Kirk Douglas : “I was never part of Old Hollywood”


“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.”

Propelled by a powerhouse work ethic and marble-chiseled features, Douglas rose from the poorhouse to Hollywood royalty while starring in some 90 films and TV series over roughly 60 years — including career-defining roles as the sword-swinging gladiator lead in “Spartacus” and the tortured artist Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.”

Along the way, the notorious flirt bedded a bevy of Hollywood beauties — and sired a showbiz dynasty with four sons including famed actor Michael Douglas.

But before he was Kirk Douglas, he was Issur Danielovitch — the son of dirt-poor Russian-Jewish immigrants born outside Albany in 1916.

Douglas’ father was a peddler whose station was one rung below the bottom of the social ladder — and Douglas’ life was defined by his desire to break from poverty and earn his father’s approval.

The latter proved elusive for his whole life.

“I never heard my father say, ‘I’m proud of you,’” he told Parade magazine in 1986.

Douglas’s romantic and professional lives were entangled from the earliest — and his first taste of both came through a relationship with his high school English teacher.

At 14, the woman, who he identified as Mrs. Livingston, seduced him as she introduced him to the world of romantic poetry.

“I had been a ragamuffin kid of 15 coping with a neighborhood filled with gangs … under her guidance I became a different person,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir “Let’s Face It.” “I am eternally grateful. By today’s standards she would have gone to jail.”

Their trysts continued through Douglas’s college years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but eventually they went their separate ways.

Douglas attended St. Lawrence University where he wrestled and buffed up his physique.

He got into the liberal arts school after hitchhiking to the campus as a teen and convincing the dean to approve a student loan.

After graduating, he lent his talents to a few minor Broadway productions, but he pushed pause on his acting career to join the Navy in 1941, serving on a sub-hunting ship in the Pacific before he was medically discharged in 1944 for injuries after his own crew accidentally set off a depth charge too close to their ship.


Though Douglas never got to battle Hitler in the European theater, he found other ways to combat anti-Semitism.

For instance, he once bedded a woman he knew to be an anti-Semite, just so he could shout, at the climactic moment: “I’m a Jew! You are being f—-d by a Jew!” according to his kiss-and-tell 1988 autobiography “The Ragman’s Son.”

Douglas wedded actress Diana Dill in 1943, and the couple produced two sons before their 1951 split: Actor Michael and producer Joel.

Following his discharge from the Navy in 1944, Douglas landed his first big-screen gig opposite Barbara Stanwyck in 1946’s “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” a role that required the healthy-living thespian smoke cigarettes.

“I got sick as a dog,” he told The Post in 1978.

For Douglas, the on-screen act soon became a three-pack-a-day habit — which he miraculously kicked cold turkey two years later.

Not long after, he would deliver his breakthrough performance as a pugilist Midge Kelly in 1949’s “Champion” — a role that would earn him his first of three Academy Award nominations for the Best Actor.

Some of his top roles came when he teamed up with a little-known director named Stanley Kubrick for 1957’s “Paths of Glory” and 1960’s “Spartacus.”

The only catalogue to, perhaps, rival his extensive acting career is the list of starlets he romanced over the decades, which includes Joan Crawford, Linda Darnell, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Evelyn Keyes, Marilyn Maxwell, Patricia Neal, Ann Sothern and Gene Tierney, he wrote in his autobiography.

“I’m a sonofabitch, plain and simple,” he admitted in the book.

Following an ill-fated romance with Italian actress Pier Angeli, Douglas married his publicist Anne Buydens in 1954. The couple had two more sons: Producer Peter and actor Eric.

Ironically, he spent his Vegas wedding night gambling with pal Warren Cowan and Sam Norton.

“I never did get to bed on my wedding night,” Buydens kvetched to the Saturday Evening Post in 1962.

Douglas pivoted from leading man to Renaissance man in 1955 when he opened his own film shop, Bryna Productions — named for his dear mother.

“What was interesting about him was that he also became an independent producer. He was one actor who used their star status in some productive ways,” NYU film professor William Simon told The Post in 2018.

Unlike most leading men of his day, Douglas never tied himself to one movie studio — and instead worked as a free agent.

“I was never part of Old Hollywood,” Douglas bragged to The Post in a 1975 interview.

“That gave Douglas a certain kind of freedom at a point when the Hollywood studio system was beginning to break down,” according to Simon.

The company produced “Spartacus,” “Paths to Glory” — which Douglas considered one of his best — and more than 20 other films through 1986.

He used the company to combat jingoism when he insisted that Spartacus writer Dalton Trumbo received on-screen credit even though he had been blackballed during the “red Scare” for refusing to testify at a U.S. House investigation into communism in Hollywood.

But in the late ‘70s, Douglas got the itch and returned to acting.

“I’m making my comeback as an actor. I never left, but some people thought I did,” he proclaimed to The Post in 1978, following the release of 1977’s “The Chosen” and ‘78’s “The Fury.”

Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, and though a Best Actor Oscar eluded him his whole life, Douglas received a lifetime achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1996.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that his prodigious output of two-three movies a year would slow to a humble one-flick-per-year.

And even as his shadow lengthened, Douglas continued to make magic, even starring alongside his son Michael and grandson Cameron Douglas in 2003’s appropriately titled “It Runs in the Family.”

“The first requirement for an actor is vitality,” he told The Post. “Not only the physical kind — every kind. You have to be able to do the jumping, the crawling and the running yourself.”


Next articleLike Cooper Wayne was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here