Kirk Douglas

Dafato Team | Jun 1, 2022

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Issur Danielovitch Demsky, known professionally as Kirk Douglas (Amsterdam, New York, December 9, 1916-Beverly Hills, California, February 5, 2020), was an American actor and film producer. Among his roles, his interpretation of the painter Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), and his leading role in Spartacus (1960) stood out. For his extensive and renowned career, he received an honorary Oscar Award in 1996. He is the father of actor Michael Douglas.

He was the penultimate longest-lived performer in classic Hollywood cinema, after actress Olivia de Havilland (who died 5 months after him), when both surpassed 103 years of age.

His parents were Jewish peasants from Chavusy in the Maguilov region of the Russian Empire (now Belarus). Douglas' father, Herschel Danielovich, made a living selling food and wood on the streets of Amsterdam, New York, but that was not enough to support six daughters and a son, so Kirk Douglas had to start working at a very young age, as he was still in school. At that time he sold soft drinks and candy on the street and also delivered newspapers for a while. His father left the family home when Kirk was five years old.

Kirk Douglas had his first contact with the world of acting in elementary school and high school (Wilbur Lynch High School), where he won a medal for reciting the poem Across the Border. At the same time he was introduced to public speaking and debate, joining the high school team.

At the age of seventeen he finished high school and wanted to enroll in college, but his salary as a clerk (he was working in a department store at the time) was not enough to get in. Still, Douglas decided to apply to St. Lawrence University in New York directly to the dean, who accepted him into the university in exchange for Douglas working there as a groundskeeper (later as a janitor) while he studied there. Douglas was at St. Lawrence from 1935 to 1939, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree (equivalent to the current degree in Philosophy and Letters).

In those four years of college, Douglas also excelled in other activities, most notably wrestling, becoming undefeated St. Lawrence champion and winner of the "Collegiate Wrestling Championship." He also dabbled in debate and theater, joining the university's theater group, The Mummers. During one summer he participated in a theatrical number at a fair, performing as a wrestler, as Kirk Douglas himself described, "We had a number where I was a guy in the audience who came out on stage to face the champion. For acting purposes it was a great apprenticeship."

After graduating from St. Lawrence University, he was awarded a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, where he remained until 1939, at the age of 23, where he taught drama classes to children and worked in summer theaters as a repertory actor. While there, Douglas taught drama classes to the school's children and, during the summers, worked in summer theaters as a repertory actor. These were his beginnings in acting as a professional, and it was during this time that Kirk Douglas adopted his stage name. It was also there, at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, that Douglas met Lauren Bacall.

Douglas then turned his attention to the Broadway stage, where he made his debut in 1941 in a play called Spring Again, starring Sir Charles Aubrey Smith, and in 1942 he participated as a ruler in the play The Three Sisters by Katharine Cornell. That same year he was called to military service, and joined the U.S. Navy, joining the midshipman school at Notre Dame University, where he graduated as an ensign. He was then assigned to the Antisubmarine Unit 1139, in the Pacific Ocean, where he spent two years (1942 - 1943) as a telecommunications officer.

When he graduated with honors, he returned to New York and at a friend's house he leafed through a magazine (Life), where a beautiful model and actress named Diana Dill appeared, with whom he had also coincided at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and whom he would marry on November 2, 1943. The couple had two children: Michael and Joel.

Road to stardom

After his return to New York, Douglas participated in a play called Kiss and Tell, alongside Joan Claufield, where he replaced Richard Widmark. Subsequently, he worked in Dorothy Baker's Trio, and also worked in radio as a performer. But Douglas' film debut came thanks to the help of Lauren Bacall, who recommended Douglas to Hal B. Wallis, producer and talent scout at Paramount. The result of this was an audition, along with, among others, Montgomery Clift and Richard Widmark (for all three it would be their first film appearance), for the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, an audition from which Douglas emerged victorious, obtaining the role of Walter, husband of the protagonist.

In 1947, Wallis assigned Douglas' rights to the RKO production company for two feature films; Return to the Past and Electra is Good for Mourning. Afterwards, Kirk Douglas went on to work for 20th Century Fox, where he debuted in 1948 with Human Walls, and worked for directors such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in Letter to Three Wives.

In 1949 his career took a turn when he played a boxer in Mark Robson's film The Mud Idol, where his realistic performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. Douglas had turned down a role in The Great Sinner, with Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck (and a salary of 50,000 dollars), to bet on the production of Stanley Kramer and Robson. The film, which won an Oscar for best editing, was the one that served Douglas to show, for the first time, his character when it came to acting.

Kirk became known for his temperamental character and his leftist ideas, which earned him enmities within the upper echelons of Hollywood and hindered his career and justified recognitions. But his character not only earned him enemies; film director Vincente Minnelli said that "working with Kirk Douglas in the three films we made together was, as far as I can remember, the most rewarding and stimulating collaboration of my life". The same director went so far as to define Kirk Douglas in his professional facet: "Kirk Douglas is characterized by a tireless vigor and energy, by his willingness to try everything and by his absolute disinterest in his physical appearance. He doesn't care about being the handsome hero. His enthusiasm and commitment to the project are infectious".

In 1951, Diana Douglas filed for divorce from Kirk Douglas, due to the infidelities of the actor, who had known affairs with Pier Angeli, Ann Sothern, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, Patricia Neal, Mia Farrow and Faye Dunaway, as Douglas himself writes in his autobiography. In addition, Douglas had romances after his divorce with, among others, Terry Moore and Debbie Reynolds. On May 29, 1954, Douglas married for the second time with Anne Mars Buydens, a press agent whom he met during the filming of Act of Love, and with whom he had two sons, Peter and Eric.

Established actor

In 1954 Douglas participated in Walt Disney's blockbuster 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, for which he earned $175,000, his biggest success since The Mud Idol. In the following years he participated in productions such as King Vidor's The Lawless Prairie and Henry Hathaway's Reckless Men. In 1955, Douglas founded his own film production company, Bryna, named after his mother, and made his first film as a producer: Honor Pact, directed by André De Toth.

The Madman with the Red Hair (1956) brought Douglas critical acclaim, winning the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Actor of the Year. Catherine de la Roche said of Douglas that "his formidable temperament, combined here with a gravity not perceptible in other works, allows him to create a characterization full of authority, truth and moments of genuine tragedy". Later, in 1957, he participated in John Sturges' Duel of the Titans, sharing the lead role with Burt Lancaster and Hal Wallis, giving life to Doc Holliday.

Stanley Kubrick then turned to Douglas for Paths of Glory, offering him $350,000, which was a third of the project's total budget. Douglas, who played a French army colonel in charge of the defense in the military trial of three of his men, was crucial to the realization of the film, since Stanley Kubrick did not find a studio willing to finance the film until Kirk Douglas (along with his producer, Bryna) accepted his role in it.

In 1958, Bryna produced, and Douglas starred in, The Vikings, and in 1959, Hal B. Wallis returned to Douglas to star in another John Sturges wéstern, Gun Hill's Last Train. Wallis again thought of Douglas to participate in another John Sturges' wéstern, The Last Train from Gun Hill, given the previous success of Duel of the Titans, by the same director. Douglas returned to production with Spartacus, a film in which he also starred and whose initial budget reached $12 million, winning four Academy Oscars, although the shooting went through several problems and took more than a year.

Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo for the adaptation of the book Spartacus, by Howard Fast, and managed (with the help of Charles Laughton and Lawrence Olivier) to have his name appear in the credits, despite the veto to which the screenwriter was subjected (Dalton Trumbo was one of The Hollywood Ten). Subsequently, Kirk Douglas turned to the production company United Artists, whose response was negative, since the company had in project the production of The Gladiators, with a similar story. Finally, Douglas found support in Universal Pictures for the production of the film.

The decade of the 1960s continued for Douglas with A Stranger in My Life (1960), and The Last Sunset (1961), and with the production of his own films, which did not work very well: City Without Mercy, The Brave Walk Alone (1962), Two Weeks in Another Town, Deathly Silence (1963), Three Heiresses (1963), Last on the List (1963) and Seven Days in May (1964). In 1963, Douglas returned to Broadway to star in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and even tried to carry out a film adaptation, although he did not get support, so he gave the rights of the novel to his son Michael, whose subsequent film version with Jack Nicholson turned out to be a success.

Kirk Douglas' return to the big screen shared military themes: First Victory and The Heroes of Telemark in 1965, and The Shadow of a Giant and Arde Paris? in 1966. Subsequently, the actor participated in two not very successful westerns: Oregon Trail (1967), with Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum, and Attack on the Armored Car (1967), with John Wayne. It was in 1969 when Kirk Douglas again achieved critical acclaim with his role in The Commitment (1969).

1970 onwards

In the 1970s, the actor took part in a wide variety of projects, from a film financed by the Jacarillas (A Gunfight, 1971), to a Yugoslavian production in which he participated both as producer and actor, Pata de palo (1973). He participated in several film projects (El día de los tramposos, La luz del fin del mundo, Un uomo de Rispettare) and television projects, including his leading role in NBC's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The actor hit bottom (in terms of critics and box office) with the Italian production Holocaust 2000, in 1977, and closed the decade with The Villain, in 1979. In 1980, he played the lead role in Bryna's last production, The End of the Countdown. That same year, after abandoning the filming of The Stalemate, he returned to the theater scene with his friend Burt Lancaster, in the play The Boys in Autumn, which they performed in San Francisco. From 1980 onwards, his film activity decreased, although he occasionally worked for renowned directors, such as John Landis (Oscar Hands Off!, 1991) and Fred Schepisi (Family Affair, 2003). In 1985, Douglas again teamed up with Lancaster, starring in the Oscar gala, which inspired the film Another City, Another Law (1986), which James Orr and James Cruikshank decided to write when they saw the acting duo on stage, giving them both the lead roles.

The decade of the nineties only reserved four minor film roles for Douglas, namely Welcome to Veraz (1991), Oscar Hands Off! (1991), Greedy (1994) and Diamonds (1999).


Douglas' first television work was in 1973, at the age of 57, when the actor had already left behind his golden age on the big screen. He starred in a musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, broadcast on NBC, filmed in England with Michael Redgrave, Stanley Holloway and Donald Pleasence. Also filmed in England was Douglas' next TV movie, Cat and Mouse (1974), directed by Daniel Petrie, in which Douglas played a failed Canadian teacher named George Anderson.

In 1975 and back in Hollywood, he participated in the NBC miniseries The Moneychangers, based on the novel by Arthur Hailey and directed by Boris Sagal, in which he played a bank manager. The series was, in 1977, nominated for an Emmy Award. That same year, the actor made a cameo in Victoria in Entebbe with Elizabeth Taylor, where he played a Jewish married couple who survived the Holocaust.

We had to wait until 1982 to see Kirk Douglas on television again, and that was with the NBC production Memories of Love and Hate, in which Douglas played a widowed New York Holocaust survivor who is reunited with the woman (Chana Eden) he loved as a teenager during World War II. In 1984, Douglas switched to HBO and, along with his producer Bryna, worked on Draw! a traditional western directed by Steven H. Stern.

In 1985, he starred in Amos (film), a CBS production written by Richard Kramer and directed by Michael Tuchner, in which Douglas played an octogenarian who, after suffering an accident in which he loses his wife, uncovers a network of corruption in a senior center where he is confined. Two years later, he returned to the small screen starring in an adaptation of Michael Korda's novel Queenie, based on the career of actress Merle Oberon. In 1988, he starred in an NBC television version of The Inheritance of the Wind, in which he played prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, the mythical role of Fredric March in Stanley Kramer's original film. Douglas' last television appearance was in Tom McLoughlin's 1994 Last Escape, in which Douglas played an aging traveling salesman.

A unique career

He was nominated three times for an Academy Award, but never won, due to his political leanings; however, he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1996 for his 50 years of dedication to the film industry.

Many films in which he worked were epic. The most famous and remarkable was his performance in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, along with no less masterful performances by Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons.

Another of his famous performances and for which he was nominated for Best Actor for the third time was in The Madman with the Red Hair, where he played the painter Vincent Van Gogh, alongside Anthony Quinn, who did win the statuette, as Best Supporting Actor, for a few minutes of acting.

He gave each of his films a distinctive mark, because of the strength of his performances, and a reputation. It was said of him that he gave his best in roles that required a strong temperament or a powerful presence, and that, in simpler performances, his work was stilted. In addition, he co-directed several films and had a unique feud with Stanley Kubrick over the production of some of his films, which detracted from his strength in Hollywood and in fact biased him in all award nominations.

He appeared in both comedies and dramas and played tough but vulnerable characters: The Clay Idol (M. Robson, 1949), Brigade 21 (W. Wyler, 1951), Captives of Evil (V. Minnelli, 1952), Another City, Another Law (J. Kanew, 1986), Oscar (J. Landis, 1991), Diamonds (1999). He participated in numerous television productions, and in 1988 he published his autobiography, El hijo del trapero (The Ragman's Son).

In 1996, the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar, in memory of the fiftieth anniversary of his debut on the big screen. Douglas received the award from Steven Spielberg. Douglas, who could barely speak, said, "I see my four children. They are proud of the old man. I'm proud too. Proud to have been part of Hollywood for fifty years."

He was one of the longest-lived actors in Hollywood. On February 13, 1991, he survived a helicopter accident at Santa Paula airport (California), when he collided with a small plane, an accident in which two people died. In 1994, he suffered a mild thrombosis that caused him serious psychomotor problems (paraplegia). In 1996, he suffered a stroke that deprived him of speech and left him practically paralyzed. Despite this, he was often seen with his son Michael Douglas in some media events.

In 1981, U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for "working as an emperor of goodwill" and "sharing with others his love of movies and his country. In 1982, Douglas, focused on his social work, testified before Congress to report on discriminatory behavior and mistreatment of the elderly, a subject on which he had written an editorial in the New York Times. That same year, he was invited by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, president of Pakistan, to visit Red Cross hospitals and Afghan refugee camps.

In 1983, he won the Jefferson Award for community service, and in 1986, while emceeing the Statue of Liberty Centennial, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for "achieving success while upholding the values of his minority. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts presented him with an award that reads: "His talent begins on the soles of his feet and ends in a spirit that can reach beyond the stars. In 1989, Douglas received the D. W. Griffith Career Achievement Award, and in 1991, the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. Kirk Douglas was also named Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1985, for his artistic services to France.

On February 5, 2020, he passed away at the age of 103, in Beverly Hills (California). The news was confirmed by his son, Michael Douglas through social networks:

It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas has left us today at the age of 103. To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of motion pictures who lived well into his old age, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in inspired us all. But to me and my brothers, Joel and Peter, he was simply a father, to Catherine (Zeta-Jones) a fantastic father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great-grandson his beloved grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.


  1. Kirk Douglas
  2. Kirk Douglas

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