Kirk Douglas

December 9, 2015 is the 99th birthday of Kirk Douglas, famed actor in many Western, military, drama, and even comedy films. And on Broadway. He was also a director and producer and writer. He was known for his cleft chin, a steely stare, and a virile physique. He had the image of a tough guy. 

He was born Issur Danielnovitch on December 9, 1916 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Amsterdam, New York. He had an impoverished childhood in a family with six sisters. His father was a ragman, and a ragman was on the lowest rung of the ladder even in the poorest section of town in which they lived. His 1988 autobiography was called “The Ragman’s Son”. 

He grew up as Izzy Demsky, using a surname adopted by an uncle who had immigrated to the United States before his own family did. He legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy in WWII. 

In high school he caught the acting bug after performing in several plays.  

He graduated from St. Lawrence University in 1939 with a degree in English. He was a standout on the wrestling team, and he was class president his graduating year. He also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.  

A classmate of his was Lauren Bacall, and he eventually married another classmate, Diana Dill. 

He enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and was medically discharged for war injuries in 1944. 

Returning to New York he found work in theater, radio, and commercials. Lauren Bacall persuaded the producer Hal B. Wallis to give Douglas a screen test, and Douglas got a lead role in the film “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” with Barbara Stanwyck. It was his big break. 

Douglas played in a wide variety of movies, including dramas. He earned an Oscar nomination for his boxing role in “Champion” (1949).  He played a tortured jazz cornetist in “Young Man with a Horn” (1950) with Lauren Bacall. He was a ruthless film producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). He won a second Oscar nomination for that role. 

He played a comic sailor in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954).

He was the tortured Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). He bore a remarkable likeness to the painter. He received his third Oscar nomination for that performance. 

He was a slave leading a rebellion in “Spartacus” (1960). He played a Marine colonel in the political thriller “Seven Days in May” (1964).  

Some other notable films (reflecting my own bias): “The Vikings” (1958), “In Harm’s Way” (1965), “Is Paris Burning?” (1966), “The Final Countdown” (1980), and “The Man from Snowy River” (1982). 

He played in many Westerns. His first one was “Along the Great Divide” (1951). Some others were “The Big Sky” (1952); “Man Without a Star” (1955); “The Indian Fighter” (1956); “Last Train from Gun Hill” (1959); “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), his personal favorite, he considered it his best performance ever; “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957); and “There Was A Crooked Man” (1970). 

The photo in this article is of Douglas (on left) with John Wayne in the 1967 Western “War Wagon”. The two men join up to steal some gold being shipped in an armored stagecoach equipped with a Gatling gun. The movie got positive reviews. IMDb gave it a 6.9/10 rating. It’s a bit of a parody with elements of humor in it. It is very much a buddy picture/heist film as well as a Western. 

Douglas made seven films with Burt Lancaster. 

Douglas was 5’9” and sometimes wore lifts in his films to appear taller. 

Douglas is given credit for ending the Hollywood blacklisting of screenwriters in the 1950s (the McCarthy Red Scare era) when in 1960 he publicly gave Dalton Trumbo credit for the screenplay for the movie “Spartacus”. Trumbo had been blacklisted and had had to work under pseudonyms until then. 

Douglas married Diana Dill in 1943 but they divorced in 1951. They had two children – actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas.  

He met his German wife-to-be, Anne Buydens, when she applied for a job as his assistant on the French location shoot for the film “Act of Love” (1953). They were married in 1954. In 2014 they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They also had two sons, producer Peter Douglas and actor Eric Douglas. 

In 1991 Douglas had a near-death experience when a helicopter he was riding in collided with another small plane. Two people were killed and several injured, including Douglas. The tragedy sent him on a spiritual journey in search for meaning in life, and he embraced his Jewishness, which he had largely tried to forget up until then. He documented that journey in a book in 2001. 

Douglas had a pacemaker fitted following a heart attack in a restaurant in August 1986. In 1996 he suffered a severe stroke which greatly impaired his speech. His voice never totally recovered, but he was able to give a little speech in 1996 when he accepted an Honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. In 2005 he had both knees replaced. 

He was ranked 53rd in Empire (UK) Magazine's 1997 The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time list. He was voted the 36th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly. He was named the 17th greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends list by the American Film Institute. 

He also received a long list of other awards and honors. He got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1962. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1984. 

Douglas and his wife have been active philanthropists. In 2012 they donated $5 million to St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. The university used it for scholarships in the fund he had established in 1999. They made many contributions to various causes in Southern California. 

Douglas speaks German and French. He blogs semi-regularly. His posts have been hosted on the Huffington Post since 2012.