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Kirk Douglas, Indestructible Hollywood

Updated on November 4, 2014

Kirk Douglas is one of Hollywood's major stars and he seems to have been around as long as Hollywood has, although in fact he made his first movie in 1946. Now in his nineties and still going strong, he is a genuine living Hollywood legend - he is a living link - among the last - to a generation of actors, of real stars, of men and women who created the film industry. He is also a link to the present and future of Hollywood - his son is Hollywood actor and producer Michael Douglas.

He is number 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', ) 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".

Early Days

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, New York the son of poor Russian immigrants,who had emigrated from Homel (also known as Gomel), now in Belarus. He attended St. Lawrence University and became president of his class and of the school drama club. While there he also did a little work in the theater, which whetted his appetite to pursue acting as a full time career.

He changed his name to Isadore Demsky and, after some work as a professional wrestler, and various other odd jobs, he put himself through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1941, he landed his first role on Broadway in Spring Again and changed his name again, this time to Kirk Douglas. He served in the Navy as a communications officer during World War II and returned to Broadway in 1945, where he began getting more substantial roles. He was being noticed as an up and coming young talent. Hollywood was beckoning.

The Young Hollywood Star

On his return to New York Kirk promptly married his Academy schoolmate Diana Dill, herself a rising young starlet. Douglas resumed his budding career, working hard to break into radio dramas and commercials before landing good parts in productions including "Alice in Arms" and "The Wind is Ninety" (1945). Douglas and Dill had a son, Michael in 1944.

On the insistence of ex-Academy classmate Lauren Bacall he was given a screen test by producer Hal B. Wallis and he debuted onscreen in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

In 1947, Douglas became a father again with the birth of son, Joel, and his career jumped up with features "Mourning Becomes Electra" (1947) and "Out of the Past" (1947). He enjoyed the first of seven roles opposite future screen legend, Burt Lancaster, in "I Walk Alone" (1948) before achieving major stardom in 1949 as the unscrupulous boxer punching his way to the top in Stanley Kramer's "Champion", for which he earned his first Oscar nomination.

Kirk in 'Ace in the Hole', 1951

Stardom

Douglas began working with the top directors of the day in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" , and William Wyler's "Detective Story", both in 1951, and Howard Hawks' "Big Sky" the following year, all of which demonstrated his intensity and commanding screen presence. Offscreen, his marriage to Dill ended and the actress moved back to New York to raise their two young sons.

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 1954 Douglas had married his French publicity agent, Anne Buydens,and the pair had a son, Peter, in 1955. In the same year, he and Anne launched one of Hollywood's first independent production companies, named Bryna in honor of Douglas' mother. The company was behind two pivotal film roles in his career.

Douglas's new company created Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" in 1957. It was a disappointment in its initial release, but grew in stature to the front rank of anti-war films.

Then in 1960 Douglas reunited with Kubrick for yet another epic, the magnificent Spartacus. Douglas insisted on crediting blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his screen adaptation of the Howard Fast novel. By this courageous action he was thus instrumental in beginning the dissolution of the infamous blacklisting policies that had destroyed so many careers and lives and banned filmmakers were now allowed openly to return to the industry.

Still A Superstar

Kirk remained in great demand and throughout the 1960s he starred in many notable films such as Town Without Pityt, 1962's Lonely Are the Brave and Two Weeks in Another Town, 1964's Seven Days in May, 1967's The War Wagon with John Wayne, and 1969's The Arrangement. In 1963 Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and adapted it for Broadway, where he appeared in the role of Randel P. McMurphy. He could not persuade the Hollywood Movie Moguls of its value. Crucially, however, he retained the rights, and his son Michael Douglas finally filmed the tale in 1975 with Jack Nicholson in the starring role. Nicholson went on to win Best Actor and the film Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Though he continued to appear in films in the 80's and 90's, such as The Final Countdown [1980], The Man From Snowy River [1982], Tough Guys [1986], Oscar [1991] and Greedy [1994] Kirk increasingly volunteered much of his time to civic duties. Since 1963, he had worked as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State Department and the USIA, and, in 1981, his many contributions earned him the highest civilian award given in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For his public service, Douglas was also given the Jefferson Award in 1983. Two years later, the French government dubbed him Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his artistic contributions. Other awards included the American Cinema Award (1987), the German Golden Kamera Award (1988), and the National Board of Review's Career Achievement Award (1989).

Despite a helicopter crash and a stroke suffered in the 1990s, he remains active and continues to appear in front of the camera.

He is also 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".

Kirk on Amazon

Some Clips of Kirk

The Indomitable Kirk Douglas

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    • CliveAnderson LM profile image

      CliveAnderson LM 6 years ago

      Kirk Douglas is certainly one of the all time greats as far as I am concerned, I remember him making better and better films as I was growing up, his is certainly a name and reputation for others actors to aspire to for sure... Thank you for sharing.

      Warm Regards,

      Clive

    • profile image

      diggeran 8 years ago

      Thanks for a great lens about a great guy