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Kirk Douglas, Golden Age Hollywood icon and Spartacus actor, dies at 103

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Feb 5, 2020, 7:15 PM EST (Updated)

A stalwart of Hollywood's Golden Age, iconic actor Kirk Douglas has died at the age of 103.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” son Michael Douglas said in a statement published by People. “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 [Zeta-Jones], a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.”

Douglas was a bona fide Hollywood legend who starred in some of Hollywood's most beloved films. Making it big during Tinseltown's Golden Age, his most famous film, arguably, is the 1960 sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick. In addition to the iconic line of "I'm Spartacus!" the film was a landmark event within the context of the Cold War. Despite the fact that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted as a Communist, star and executive producer Douglas publicly hired him to write the script, effectively helping break the Hollywood blacklist. 

Over his career, Douglas was involved in more than a hundred projects as actor, director, or producer. He was nominated for three Oscars — for Champion (1949), Bad & the Beautiful (1952), and Lust for Life (1956). Although he never won a competitive-acting Oscar, he received an honorary one in 1996 for 50 years of involvement and influence within the entertainment industry. Moreover, he was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas.

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Humble beginnings:

With his trademark cleft chin and dashing good looks, Douglas was the epitome of the American Dream, rising from humble beginnings and soaring to international stardom. He was born Issur Danielovitch to impoverished Belarusian-Jewish immigrants, Byrna and Herschel, in Amsterdam, New York, on Dec. 9, 1916. As a kid, growing up with six sisters, he’d sell snacks to mill workers in order to buy basic groceries like milk and bread for his family.

The actor would later underscore the socioeconomic status of his family in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, writing:

“My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes... Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman's son.”

Douglas knew from an early age, however, that he wanted to be a professional performer, partly due to the fact that he felt trapped by his six sisters. "I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me,” he wrote. While attending Wilbur Lynch High School (which would become Amsterdam High School), he starred in the play The McMurray Chin, playing Philip Lamsdale. (When the school later began a Hall of Fame for former students in 2015, Douglas would be notoriously snubbed.)


Branching out:

He graduated high school in 1934 and made his way to St. Lawrence College in New York. Since this was at the height of the Great Depression, young Douglas — still then known as Danielovitch — couldn’t afford the tuition, but was able to convince the dean into giving him a loan by providing a list of high school honors; he paid it back by working part-time as a gardener and custodian. Making a name for himself on the wrestling team as well, he competed at carnivals over the summers to make a little extra money. At St. Lawrence, he majored in English and became president of the student government, all while continuing to act in productions on campus.

Upon graduating in 1939, Douglas found himself in New York City, where he’d won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a two-year acting conservatory program. One of his fellow classmates that year was Betty Joan Perske, better known as Lauren Bacall, future wife of Humphrey Bogart. Another one of their classmates was Diana Dill, an actress who played Martha Evans on the popular soap opera Days of Our Lives and the future Mrs. Douglas.

Douglas engaged in a casual fling with Bacall, who later opened up about his meager existence, even in Manhattan, where he once spent a night in jail because he had nowhere else to go. While she was 17 and he was 24, Bacall was quite smitten with him, making his plight a little more comfortable. “Betty saw me shivering in my thin overcoat,” Douglas once said. “She didn't say anything, but she talked her uncle into giving me one of his two thick coats. I wore it for three years. That sort of unassuming kindness was one of her most endearing characteristics.”

After a string of parts in minor Broadway shows, Douglas joined the Navy in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but not before legally changing his name to Kirk Douglas. He worked in anti-submarine warfare until he was discharged due to injuries in 1944. That same year, he married Dill and they had two sons, Michael (who would go on to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1988 for Wall Street) and Joel (asistant director on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and producer on his brother’s Romancing The Stone). During the post-war years, Douglas was still a small-time actor, taking part in minor plays and radio commercials.

Making it big:

Douglas got his big break on two fronts. One was when he joined the Broadway play Kiss and Tell, where he replaced leading man Richard Widmark. This led to more acting jobs, but his cinematic debut arrived when Bacall floated his name to famed Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, True Grit). Douglas received critical acclaim for his role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers alongside Barbara Stanwyck in 1946, and from that moment on, his film career began a meteoric rise. Just three years after his first major movie role, he’d gain an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance as boxer Midge Kelly in Mark Robson’s film noir The Champion. In 1954, Douglas was remarried to Anne Buydens and the couple had two children together, Peter and Eric Douglas, the latter of whom passed away in 2004.

Over the next few decades, the Douglas patriarch, who had come from virtually nothing, would solidify his place in Hollywood as the archetype of male toughness on the silver screen. He worked with some of the industry’s greatest screenwriters and directors of the time like Billy Wilder (Ace in the Hole), Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Spartacus), William Wyler (Detective Story), and Casablanca’s Michael Curtiz (Young Man with a Horn). Douglas is also credited with helping end the Hollywood Blacklist at the height of America’s Second Red Scare by tapping Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, The Brave One) to write the screenplay for Spartacus. Trumbo, who had been blacklisted and sent to jail as a communist subversive, got an onscreen credit for the 1960 project.

From 1946 up until his death, Douglas was involved with nearly 100 projects as an actor, producer, or director, garnering critical praise and three Oscar nominations. In 1996, he won an honorary Academy Award "for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” Some of his most popular films include Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (from Magnificent Seven director John Sturges), Seven Days in May, Lust for Life (where he played Vincent van Gogh), and the sci-fi epic Saturn 3.

A second lease on life:

In the 1990s, Douglas survived both a helicopter crash (in 1991) and a debilitating stroke (in 1996), but still continued to act despite the partial paralysis. He appeared in the movie Diamonds with Dan Ackroyd and the supernatural TV show Touched by an Angel. His near-death experiences caused the actor to return to Judaism and dive into philanthropy. He donated $5 million to St. Lawrence college and various non-profits in Southern California that build playgrounds and shelters for homeless women, and also provided contributions to synagogues and institutions that support the arts. Indeed, Douglas and his second wife, Anne, were committed to donating the majority of their $80 million net worth to charity.

In 2016, he celebrated his 100th birthday with industry power players like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. Douglas began blogging on MySpace before moving over as a guest writer for The Huffington Post.

As one of the final living members of Hollywood’s Golden Age and its antiquated studio system, Kirk Douglas was a true embodiment of the rags-to-riches story that America is known for. His vital presence in the entertainment industry will sorely be missed.

“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 added in the statement. “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.”