To say that someone’s life was “like a movie” -- especially an actor’s -- veers dangerously close to cliché, but there’s no denying the fact that Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas’ story couldn’t have been scripted any better.
“My life -- a B picture. And yet my life is an American life,” Douglas told Roger Ebert during an interview in 1969. “Because the real American life, the typical one, is a B picture. Like mine -- the kid who worked up from abject poverty to become the champion. But you got to fight!”
Douglas died on Tuesday at the age of 103, his son, Michael Douglas, confirmed in a statement to People.
"It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103," Michael said. "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, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband."
"Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet," he added. "Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son."
Douglas rose from humble upbringings in upstate New York to become one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, withstood professional struggles and personal tragedy in his second act, and became an ambassador, philanthropist and best-selling author well into his 90s, never losing the indefatigable spirit that made him a success on stage and screen.
“My dad is an icon. He’s a legend. He’s a true movie star from an era when movie stars were looked at as our version of royalty, and Kirk earned that status,” Michael said during an event in October 2016 honoring his father’s work with the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
Kirk Douglas’ career apex came during a remarkable run in the 1950s and 1960s, when he emerged as arguably the biggest leading man in film. With his cleft chin and virile appearance, he played a series of tough, uncompromising men, scoring a parade of critical and commercial hits with Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Paths of Glory (1957).
The latter film was an example of Douglas branching out. He fought his way out of Hollywood’s restrictive contract system, which tied actors to a particular studio for years, to form his own production company, Bryna, which he named after his mother. Under the Bryna banner, Douglas produced and starred in some of the most important films of the era, including The Vikings, Lonely Are the Brave and Spartacus.
In 1960, Douglas raised the $12 million needed to make Spartacus, making it one of the most expensive pictures of the time, hired a young director named Stanley Kubrick and turned the script over to Dalton Trumbo, who at the time was on the Hollywood blacklist for his alleged Communist ties. The film was a smashing success and directly led to the end of the blacklist, something for which Douglas remained proud until his final days.
“I’m proud of using (Trumbo’s) name and breaking the blacklist,” Douglas recalled in a conversation with Interview. “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.”
Douglas continued to work steadily in the 1970s and ’80s, directing his first film in 1973 and joining old friend Burt Lancaster for the seventh time in 1986’s Tough Guys. Tragedy struck in 1991, however, when Douglas was involved in a helicopter accident just outside Los Angeles in which two people were killed and Douglas was seriously injured. The actor was deeply moved by the accident and re-embraced his Jewish religion as a result of it.
In 1996, Douglas suffered a serious stroke that left him unable to speak. Douglas briefly considered suicide, but then began working with a speech therapist in order to regain his voice and continue acting. That same year, Douglas was awarded an honorary Academy Award, and while many weren’t sure if he would make an acceptance speech, he received a standing ovation after touching remarks about his family and wife. “I intended to just say ‘thank you,’ but I saw 1,000 people. I felt I had to say something more, and I did,” he told CBS Los Angeles.
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, in 1916. His parents worked menial jobs while they raised Douglas (who went by Izzy Demsky as a youth) and his six sisters. Douglas was bit by the acting bug very early on, and one interaction would help shape his career and life for years to come.
“I wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid in the second grade. I did a play, and my mother made a black apron, and I played a shoemaker,” Douglas toldThe Hollywood Reporter. “And my father, who never interested himself in what I was doing, was in the back, and I didn’t know it. After the performance, he gave me my first Oscar: an ice cream cone. I’ve never forgotten that.”
After high school, Douglas talked his way into St. Lawrence University, where he worked as a janitor to repay his loan. In 1939, he earned a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met his first wife, Diana Dill, and a fellow classmate named Betty Joan Perske, who would help Douglas find his footing in Hollywood after she had become famous under her new moniker, Lauren Bacall.
Douglas’ first role was in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. From there he would go on to star in nearly 90 films and TV shows. He had two sons, Michael and Joel, with his first wife, whom he divorced in 1951. He was married for more than 60 years to his second wife, Anne, with whom he had two more sons, Peter and Eric. The latter died of a drug overdose in 2004.
In his later years, Douglas authored 11 books and has donated millions to charitable causes, including the rebuilding of hundreds of parks in the Los Angeles area and the expansion of the Motion Picture Home & Hospital, which houses elderly actors. In 2019, Douglas celebrated his 103rd birthday with a bevy of sweet messages that included touching tributes from his son, Michael and daughter-in-law Katherine Zeta Jones. In his death, Douglas leaves a legacy that will never be in doubt, despite his reluctance to be labeled as a legend.
“Who is really an icon? It’s just words that they use,” Douglas said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell. “I think I have been lucky. I started out with nothing left to eat and now I have been able to feed hundreds of people. That’s gratitude for you.”