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Kirk Douglas, Resolute Hollywood

Updated on September 21, 2011

He seems to have been around forever although in fact he made his first movie in 1946. Now in his nineties and still going strong, the indomitable Kirk Douglas is a genuine living legend and has lived a life which could not have been dreamed up by the most imaginative script writer. He is also father to Hollywood actor and producer Michael Douglas. He came in at #17 on AFI's list of the greatest male American screen legends of all time and is one of only two living actors on the list (Sidney Poitier being the other).

Kirk Douglas received three Academy Award nominations for his work in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life (as Vincent Van Gogh) but did not win any competitive Oscars. He received a special Oscar in 1996 for "50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community".

Kirk with his mother
Kirk with his mother

Formative Years

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of poor Russian immigrants, on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, New York.

He worked his way through St. Lawrence University as a janitor and became president of his class and of the school drama club. While there, he also did a little work in the theater, something that soon gave way to his desire to pursue acting as a full time career. He changed his name to Isadore Demsky and, after some work as a professional wrestler, held various odd jobs, including a stint as a bellhop, to put himself through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1941, he landed his first role on Broadway (Spring Again) and changed his name again, this time to the one we know today. He then enlisted in the Navy and served in World War II. Following his discharge, Douglas returned to Broadway in 1945, where he began getting more substantial roles; he also did some work on radio.

The Rising Star
The Rising Star


On the insistence of ex-Academy classmate Lauren Bacall he was given a screen test by producer Hal B. Wallis and he was cast in the lead role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). His performance received rave reviews and further work quickly followed, including an appearance in the low-key drama I Walk Alone (1948), the first time he worked alongside fellow future screen legend Burt Lancaster.

After appearing in "I Walk Alone", Douglas started to make his mark with the quality of his performances. He got his first Oscar nomination playing the unsavoury boxer Midge Kelly in Champion (1949) and the quality of his work continued to garner critical praise and attention. He was again nominated for Oscars for his role as a film producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and as unstable painter Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), both directed by Vincente Minnelli. In 1955 Douglas launched his own production company, Bryna Productions, the company behind two pivotal film roles in his career. The first was as French army officer Col. Dax in director Stanley Kubrick's brilliant anti-war epic Paths of Glory (1957). Douglas reunited with Kubrick for yet another epic, the magnificent Spartacus (1960).

As the producer of Spartacus he broke the Hollywood blacklist by insisting that screen writer Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy "Red Scare" hysteria in the 1950s, be given proper credit for his work. He was thus instrumental in beginning the dissolution of the infamous blacklisting policies that had destroyed so many careers and lives. He later formed Joel Productions to produce his own films and films of others.

Kirk remained busy throughout the 1960s, starring in such notable films as 1961's Town Without Pity and The Last Sunset, 1962's Lonely Are the Brave and Two Weeks in Another Town, 1963's The List of Adrian Messenger, 1964's Seven Days in May, 1965's In Harm's Way, 1966's Cast a Giant Shadow, 1967's The War Wagon with John Wayne, 1968's The Brotherhood, 1969's The Arrangement, 1970's There Was a Crooked Man..., 1971's A Gunfight, 1973's Scalawag, 1975's Posse and Once Is Not Enough, 1978's The Fury, and 1979's Home Movies and The Villain. Additionally, in 1963 he starred in an onstage production of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", but despite his keen interest, no Hollywood studio could be convinced to bring the story to the screen. However, crucially, he retained the rights, and Kirk's talented son Michael Douglas finally filmed the tale in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson.

Douglas has remained active in films in the 1980's and 1990's appearing in The Final Countdown [1980], The Man From Snowy River [1982], Tough Guys [1986], Oscar [1991] and Greedy [1994]. He is the best selling author of his autobiography "The Ragman's Son", "The Gift", "Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning", "The Secret", "The Broken Mirror: A Novella", "Last Tango in Brooklyn", "Dance with the Devil" and "Kirk Douglas's Young Heroes".

As Van Gogh, in 'Lust for Life,1956
As Van Gogh, in 'Lust for Life,1956 | Source

Up to Date

Kirk married first Diana Dill on November 2, 1943, with whom he had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas. They divorced in 1951. His second wife is Anne Buydens (married May 29, 1954 to present) with whom he has two sons, producer Peter Vincent Douglas born November 23, 1955 and actor Eric Douglas (born June 1958; died July 6, 2004 of an accidental drug overdose).

Unknown to many, Kirk has long been involved in humanitarian causes and has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the US State Department since 1963. His efforts were rewarded in 1981 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1983 with the Jefferson Award. Furthermore, the French honored him with the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. More recognition followed for his work with the American Cinema Award (1987), the German Golden Kamera Award (1987), The National Board of Reviews Career Achievement Award (1989), an honorary Academy Award (1995), Recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award (1999) and the UCLA Medal of Honor (2002). Despite a helicopter crash and a stroke suffered in the 1990s, he remains active and continues to appear in front of the camera.

A Life Well Lived
A Life Well Lived

Kirk Douglas on Amazon


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