Hollywood has lost one of the greatest legends of its golden age. Kirk Douglas, star of “Spartacus,” “Lust for Life” and nearly 100 other films and TV shows, died on Feb. 5.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his eldest son, actor Michael Douglas, posted on Instagram. “To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great-grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.”
Born Issur Danielovitch to Russian Jewish immigrants in Amsterdam, N.Y., on Dec. 9, 1916, Douglas wrote about growing up in poverty in his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” He worked as a wrestler, usher and soda jerk to pay for classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met his first wife, Diana Dill, the mother of Michael and Joel. He made his Broadway debut in 1941 in “Spring Again,” and returned to the stage after serving in the Navy in World War II.
Douglas’ friend (and fellow Tribe member) Lauren Bacall (née Betty Joan Perske) recommended him to movie producer Hal Wallis, and he was signed to a contract for $500 per week at Paramount. He made his film debut in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) before landing his breakout role as a boxer in 1949’s “Champion,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Two more best actor nominations followed, for “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and “Lust for Life” (1956). He won an honorary Oscar for career achievement in 1996.
Douglas played Jewish characters several times, most notably Israeli colonel David “Mickey” Marcus in “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966). Other acclaimed performances came in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) and “Seven Days in May” (1964) with Burt Lancaster. He returned to the stage in 1963 with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which he tried but failed to get made into a movie before his son Michael took over the movie rights and produced the Oscar-winning 1975 film version starring Jack Nicholson.
But for all his memorable screen credits, Douglas was proudest of his efforts to break the Hollywood blacklist in the 1940s and ’50s. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Writers Guild of America honored him for standing up for blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, insisting that he be credited for writing “Spartacus.”
In 1995, Douglas suffered a stroke that left his face partially paralyzed and made speech difficult, but he didn’t let it slow him down. He continued to act, write books, perform in a one-man show (“Before I Forget” in 2009) and appear at speaking engagements. A dedicated philanthropist, he and his second wife, Anne, whom he married in 1954, founded the Kirk Douglas Foundation a decade later. Over the years, they raised millions for Alzheimer’s care, homeless women, playgrounds in Southern California and other charitable causes.
“Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet,” Michael Douglas’ Instagram post continued. “Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true: Dad, I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”