).
In producing Spartacus, Douglas also challenged the practice of blacklisting certain Hollywood figures over their possible Communist leanings in a hangover of McCarthyism. He hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus under his name, effectively ending the blacklist. Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, turned out a number of screenplays under various pseudonyms during the more than 10 years he was blacklisted but, was later given full credit for his work, including two Academy Awards.
In the 1970s, Douglas tried his hand at directing, but met with little success. Two of his editorial efforts that decade, Scalawag (1973) and Posse (1975), failed to make much of an impression on movie fans. Around the same time, his acting career stalled.
While one phase of his life was slowing down, another was beginning to blossom. In 1988, Douglas shared his life story in the best-selling autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. He also showed a talent for fiction writing, producing such works as Dance with the Devil (1990) and The Gift (1992). One of his nonfiction works, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (1997), was published after Douglas experienced a near-fatal stroke in 1995. He followed that up with My Stroke of Luck in 2003.
Douglas did not let his stroke slow him down for long, though it affected his speech, he continued to act starring in the 1999 comedy Diamonds, making a guest appearance on Touched by an Angel in 2000, and co-starring with son Michael in the drama, It Runs in the Family (2003). He continued to write biographical works in later years, including Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning (2007).
In 2009, Douglas mounted a one-man show on stage, sharing his 60 years of filmmaking and personal life with theatre-goers in Before I Forget in which he was praised for “uncensored candour”.
Douglas also devoted much of his life to philanthropic work. Through the Douglas Foundation, he and his second wife Anne gave away millions to numerous worthy causes. I understand that much of his $61 million fortune was left to charity and none went to his son Michael. Michael himself is worth more than $300 million so it’s not like he needed the money.
In 2015, Douglas told reporters that he watched his mother give away food to others in need even when the family did not have enough for themselves. “My mother said to me, ‘you must take care of other people.’ That stayed with me.”
The life journey of Kirk Douglas is truly one of “from rags to riches” filled with courage and determination but tempered with humility, love, philanthropy and that enduring spirit of never giving up.
I am sure you are in a special place my namesake. Rest in peace.