Kirk Douglas obituary: Ragman’s son who became a Hollywood superstar

Actor known for celebrated films like Spartacus and Paths of Glory died aged 103

Kirk Douglas
Born: December 9th, 1916
Died: February 5th, 2020

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, California. He was 103.

His son actor Michael Douglas announced the death in a statement on his Facebook page. 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 on stage 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 1960s.


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 recognisable: the jutting jaw, the dimpled chin, the piercing gaze and the breaking voice, the last making him irresistible fodder for comedians who specialised in impressions.

Douglas created a niche for himself, specialising in characters with a hard edge and something a little unsavoury about them

In his heyday 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 recognise 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 the first World War trying vainly to prevent the execution of three innocent soldiers, and Lonely Are the Brave (1962), an offbeat Western about an ageing cowboy.

Early on Douglas created a niche for himself, specialising in characters with a hard edge and something a little unsavoury 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 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.”

The engine that drove Douglas to achieve, again and again, was his family history. He was born Issur Danielovitch on December 9th, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, 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,” 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. 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, New York, 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 travelled 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 the 1949 film Champion, produced by the young Stanley Kramer, that made him a star

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 realise 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 anti-submarine 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 the second World War 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 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, Kirk 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, 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, 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.

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. 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 modelled on Bix Beiderbecke. In short order came The Glass Menagerie (1950), the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play about a timid young woman (Jane Wyman) who finds solace in her fantasies, with 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 Douglas played an overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction. Crowther of The New York Times wrote that Douglas’ 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 – Douglas still hungered for success in the theatre. 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. Douglas, to mixed reviews, played Randle P McMurphy, the all-too-sane patient who is ultimately destroyed by the system.

A few years earlier 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 Trumbo's name in the credits rather than one of the pseudonyms he had been using.

Spartacus, released in 1960, was Douglas' third blood-and-thunder spectacle set in the ancient past

“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.”

Spartacus, released in 1960, was Douglas' 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 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 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, Douglas was proudest of Lonely Are the Brave, also written by Trumbo, which 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.”

There were setbacks in his personal life. In 1986 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 US president Jimmy Carter just days before Carter left office in 1981, and a Kennedy Center Honors award, presented in 1994 by president Bill Clinton.

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", 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." – New York Times