Who Was BIG Kirk Douglas?
After stints in the U.S. Navy and on Broadway, actor Kirk Douglas broke into the movies with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He went on to critical acclaim in such films as 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful and 1956′ s Lust for Life. One of his biggest hits was 1960’s Spartacus.
Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, Douglas is known for his distinctive voice, strapping physique and cleft chin. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Douglas grew up poor. He worked odd jobs to pay for his college education and to support himself while studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, he had no idea what his future had in store: In the 1950s and 60s, Douglas was one of the most popular leading men in cinema.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II — and a brief career on the Broadway stage — Douglas made his first Hollywood film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring with Barbara Stanwyck. Three years later, he gave a breakthrough performance as a boxer who stops at nothing to make it to the top in Champion (1949). He amazed audiences and critics alike with his portrayal of Midge Kelly in the film, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
A sought-after actor, Douglas worked with many leading directors, including Billy Wilder for 1951’s Ace in the Hole. However, it was his work with Vincente Minnelli that led to two of his greatest performances: morally bankrupt movie executive Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful 1952, and troubled artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). Douglas earned an Academy Award nomination for each of those films.
In addition to his critical acclaim, Douglas became a big box-office draw. Over the years, he often appeared with his friend and fellow Hollywood heavyweight, Burt Lancaster, in such films as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 1957, a western drama, The Devil’s Disciple (1959) and Seven Days in May 1964. Working with director Stanley Kubrick, he also starred in the World War I drama Paths of Glory 1957 and Spartacus 1960. Douglas’ work in Spartacus as a Roman slave (the film’s title character) who leads an uprising is considered to be one of his signature roles.
In making Spartacus, Douglas also challenged the practice of blacklisting certain Hollywood figures over their possible communist leanings. He hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus. Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, turned out a number of screenplays under various pseudonyms during the more than a decade he was blacklisted but was later given full credit for his work, including two Academy Awards.
In the 1970s, Douglas tried his hand at directing, but met with little success. Two of his directorial efforts that decade, Scalawag 1973 and Posse 1975, failed to make much of an impression on movie-goers. Around the same time, his acting career stalled. His later and more memorable films include The Man from Snowy River 1982 and Tough Guys 1986, which was his last on-screen reunion with Lancaster.
Writing and Acting
While one phase of Douglas’ life was slowing down, another was just beginning. In 1988, he shared his life story in the best-selling autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. He also showed a talent for fiction writing, producing such works as Dance with the Devil (1990) and The Gift (1992). One of his nonfiction works, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (1997), was published shortly after Douglas experienced a nearly fatal stroke in 1995. He followed that up with My Stroke of Luck in 2003.
Clearly determined not to be daunted by personal setbacks, Douglas did not let his stroke slow him down for long. Though the incident had affected his speech, he continued to act, starring in the 1999 comedy Diamonds, along with Dan Ay Aykroyd Lauren Bacall and Jenny McCarthy. He was also nominated for an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on the inspirational television drama Touched by an Angel in 2000. A few years later, he co-starred with son Michael Douglas in the drama It Runs in the Family 2003.
Later Projects Douglas
Douglas continued to write biographical works in his later years, including Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning 2007. More recently, he delved into the backstory of one of his most famous roles, with 2012’s I am Spartacus! The Making of a Film, Breaking the Blacklist for which George Clooney wrote the foreword.
In 2009, Douglas mounted a one-man show on stage, sharing his 60 years of filmmaking and personal life with theater-goers in Before I Forget. He won raves for his performance, including praise from Variety for his “uncensored candor.” The Hollywood Reporter called the show a “remarkable display of courage” by Douglas, adding that his performance was reminiscent of the time “when giants strode through HollywooD.
The War Wagon
Dir. by Burt Kennedy (1967), starring Sean Connery, John Wayne & Donald Sutherland
Dir. by Hal Needham (1979), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ann-Margret & Kirk Douglas
The Man from Snowy River
Dir. by George T. Miller (1982), starring Kirk Douglas, Jack Thompson & Gus Mercurio
The Last Sunset
Dir. by Robert Aldrich (1961), starring Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson & Piper Laurie
The Indian Fighter
Dir. by André de Toth (1956), starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau & Alan Hale
The Big Sky
Dir. by Howard Hawks (1952), starring Kirk Douglas, Jim Davis & Iron Eyes Cody
Dir. by Kirk Douglas (1975), starring Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern & Bo Hopkins
Man Without a Star
Dir. by King Vidor (1955), starring Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain & Mara Corday
Lonely Are the Brave
Dir. by David Miller (1962), starring Kirk Douglas, George Kennedy & Walter Matthau
Last Train from Gun Hill
Dir. by John Sturges (1959), starring Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn & Carolyn Jones
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Dir. by John Sturges (1957), starring Kirk Douglas, Dennis Hopper & Burt Lancaster
Dir. by Steven Hilliard Stern (1984), starring Kirk Douglas, James Coburn & Linda Sorenson
Along the Great Divide
Dir. by Raoul Walsh (1951), starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Brennan & Virginia Mayo
Dir. by Lamont Johnson (1971), starring Johnny Cash, Kirk Douglas & Jane Alexander