Kirk Douglas was born as Issur Danielovitch Demsky on 9th December 1916, in Amsterdam, USA. His parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to the USA in 1910 from Chavisy, Mogilev Region, in the Russian Empire (today’s Belarus).
His father Harry and his mother, Bryna Demsky had 6 daughters and one son. During the Depression, his family provided low financial support so young Issur worked his way through by selling newspapers.
In his high school years, he was acting in plays and knew that he wanted to become a professional actor. From 1935 to 1939 he attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, NYC, before the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC noticed his acting talents. In 1941 he won a scholarship for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC and during his attendance there he decided upon his stage name.
At the Academy he met a younger classmate named Betty Joan Perske (Lauren Bacall), who later changed his life.
He made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again and later, when he completed his two years at the American Academy, he enlisted in the Navy. Kirk served with an anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific until receiving a medical discharge in 1944, as a result of injuries.
When WW2 ended, he returned to New York where he worked in radio and theater and was planning to keep his position as a stage actor. Then, his friend Lauren Bacall recommended him to the director Hal Wallis and helped him to get his first film role.
Wallis was impressed by Kirk, so he provided him a debut screen appearance in the film, The Strange Love of Marta Ivers.
He spent the next three years playing supporting roles and several successful films like Out of the Past (1947), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), The Walls of Jericho (1948), My Dear Secretary (1948), and A Letter to Three Wives (1948).
Later, he was offered to act in a high-budget film called The Great Sinner but he turned down the offer and accepted to star in a low-budget film called Champion.
His decision turned out to be right since The Great Sinner was a flop, whereas Champion, a film about an ambitious and ruthless prizefighter, became a huge hit. Champion brought him an Oscar nomination for best ator and made him a star. Douglas became an Oscar nominee again, in 1952 for The Bad and the Beautiful and in 1956 for Lust for Life, for which he also won the New York Critics Award.
At this period he was one of the most successful actors in Hollywood and in 1955 he formed an independent film company- Bryna Productions.
Douglas has appeared in numerous Bryna motion pictures. Few of them are Paths of Glory (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Seven Days in May (1964), Posse (1975) etc.
St. Lawrence University entitled him with a Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1958. He received many international awards, among them was his appointment in 1990 as Officier de la Legion d’Honneur for distinguished services to France in arts and letters.
In 1981, President Jimmy Carter awarded him with a Presidential Medal of Honor and in 1996 the Academy of Motion Pictures honored him with a Special Oscar for being a creative and moral force in the motion picture community for 50 years.
Douglas is the author of a well-received autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (1989) and of two best-seller novels, Dance with the Devil (1990) and The Gift (1992).
He survived a helicopter crash in 1991, later had a serious back injury and also suffered from a life-threatening stroke in 1996.
Kirk Douglas is one of the greatest actors in film history. During his 60 year old acting career , he has appeared in 91 films. This year, he’s turning 100 on December 9th. Happy birthday Kirk!