His rugged good looks and muscular intensity made him a commanding presence in films like “Lust for Life,” “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory.”
The Times movie critic A.O. Scott looks back at the career of the actor Kirk Douglas. Mr. Douglas achieved enormous success in the 1950s and ’60s and was comfortable in a variety of genres.CreditCredit...Jack Manning/The New York Times
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.
Kirk Douglas in 1974 on the set of the movie “Once Is Not Enough” in Central Park. At the height of his career he was as big a star as there was.Credit...Jack Manning/The New York Times
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 of France.
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 good indeed.
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.
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.
Mr. Douglas was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 movie “Lust for Life.” “I felt myself going over the line, into the skin of van Gogh,” he wrote in his autobiography. The experience was so frightening, he said, that for a long time he was reluctant to watch the film.Credit...Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via Associated Press
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 the surface.
“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 the film.
“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 shuffling gait.”
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.
It was the 1949 film “Champion” that made Mr. Douglas a star. Preparing for the movie, he trained for months with a retired prizefighter. Credit...United Artists, via Associated Press
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 family history.
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 nickname Izzy.
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.
Mr. Douglas in 1959 with his sons, clockwise from top left, Michael, Joel, Peter and Eric. All his sons went into the film business.Credit...Associated Press
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.
Eric Douglas died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription pills in 2004 at the age of 46.
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.
From left, Horace McMahon, William Bendix and Mr. Douglas in the 1951 film “Detective Story.” Mr. Douglas was praised for his portrayal of an overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction.Credit...Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press
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 Oscar.
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, “detective-wise, superb.”
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.
Mr. Douglas, left, and Woody Strode in “Spartacus,” one of Mr. Douglas’s best-known films and one of the last cast-of-thousands spectacles to come out of Hollywood.Credit...Universal Pictures, via Associated Press
“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 a system.”
(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.
Critics praised Mr. Douglas’s work in “Paths of Glory” as a French colonel in World War I trying vainly to prevent the execution of three innocent soldiers.Credit...United Artists, via Photofest
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 Elizabeth Montgomery.
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.
President Jimmy Carter awarded Mr. Douglas the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during a ceremony at the White House in 1981.Credit...Ira Schwarz/Associated Press
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 suffered a debilitating stroke in January 1996. But he fought his way back, and by March of that year he was able to appear at the Academy Awards ceremony to accept an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.Credit...Tim Clary/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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.”