Kirk Douglas, 1916–2020
The Spartacus star who blazed his own path in Hollywood
With a barrel chest, a chiseled jaw, and a brute intensity, Kirk Douglas did much to define big-screen masculinity in the postwar years. The actor, who rose from destitution to become one of the biggest stars of any era, created something of a rogue’s gallery in his 87 films, specializing in what he called “tough sons of bitches.” They included a sadistic New York cop in Detective Story (1951), a ruthless Hollywood producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and, in his most enduring role, the leader of a Roman slave revolt in the epic Spartacus (1960). His characters weren’t all tough guys; one of his most acclaimed performances was as the troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). But moral complexity was a consistent theme for Douglas, who once said his work was fueled by anger. “I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” he said. “I don’t find virtue photogenic.”
He was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, N.Y., one of seven children of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants, said The New York Times. His rag dealer father “drank heavily and got into fights,” and the family was often left to fend for itself. “Young Izzy learned that survival meant hard work”; Douglas would hold down some 40 jobs—including as a janitor, gardener, and steelworker—before finding success in Hollywood. After graduating from high school, he worked his way through St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., said The Guardian (U.K.), “then found employment as a professional wrestler” while he studied Method acting in New York City. There he met the aspiring actress Lauren Bacall, and his first wife, Diana Dill, mother to his sons Joel and the actor Michael Douglas. Using the name George Spelvin Jr., he made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again.
After two years in the Navy in World War II, the newly named Kirk Douglas made his way to Hollywood, said The Washington Post. He landed his first film role on the recommendation of Bacall, then made his breakthrough as a cutthroat prizefighter in 1949’s The Champion. His agent objected, considering the movie small-time, but Douglas related to a character “struggling for respectability” and tore off his shirt while auditioning to show his muscles. The movie was a surprise hit, earning Douglas an Oscar nomination. Fed up with being treated as “a studio poodle,” in 1955 he “became one of the first actors in postwar Hollywood to establish his own production company,” said The Times (U.K.). He hired little-known director Stanley Kubrick to helm the acclaimed World War I drama Paths of Glory in 1957 and brought him back for Spartacus. Douglas insisted that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—who had been blacklisted for suspected communist sympathies—appear in that film’s credits. When Spartacus became a hit, it effectively killed the Hollywood blacklist. “I think that it is the most important thing I’ve done in my career,” said Douglas.
A prodigious womanizer—he had affairs with actresses Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, and Ava Gardner—Douglas was described by his first wife as a “sexually voracious bird of prey,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). They divorced in 1951, and three years later he married producer Anne Buydens; the couple had two sons, producer Peter and actor Eric, and Douglas called the relationship “one of Hollywood’s happiest marriages.” His later years were shaped by a series of traumatic incidents, said the Los Angeles Times. Douglas was injured in a 1991 helicopter crash that left two people dead, and five years later suffered a stroke, which damaged his speech and “threw him into a deep depression.” In 2004, his son Eric died of an accidental drug overdose. Douglas threw himself into philanthropy, building school playgrounds in underprivileged areas, a facility for Alzheimer’s patients, and a substance abuse treatment center. Douglas said he gave scant consideration to how he’d be remembered. “When a dog dies, does he go to heaven?” he said. “No, you only go around once and just hope you get the brass ring. The rest is ego.” ■