Hollywood Legend Kirk Douglas Dies at 103

Kirk Douglas, an icon of Hollywood's Golden Age, was as heroic as some of the characters he played.

Stage and screen actor, producer, director and writer Kirk Douglas, whose career spanned more than 60 years, died Wednesday at the age of 103, according to Variety.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his son, actor Michael Douglas, said in a statement.

To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband. Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet.”

One of the last surviving stars of the Hollywood’s Golden Age, Douglas was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar three times: For the 1949 film Champion, 1952’s Bad & the Beautiful, and for his role as artist Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life, which came out in 1956. But he is probably best known for his starring role in Spartacus.  

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film about the doomed Roman slave revolution leader helped end the tyranny of the McCarthy Era. Producer Douglas insisted blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo get onscreen credit for his screenplay. The ACLU awarded Douglas a Bill of Rights Award “for having the courage and conviction to break the infamous Hollywood blacklist and forcing the full recognition of one of its victims.” The 1960 film became Universal’s biggest box office hit, and it would take over a decade before another film beat it.

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Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y. Douglas was the fourth child and only son out of six girls, of Russian-Jewish immigrants Herschel and Bryna Danielovich. Kirk would go on to name his production company The Bryna Company after his mother in 1955. The first film the company produced was the classic 1957 World War I anti-war drama Paths of Glory, directed by Kubrick.

The Danielovitch family was poor and Kirk worked dozens of jobs from a very young age. After graduating high school, Kirk hitchhiked 125 miles to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., before he secured a scholarship. He worked as a janitor and groundskeeper before getting a full athletic scholarship as part of the wrestling team. He was elected student-body president in his senior year.

Douglas, who wrote in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son that wanted to be an actor after getting cheered for reciting the poem “The Red Robin of Spring” in kindergarten, got a special scholarship to joing the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Classmate Lauren Bacall later helped get him the screen test that led to his first film role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck. Kirk also met actress Diana Dill, who would become his first wife, at the academy. Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1941 in Spring Again.

Douglas joined the United States Navy in 1941 and was stationed aboard USS PC-1137 as an anti-submarine warfare communications officer. He was honorably discharged after being injured in a depth charge accident. He returned to Broadway in the comedy Kiss and Tell, replacing Richard Widmark. He also acted onstage in the drama Trio.

Among Kirk’s earliest films were supporting roles in Jacques Tourneur’s film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and A Letter to Three Wives, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1949. Douglas’ breakthrough role was as the lead in the 1949 low-budget picture Champion, directed by Mark Robson. He played a ruthless boxer and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. The film led to a seven-year deal with Warner Bros., who cast him in such films as Young Man with a Horn and The Glass Menagerie. He starred in Howard Hawks’ western The Big Sky for RKO, and Disney’s 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Douglas produced and starred in the box office hit The Vikings in 1958.

Douglas co-starred with Burt Lancaster for the first time in the 1948 film I Walk Alone. They would go on to work on six films together including the western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) where Douglas played gunman Doc Holliday to Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp, The Devil’s Disciple (1959), John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), and John Frankenheimer’s 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May. They would reteam later for the films Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986).

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Douglas didn’t always play heroes. He played a sleazy reporter in Billy Wilder’s 1951 film The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and a sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He starred in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965), and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). Douglas starred with John Wayne in the 1967 western The War Wagon.

In the seventies Douglas starred in such films as Once Is Not Enough (1975), and Brian de Palma’s horror film The Fury (1978). He appeared in the 1980 science-fiction time-travel film The Final Countdown. Kirk played the title role in the TV movie Amos (1985), and played William Jennings Bryan in the 1988 television adaptation of the stage play Inherit the Wind. Douglas put on the one-man stage show Before I Forget in 2009.

As an author, Douglas wrote the fiction books Dance with the Devil (1990) and The Gift (1992), the nonfiction books Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (1997), and My Stroke of Luck (2003), and the biographical works Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning (2007) and I am Spartacus! The Making of a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (2012).

Douglas only played his dream role live. In 1964, Douglas bought the film and theatrical rights to Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He starred as Randall McMurphy in a New York stage adaptation. The role eventually went to Jack Nicholson after his son Michael Douglas produced the film version that swept the Oscars in 1975.

Legend is an overused word, but it is an understatement when it comes to Kirk Douglas.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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