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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. actor and philanthropist Kirk Douglas

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. actor and philanthropist Kirk Douglas
Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

American actor, producer, director, author, and philanthropist Kirk Douglas has died. Son and fellow actor Michael Douglas confirmed his father’s passing in a statement to People Magazine: “It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103. 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 [Zeta-Jones], a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.”

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York in 1916. His parents—Bryna and Herschel Danielovitch—were Jewish immigrants, having recently migrated from the Russian Empire. With six daughters, one baby son, and not much money to speak of, the family lived in poverty. To survive, Douglas’s father worked as a literal “ragman,” a trader who bought old rags and scrap metal to resell for pennies.

It was in this harsh environment that Douglas learned the value of compassion and generosity, themes that would emerge repeatedly in his life (from helping break the Hollywood blacklist in the 1960s to becoming a philanthropist throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s). In an Interview Magazine article from 2012, Douglas stated, “When I was a kid, we would be in our little room and there would be a knock on the door almost every night with a hobo begging for food. Even though we didn’t even have enough to eat, my mother always found something to give them. And she said something to me that I never forgot. She said, ‘A beggar must always give to another beggar that’s worse off than he is.’”


As a young man, Douglas (then called Izzy Demsky) took odd jobs to help support his family. He discovered a passion for acting in high school plays, and later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. It was here he made a number of connections that would help launch his career, including meeting and briefly dating a young Lauren Bacall (who wrote in a memoir that she “had a wild crush on Kirk” at the time).

In 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Douglas enrolled in the U.S. Navy (which is also when he changed his name to Kirk Douglas). He was discharged in 1944 for injuries. After returning to civilian life in New York City, he found a wide variety of acting work, primarily on the stage, but also in radio, commercials, and soap operas. It was in the mid-1940s when his friendship with Lauren Bacall came to change the course of his life. Through industry connections, she helped him land his first film role in the 1946 picture The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It was the start of prolific film acting career.

His role as a “tough guy” was cemented in 1949’s Champion. Playing a self-centered boxer, Douglas put his signature strong jawline and steely gaze to good use. Critics called his portrayal “alarmingly authentic ” and it earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

Douglas’ intensity carried him through a huge variety of roles, and nowhere was it captured more vividly than in a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert . There, the late, great critic wrote: “Douglas was filled with nervous energy, raw vitality. He couldn’t remain still. It was in a sense actually wearying to be caged in a room with so much restlessness.”


This exuberance is also illuminated in arguably one of the greatest casting jobs in cinema history: Douglas’ role as Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 film Lust for Life. Looking remarkably like van Gogh’s self-portraits, Douglas’ performance captured the passion and the agony of the tortured painter. Again nominated, but not winning, an Academy Award for the role, Douglas would later describe playing the artist as harrowing: “Not only did I look like van Gogh, I was the same age he was when he committed suicide.”

In the 1960s, after Douglas had married and divorced his first wife, fathered two children (future actor Michael and future producer Joel Douglas), and starred in nearly 30 films, he did some really impressive things. Having established Bryna Productions in 1955 (naming the company after his mother), and produced films throughout in the late 1950s, Douglas began the new decade by producing and starring in the historical drama Spartacus.


As executive producer on Spartacus, Douglas raised the $12 million in funds needed to execute the sprawling epic. He also handpicked the talent that would bring the film to life. Having collaborated on Paths of Glory in 1957 with a little-known director named Stanley Kubrick, he again championed Kubrick to direct this newest project . When it came to writing the screenplay, Douglas wanted only the best talent that Hollywood had to offer. To him, that talent resided in the blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo, who was living in exile in Mexico following a prison sentence for refusing to testify about his alleged ties to the Communist party.

Douglas took a huge risk in taking on Trumbo as screenwriter. Though Trumbo wrote the script under a pseudonym, Douglas insisted on using the author’s real name in the credits of the film. This act was the straw that effectively broke the blacklist’s back.


Speaking of the events in the 2012 Interview Magazine article, Douglas said, “I think because I was young enough I had more guts [than Trumbo]—when you’re older, you have more to lose. […] I’m proud of using his name and breaking the blacklist. That was a terrible time in Hollywood history. It should never have happened. We should have fought it. But it’s over and I, in my old age, take solace in the fact that I remember.”

Throughout the rest of the decade, Douglas made a number of other pictures, including a comedic turn in 1963’s For Love or Money. Also in 1963, he adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a Broadway play, having purchased the rights from author Ken Kesey. He would eventually give the rights to his son Michael Douglas, who produced the Academy Award-winning 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

From the 1970s through the early 2000s, Douglas put in nearly 40 film and television appearances. In 1991, he survived a helicopter crash that killed two and injured three. Following the ordeal, he began to reconnect with Judaism, the religion in which he was raised . In 1996 he suffered a stroke that significantly impaired his speaking ability. Determined not to lose his primary acting instrument, Douglas dove headfirst into extensive speech therapy, and managed to retain his voice. He was even able to address the audience while accepting an honorary Academy Award that same year. He went on to write a book (My Stroke of Luck) about the experience—not just to work through the trauma, but to help others recovering from strokes, as he recounted in a 2001 interview with Ability.


Throughout the years, Douglas and his wife Anne Buydens became active philanthropists. In 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter for his global goodwill efforts. More recently, Douglas and his wife donated funds to establish a center for helping the homeless women of Los Angeles get back on their feet; donated $2.3 million to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; and donated $15 million to the MPTF to build an Alzheimer’s care facility.

In his post-acting years, Douglas blogged semi-regularly for the Huffington Post (making him one of the world’s oldest celebrity bloggers) and wrote several memoirs. His eleventh and latest book was a volume of poetry, prose, and photographs playfully titled Life Could Be Verse . He remained the beloved and outspoken figurehead of his family, appearing in interviews and at his 99th birthday celebration.


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