John Wayne had the walk, Robert Mitchum had those hangdog eyes, Burt Lancaster had the athleticism and lyrical delivery, James Stewart had the hesitant drawl and Kirk Douglas had the dimpled chin. They and others lit up the screen in their own unique ways and established themselves as class actors in distinguished careers. All but one has passed away and the exception is Kirk Douglas who turns 100 on 9 December this year. His story is literally a rags to riches tale. He was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, New York to poor Russian immigrant parents. He was one of seven children, the only boy. His father was a ragman and junk seller who would drive his horse and cart around the neighbourhood trying to scrape together nickels and dimes. “I came from abject poverty, “he said, “there was nowhere to go but up.” He also recalled: “My mother and father were illiterate immigrants. When I was a child they were constantly amazed that I could go to a (library) building and take a book on any subject. They couldn’t believe this access to knowledge we have here in America. They couldn’t believe it was free.”
Young Issur would do odd jobs to help the family finances but as he grew older, he developed a strong urge to leave home and the pressures of living with a large family in restricted living space. He saw college as his escape. He acted in some school plays and even wrestled for a time but it was acting that became his primary ambition. After securing a scholarship, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. One of his classmates would become famous as Lauren Bacall.
Issur changed his name to Kirk Douglas* around 1941 when he joined the US Navy and participated in the Second World War. He was discharged on medical grounds in 1944. In 1943, he married Diana Dill with whom he had two sons, including Michael who would follow in his father’s on-screen footsteps. It was the first of two marriages.
Kirk Douglas loved the theatre and seemed to be content with the work but his friend Lauren Bacall helped him win his first screen role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. It was more than enough to get him noticed in Hollywood. His biggest breakthrough was three years later when he played ambitious and ruthless boxer Midge Kelly in Champion. It showed off Douglas’s powerful intensity as an actor and his peak physical condition in the fight sequences, attributes that he developed in more dramatic and action films during his career. In 1947, Douglas starred alongside Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Build My Gallows High considered by many critics and film buffs to be a superb example of film noir. Once again, Hollywood took notice.
Throughout the 1950s, Kirk Douglas built a reputation as a compelling leading actor and a major box-office star. Films like Ace In The Hole (1951), Detective Story (1951), The Bad And The Beautiful (1952), Lust For Life (1956) (as Vincent Van Gogh) and Paths Of Glory (1957) proved beyond any doubt that he could handle highly dramatic roles. But it was westerns that honed his reputation as an action man. Always physically fit, he adapted naturally to the genre; The Big Sky (1952), Man Without A Star (1955), The Indian Fighter (1955) and as Doc Holliday to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957). But he was no stranger to historical epics; Ulysses (1954), The Vikings (1958) and into the 1960s with one of his biggest successes Spartacus as the heroic slave who takes on the might of the Romans. In 1962, he starred with Walter Matthau in one of his finest and favourite films, Lonely Are The Brave, a tour-de-force story of a tough cowboy loyal to the old ways and resisting the modern world.
Apart from epics and westerns, Douglas made some successful war films including Seven Days In May (1964), The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), In Harm’s Way (1965), Cast A Giant Shadow (1966) and Is Paris Burning? (1966). He was canny enough to form his own production company early in his film career, emulating Burt Lancaster who did much the same to retain control over his projects. They made seven films together concluding with Tough Guys (1986) hamming it up beautifully as two old gangsters. Of being master of his own destiny he said: “I don’t need a critic to tell me I’m an actor. I make my own way. Nobody’s my boss. Nobody’s ever been my boss.”
Douglas was nominated three times for Academy Awards and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1991. In 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter and a host of lifetime achievement awards from various organisations. He won a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Award recognising his outstanding performance as Van Gogh in Lust For Life.
In January 1996, at 79, he suffered a severe stroke, impairing his speech but he fought back and recovered his ability to speak. He wrote about the experience in A Stroke Of Luck. His autobiography, A Ragman’s Son, is an honest and delightful story of his upward journey from poverty. On Michael Parkinson’s BBC chat show in 1978, he described his rags to riches life as a typical, corny American immigrant story. Along with his second wife Anne, he has donated considerably to charities and causes close to their hearts.
Kirk Douglas is by any measure one of the greatest actors we have ever witnessed. From the outset he was committed to extremely high standards of performance and production. He devoted himself to his career and he took control of it. His screen CV is staggering, varied and impressive. His energetic work rate over his prime years is breathtaking. He was a risk taker – “In order to achieve anything, you must be brave enough to fail”.
It is too tempting to say that he is the last of that breed of superior actors from the 1940s to have lit up the big screen, but he might well be. “People are always talking about the old days. They say that the old movies were better, that the old actors were so great. But I don’t think so. All I can say about the old days is that they have passed.”
In conclusion, here’s a line from Spartacus - ”Maybe there's no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don't know. But I do know that, as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves.” Kirk Douglas at 100 just emphasises his greatness as a magnificent star and as an amazing human being.
*The story goes that in his early years, he met a fellow actor called George Sekulovich who advised him to change his name. It is lost in the mists of time why he chose Kirk Douglas but young George had already decided to change his name to Karl Malden.