One of the last living people of the Golden Age of film, cited The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and The Bad and the Beautiful among his favorites.
Mourning Becomes Electra
I Walk Alone
The Walls of Jericho
My Dear Secretary
Young Man with a Horn
The Glass Menagerie
Along the Great Divide
The Big Trees
The Big Sky
The Story of Three Loves
Act of Love
Man Without a Star
The Indian Fighter
Top Secret Affair
Last Train from Gun Hill
The Devil’s Disciple
Strangers When We Meet
Town Without Pity
The Last Sunset
Lonely Are the Brave
Two Weeks in Another Town
The List of Adrian Messenger
For Love or Money
The Heroes of Telemark
Cast a Giant Shadow
Is Paris Burning?
The Way West
The War Wagon
A Lovely Way to Die
There Was a Crooked Man…
To Catch a Spy
The Light at the Edge of the World
The Master Touch
Once Is Not Enough
The Final Countdown
The Man from Snowy River
Remembrance of Love
Eddie Macon’s Run
Veraz/Welcome to Veraz
It Runs in the Family
If the good guy gets the girl, it’s rated PG; If the bad guy gets the girl, it’s rated R; and if everybody gets the girl, it’s rated X. ~ Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the son of Bryna “Bertha” (née Sanglel; 1884–1958) and Herschel “Harry” Danielovitch (c. 1884–1950). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Chavusy, Mogilev Region, in the Russian Empire (present-day Belarus).
His father’s brother, who emigrated earlier, used the surname Demsky, which Douglas’s family adopted in the United States. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the United States Navy during World War II.
Growing up, Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread to help his family. Later, he delivered newspapers and during his youth worked at more than forty different jobs before getting a job acting.
In high school, after acting in plays, he then knew he wanted to become a professional actor. Unable to afford the tuition, Douglas talked his way into the dean’s office at St. Lawrence University and showed him a list of his high school honors. He received a loan which he paid back by working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team and wrestled one summer in a carnival to make money.
Douglas’s acting talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, which gave him a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (later to become better known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career. Another classmate, and a friend of Bacall’s, was aspiring actress Diana Dill, who would later become Douglas’s first wife.
He enlisted in the United States Navy in 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, where he served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare. He was medically discharged for war injuries in 1944.
He married Diana Dill on November 2, 1943. They had two sons, Michael in 1944 and Joel in 1947, before they divorced in 1951.
After the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio, theater and commercials. In his radio work, he acted in a number of network soap operas, and sees those experiences as being especially valuable, as skill in using one’s voice is important for aspiring actors, and regrets that the same avenues are no longer open to them. His stage break occurred when he took over the role played by Richard Widmark in Kiss and Tell (1943), which then led to other offers.
Douglas had planned to remain a stage actor, until his friend, Lauren Bacall, helped him get his first film role by recommending him to director Hal Wallis, who was looking for a new male talent. Wallis’s film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), with Barbara Stanwyck, became Douglas’s debut screen appearance. He played a young, insecure man, stung with jealousy, whose life was dominated by a ruthless older woman, and he hid his feelings with alcohol. It would be the last time that Douglas portrayed a weakling in a film role.
Douglas’s image as a tough guy was established in his eighth film, Champion (1949), after producer Stanley Kramer chose him to play a selfish boxer. In accepting the role, he took a gamble, however, since he had to turn down an offer to star in a big-budget MGM film, The Great Sinner, which would have earned him three times the income.
Douglas received his first Academy Award nomination and the film earned six nominations in all. From that film on, he decided that to succeed as a star, he needed to ramp up his intensity, overcome his natural shyness, and choose stronger roles.
Early in his Hollywood career, he demonstrated his independent streak and broke his studio contracts to gain total control over his projects, forming his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother. In 1947 Douglas made Out of the Past (UK: Build My Gallows High). He starred in this film with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1949 in Three Sisters, produced by Katharine Cornell.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Douglas was a major box-office star, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era. He played a frontier peace officer in his first western Along the Great Divide (1951). He quickly became very comfortable with riding horses and playing gunslingers, and appeared in many westerns. He considers Lonely Are the Brave (1962), in which he plays a cowboy trying to live by his own code, as his personal favorite. The film, written by Dalton Trumbo, was respected by critics, but did not do well at the box office due to poor marketing and distribution.
In 1950, Douglas played Rick Martin in Young Man with a Horn, based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz cornet player. Doris Day starred as Jo, a young woman who was infatuated with the struggling jazz musician. This was strikingly opposite of the real-life account in Doris Day’s autobiography, which described Douglas as “civil but self-centered” and the film as “utterly joyless”. During filming, bit actress Jean Spangler disappeared and her case remains unsolved. On October 9, 1949, Spangler’s purse was found near the Fern Dell entrance to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. There was an unfinished note in the purse addressed to a “Kirk,” which read: “Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,” Douglas was vacationing in Palm Springs when he heard about the disappearance; he called the police and told them he was not the Kirk mentioned in the note. Spangler’s girlfriends told police that she was three months pregnant when she disappeared and that she had talked about having an abortion, which was illegal at that time.
In 1951, Douglas starred as a newspaper reporter anxiously looking for a big story in Ace in the Hole, director Billy Wilder’s first effort as both writer and producer. The subject and story was controversial at the time, and U.S. audiences stayed away. As the film’s star and protagonist, Douglas is credited for the intensity of his acting.
Also in 1951, Douglas starred in Detective Story, nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Lee Grant in her debut film. To prepare for the role, he spent days with the New York police department and sat in on interrogations.
In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), another of his three Oscar-nominated roles, Douglas plays a hard-nosed film producer who manipulates and uses his actors, writers, and directors. In 1954 Douglas starred in Ulysses (1954 film) from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey , with Silvana Mangano as Penelope and Circe, and Anthony Quinn playing Antinous. The film director Mario Camerini co-wrote the screenplay with writer Franco Brusati.
In one of his earliest television appearances, Douglas was a musical guest (as himself) on The Jack Benny Program (1954). In 1955, Douglas formed his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother. To do so, he had to break contracts with Hal Wallis and Warner Brothers, but began producing and starring in his own films, including Paths of Glory (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964).
While Paths of Glory did not do well at the box office, it has since become one of the great anti-war films, and one of early films by director Stanley Kubrick.
Douglas played military men in numerous films, with varying nuance, including Top Secret Affair (1957), Town Without Pity (1961), The Hook (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Heroes of Telemark (1965), In Harm’s Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Is Paris Burning (1966), The Final Countdown (1980) and Saturn 3 (1980). His distinctive acting style and delivery made him a favorite with television impersonators such as Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and David Frye.
His role as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on Irving Stone’s best-seller, was filmed mostly on location in France. Douglas was noted not only for the veracity of van Gogh’s appearance but for how he conveyed the painter’s internal turmoil. Some reviewers consider it the most famous example of the “tortured artist” who seeks solace from life’s pain through his work. Others see it as a portrayal not only of the “painter-as-hero,” but a unique presentation of the “action painter,” with Douglas expressing the physicality and emotion of painting, as he uses the canvas to capture a moment in time.
Douglas was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, with his costar Anthony Quinn winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Paul Gauguin, van Gogh’s friend. Douglas won a Golden Globe award, although Minnelli said Douglas should have won an Oscar. Douglas himself called his acting role as Van Gogh a painful experience.
In 1960 Douglas played the lead role in what many consider his career defining role of the Thracian slave rebel Spartacus with an all-star cast in Spartacus (1960). He was the executive producer as well, raising the $12 million production cost, making it one of the most expensive films made up to that time. Douglas initially selected Anthony Mann to direct, but replaced him early on with Stanley Kubrick, with whom he previously collaborated in Paths of Glory.
When the film was released, Douglas gave full credit to its screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood blacklist, and thereby effectively ended it.
In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Douglas showed that in addition to serious, driven characters, he was adept at roles requiring a lighter, comic touch. In this adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, he played a happy-go-lucky sailor who was the opposite in every way to the brooding Captain Nemo (James Mason). The film was one of Walt Disney’s most successful live-action movies and a major box-office hit. He managed a similar comic turn in the western Man Without a Star (1955) and in For Love or Money (1963).
Douglas bought the rights to the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from its author, Ken Kesey. He turned it into a play in 1963 in which he starred, and it ran on Broadway for five months. Reviews were mixed. Douglas retained the movie rights, but after a decade of being unable to find a producer, gave the rights to his son, Michael. In 1975, the film version was produced by Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, and starred Jack Nicholson, as Douglas was then considered too old to play the character as written. It won five Academy Awards, including one for Nicholson.
Douglas made seven films over the decades with Burt Lancaster: I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these movies but, with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were more or less the same size. Both actors arrived in Hollywood at the same time, and first appeared together in the fourth film for each, albeit with Douglas in a supporting role. They both became actor-producers who sought out independent Hollywood careers.
In The Arrangement (1969), a drama directed by Elia Kazan, based upon his novel of the same title, Douglas starred as a tormented advertising executive, with Faye Dunaway as costar. The film did poorly at the box office, receiving mostly negative reviews
Between 1970 and 2008, Douglas made nearly 40 movies and appeared on various television shows. In 1970, he starred in a western, There Was a Crooked Man…, alongside Henry Fonda. The film was produced and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In 1973, he directed his first film, Scalawag. Also in 1973, Douglas appeared in a made-for-TV musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
He returned to the director’s chair for Posse (1975), in which he starred alongside Bruce Dern. In 1978, he costarred with John Cassavetes and Amy Irving in a horror film, The Fury, directed by Brian De Palma. In 1980, he starred in The Final Countdown, playing the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which travels through time to the day before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It was produced by his son Peter Douglas. In 1982, he starred in The Man from Snowy River, an Australian film which received critical acclaim and numerous awards. In 1986, he reunited with his longtime costar, Burt Lancaster, in a crime comedy, Tough Guys, which included Charles Durning and Eli Wallach. It marked the final collaboration between Douglas and Lancaster, completing a partnership of more than 40 years.
In 1986, he co-hosted (with Angela Lansbury) the New York Philharmonic’s tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The symphony was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
In 1988, Douglas starred in a television adaptation of Inherit the Wind, opposite Jason Robards and Jean Simmons. The film won two Emmy Awards. In the 1990s, Douglas continued starring in various features. Among them was The Secret in 1992, a television movie about a grandfather and his grandson who both struggle with dyslexia. That same year, he played the uncle of Michael J. Fox in a comedy, Greedy. He appeared as the Devil in the video for the Don Henley song “The Garden of Allah”.
On January 28, 1996, he suffered a severe stroke, impairing his ability to speak. Doctors told his wife that unless there was rapid improvement, the loss of the ability to speak was likely permanent. After a regime of daily speech-language therapy that lasted several months, his ability to speak returned, although it was still limited. He was able to accept an honorary Academy Award two months later in March and thank the audience. He wrote about this experience in a book, My Stroke of Luck, which he hoped would be an “operating manual” for others on how to handle a stroke victim in their own family.
He underwent years of voice therapy and made Diamonds in 1999, in which he played an old prizefighter who was recovering from a stroke. It costarred his longtime friend from his early years, Lauren Bacall.
In 2003, Michael and Joel Douglas produced It Runs in the Family, which along with Kirk starred various family members, including Michael, Michael’s son, and his wife from 50 years earlier, Diana Dill, playing his wife. In March 2009, Douglas did an autobiographical one-man show, Before I Forget, at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. The four performances were filmed and turned into a documentary that was first screened in January 2010
Douglas married twice, first to Diana Dill, on November 2, 1943; they divorced in 1951. The couple had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas. Afterwards, in Paris, he met producer Anne Buydens (born Hannelore Marx; April 23, 1919, Hanover, Germany) while acting on location in Lust for Life.
She originally fled from Germany to escape Nazism and survived by putting her multilingual skills to work at a film studio, doing translations for subtitles. They married on May 29, 1954. In 2014 they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. They had two sons, Peter, a producer, and Eric, an actor. Eric Douglas died on July 6, 2004 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs.
In a 2014 article, Douglas cited The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Champion, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Love, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Indian Fighter, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, and Seven Days in May as the films he was most proud of throughout his acting career.
On December 9, 2016, Douglas became a centenarian. He celebrated his 100th birthday at the Beverly Hills Hotel, joined by several of his friends and family, including Don Rickles, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, his wife Anne, his son Michael and his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones. Douglas was described by his guests as being still in good shape, able to walk with confidence into the Sunset Room for the celebration.