If any man straddles Hollywood like a colossus, it’s Kirk Douglas, whose great photos throughout his life are presented here. Not only has he lived for over a century, he’s appeared in some of the biggest movies of all time. Douglas has also written numerous tomes on his experiences, as well as raising son Michael, who’s a show business institution in his own right.
How did it start for this big screen veteran? His background was that of extreme poverty. A Guardian interview from 2017 refers to “almost unimaginably deprived circumstances; the family’s income came from Douglas’s father’s daily attempts to sell scraps from a horse and buggy.”
That father was Herschel Danielovitch, a former horse trader from Belarus turned New York ragman. He would inform the title of Douglas’ 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son. Together with wife Bryna, Herschel left Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire) to settle in New York. Kirk was born there on December 9, 1916. His original name was Issur Danielovitch and his family spoke Yiddish at home. His parents became known as Harry and Bertha. He would go on to name his production company Bryna, in honour of his Mom.
Determined he wouldn’t be ignored, the striking-looking hopeful with his dimpled chin and piercing eyes used his powers of persuasion to get ahead. He reportedly talked his way into college. Acting school soon beckoned. His Jewish background led to him encountering prejudice, but he and contemporaries such as Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) reached the top of the Tinseltown tree.
His first film was The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946. Douglas appeared alongside Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in this film noir. He then went on to a glittering career, starring as some truly memorable characters. There was reckless journalist Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole (1951), and the following year he played nightmare movie producer Jonathan Shields in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful.
One of Douglas’ iconic roles was as the title character in Spartacus. Directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1960, this historical epic brought audiences the spectacle of a slave rising up against his Roman masters. The classic line “I am Spartacus!” has been repeated ad infinitum, and Douglas wrote a memoir about the production with that title in 2012.
That wasn’t the only way Spartacus challenged the establishment. Behind the scenes, Douglas insisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be credited for his work. The scribe had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under their purge against the so-called Red Menace.
In 2012 Douglas spoke to Interview Magazine, where he said, “I wanted to get the best writer. The best writer was Dalton Trumbo… he wrote the script in secret under the name Sam Jackson… it was terrible that he had to hide his name.”
He believes his age and outlook played a key role in the decision to press for Trumbo’s credit. “I think because I was young enough I had more guts… 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.”
Notorious perfectionist Kubrick had also directed Douglas in Paths of Glory 3 years earlier. The star had frequent collaborators, both in front of and behind the lens. Director Richard Fleischer worked with him on movies such as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) and The Vikings (1958), not always harmoniously.
Douglas himself has admitted he was difficult to be around on set. A fellow actor of his and firm friend was Burt Lancaster, who was also not the easiest person to direct. The pair had a similar trajectory and were close for decades.
They rubbed artistic shoulders several times, and as recently as 1986 made a crime comedy, appropriately called Tough Guys. “Part of the magic between Kirk and Burt is the friction as well as the love,” said helmer Jeff Kanew to the New York Times. “Off screen they’re constantly bickering. They’re like an old married couple. They know how to push each other’s buttons. They’re like Laurel and Hardy with muscles.”
Douglas’ son Michael was born in 1944. A producer as well as an actor, he helped bring One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to the screen in 1975. Originally the rights to the source novel by Ken Kesey were owned by Kirk, who’d been trying to get an adaptation made with himself as lead character Randle McMurphy.
When Dad got the news, he asked Michael when they were going to start work. His son replied he couldn’t do it as he was too old! Jack Nicholson played the part and the rest is Oscar history. Not that the elder Douglas is short of awards – he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and the French Legion of Honor almost a decade later.
Michael and his brother Joel’s mother was actress Diana Dill, who Kirk was married to between 1943 and 1951. He then married producer and philanthropist Anne Buydens in 1954. The pair are still together and they are both over 100!
In later life Kirk turned to writing novels, but it was a serious health issue that put him in the public eye. He had a major stroke in 1996, which nearly cost him the power of speech. However he largely overcame this obstacle, and nearly a quarter of a century on he’s still going strong. The book My Stroke of Luck was published in 2003.
In 2016 he reached his hundredth year. While Douglas retired from movie acting in 2004 with independent feature Illusion, he still writes and is an active philanthropist, donating millions to various causes.
“When Douglas starts talking not even the muffling layers of age can hide his still charmingly boyish personality,” the Guardian observed, “even if his body occasionally lets him down.”