Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch, Russian: И́сер Даниело́вич; December 9, 1916) is a retired American film and stage actor, film producer and author. His popular films include Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Lust for Life (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960),Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and Tough Guys (1986).
He is No.17 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest male screen legends in American film history, making him the highest-ranked living person on the list. In 1996, he received the Academy Honorary Award "for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community."
He is one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood's "golden age".
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the son of Bryna "Bertha" (née Sanglel) and Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch, a businessman. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Gomel (now in Belarus but then in Russia), and the family spoke Yiddish. His father's brother, who emigrated earlier, used the surname Demsky, which Douglas' family adopted in the United States. In addition to their surname, his parents also changed their given names to Harry and Bertha.
His 1988 biography paints a memorable picture of his family in the early years in America. After noting that his father was denied work in the carpet mills, the town's largest employers, because he was Jewish, Douglas writes:
So 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 grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy during World War II.
Coming from a poor family, as a boy Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and worked at more than forty jobs before becoming an actor. He found living in a family of six sisters to be stifling, stating, "I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me." During high school, he acted in school plays, and discovered "The one thing in my life that I always knew, that was always constant, was that I wanted to be an actor."
Unable to afford tuition, Douglas talked his way into St. Lawrence University and received a loan which he paid back by working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team, and wrestled one summer in a carnival to make money.
Douglas' acting talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and he received a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (later to become better known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career. Another classmate was aspiring Bermudian actress Diana Dill. While doing summer stock theater during a college term break, he began using the name Kirk Douglas, which he later legally adopted. He earned his first money as an actor that summer. Upon graduating from drama school, Douglas made his Broadway debut as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again.
Douglas enlisted in the United States Navy in 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II. He was medically discharged for war injuries in 1944. On May 3, 1943, Diana Dill, his former classmate, appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Seeing the photograph, Douglas told his fellow sailors that he was going to marry her. He did on November 2, 1943. The couple had two sons together (Michael in 1944 and Joel in 1947) before they divorced in 1951.
After the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio, theatre, and commercials. His stage break occurred in Kiss and Tell, which led to other roles. Douglas had planned to remain a stage actor but Lauren Bacall helped him get his first screen role in the Hal B. Wallis film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis was on his way to New York to look for new talent when Bacall suggested he visit Douglas, who was rehearsing a play called The Wind Is Ninety. Douglas finished the play's run and, with no follow-up work in sight, headed to Hollywood. He was immediately cast in one of the leading roles in Wallis' film and made his film acting debut as a weak man dominated by a ruthless woman, unlike his later roles where he often played dominating characters.
Douglas established his image as a tough guy in his eighth film, Champion, playing a selfish boxer. From then on, he made a career of playing "sons of bitches". From that film on, he decided that to succeed as a star, he needed to ramp up his intensity, overcome his natural shyness, and choose stronger roles. He later stated, "I don’t think I'd be much of an actor without vanity. And I'm not interested in being a 'modest actor'." Early in his Hollywood career, he demonstrated his independent streak and broke his studio contracts to gain total control over his projects, forming his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother.
Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1949 in the Anton Chekhov play Three Sisters, produced by Katharine Cornell.
Douglas was a major box office star in the 1950s and 1960s, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era. Among his various roles, he played a frontier peace officer in his first western Along the Great Divide (1951). He quickly became comfortable with riding horses and playing gunslingers, and appeared in many westerns. In Lonely Are the Brave (1962), his own favorite of his performances, Douglas plays a cowboy trying to live by his own code, much as he did in real life.
In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), one of his three Oscar-nominated roles, Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a hard-nosed film producer who manipulates and uses his actors, writers, and directors. InYoung Man with a Horn (1950), Douglas portrays the rise and fall of a driven jazz musician, based on real-life horn player Bix Beiderbecke. Composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, playing the sidekick role, added realism to the film and gave Douglas insight into the role, being a friend of the real Beiderbecke.
In one of his earliest television appearances, Douglas was a musical guest (as himself) on The Jack Benny Program (1954). In the opening monologue, Benny reads the reviews of critics who liked his season premiere, while skipping the ones who did not. He then hurries home for his weekly jam session with Tony Martin (on clarinet), Fred MacMurray (saxophone), Dick Powell (trumpet), Dan Dailey (drums), and Douglas (four-string banjo). They avail themselves of the coin-operated vending machines in Benny's living room. The band plays Basin Street (Blues), but Douglas keeps going into Bye Bye Blues, the only song he knows.
Douglas played many military men, with varying nuance, in Top Secret Affair (1957), Paths of Glory (1957) (his most famous role in that genre), Town Without Pity (1961), The Hook (1963), Seven Days in May (1964),Heroes of Telemark (1965), In Harm's Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Is Paris Burning (1966), andThe Final Countdown (1980).
His role as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), filmed mostly on location in France, was noted not only for the veracity of his appearance but also for how he conveyed the painter’s internal turmoil. He won a Golden Globe award for his role. DirectorVincente Minnelli stated, "Kirk Douglas achieved a moving and memorable portrait of the artist—a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award." Douglas himself called his acting role as Van Gogh a "very painful experience." He writes, "Not only did I look like Van Gogh, I was the same age he was when he committed suicide."
Douglas played the lead with an all-star cast in Spartacus (1960). He was the executive producer as well, raising the $12 million production cost. He also played an important role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist by making sure that Dalton Trumbo's name was mentioned in the opening and ending credits of the film for the outstanding screenplay he did for the film. Douglas initially selected Anthony Mann to direct the movie, but dismissed him when he judged the initial shooting to be unsatisfactory. To replace Mann he chose Stanley Kubrick, who three years earlier had collaborated closely with Douglas in Paths of Glory, where Douglas played one of his most notable roles as Colonel Dax, the commander of a French regiment during World War I. Spartacus was a huge success, but Kubrick, considering himself a mere employee of Douglas and since much of the footage (including Peter Ustinov's key scenes) was shot under Mann, did not consider it to be part of his own oeuvre.
In addition to serious, driven characters, Douglas was adept at roles requiring a comic touch, as in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, wherein he plays a happy-go-lucky sailor who is the opposite in every way of the brooding Captain Nemo (James Mason). The film was one of Walt Disney's most successful live-action movies and a major box-office hit. He manages a similar comic turn in the western Man Without a Star (1955) and in For Love or Money (1963).
Douglas made seven films over the decades with Burt Lancaster; I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Devil's Disciple(1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these movies but, with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were more or less the same size. Both actors arrived in Hollywood at the same time, and first appeared together in the fourth film for each, albeit with Douglas in a supporting role. They both became actor-producers who sought out independent Hollywood careers.
Douglas stated that the keys to acting success are determination and application, "You must know how to function and how to maintain yourself, and you must have a love of what you do. But an actor also needs great good luck. I have had that luck." Douglas had great vitality, "It takes a lot out of you to work in this business. Many people fall by the wayside because they don’t have the energy to sustain their talent." His intensity spilled over into all elements of his film-making. As an actor, he dove into every role, dissecting not only his own lines but all the parts in the script to measure the rightness of the role, and he was willing to fight with the director if he felt justified. According to his wife, he often brought home that intensity, "When he was doing Lust for Life, he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house—it was frightening." His distinctive acting style and delivery made him, like James Stewart, a favorite with impersonators, especially Frank Gorshin.
Unlike some actors such as Robert Mitchum, Douglas had a high opinion of actors, movies, and moviemaking, "To me it is the most important art form—it is an art, and it includes all the elements of the modern age." But he also stressed the entertainment value of films, "You can make a statement, you can say something, but it must be entertaining."
His first film as a director was Scalawag (1973). In his autobiography The Ragman's Son, he said "Since I was accused so often of trying to direct the films I was in, I thought I ought to really try my hand at directing." It was a difficult debut with many production problems, requiring his wife to act as producer. Douglas plays a charming scoundrel with one leg, a considerable challenge to his athleticism, and though he got credit for his role, the film received unimpressive reviews. Later in 1973, Douglas appeared in a made-for-TV musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
On July 5, 1986, he co-hosted (with Angela Lansbury) the New York Philharmonic's tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television. The orchestra was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Douglas was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. He was especially disappointed for not winning for the last film, "I really thought I had a chance." Douglas did not win any competitive Oscars, but received an Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for "50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community".
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Douglas has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Blvd. He is one of the few personalities (along with James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Gene Autry) whose star has been stolen and later replaced. In 1984, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA, and he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991.
In October 2004, the avenue Kirk Douglas Way in Palm Springs, California was named in his honor by thePalm Springs International Film Society and Film Festival. Popular at home and around the world, Douglas received the Presidential Medal of Freedomin 1981, the French Legion of Honor in 1985, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001.
In March 2009, Douglas starred in an autobiographical one man show titled Before I Forget at the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. The four performances were filmed and turned into a documentary that was first screened in January 2010.
On February 27, 2011, Douglas appeared on the stage of the Kodak Theatre for the 83rd Academy Awards to present the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, where he flirted with host Anne Hathaway, quipping, "where were you when I was making pictures?"
Douglas married twice, first to Diana Dill, on November 2, 1943. The couple had two sons, actor Michael Douglasand producer Joel Douglas. They divorced in 1951. He then married German American producer Anne Buydens on May 29, 1954. They had two sons, producer Peter Douglas and actor Eric Douglas. Eric Douglas died July 6, 2004 of a drug overdose.
In February 1991, Douglas survived a helicopter crash in which two people died. This sparked a search for meaning, which led him, after much study, to embrace the Judaism in which he was raised. He documented this spiritual journey in his book Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (2001). In his earlier autobiography, The Ragman's Son (1988), he stated that "years back, I tried to forget that I was a Jew." However, in his later career, he notes that "coming to grips with what it means to be a Jew has been a theme in my life." In an interview in 2000, he explained this transition:
Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y. Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn't want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don't have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.
Douglas notes also that the underlying theme of some of his films, including The Juggler (1953), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Remembrance of Love (1982), was about "a Jew who doesn't think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness." Although his children had a non-Jewish mother, Douglas states that they were "aware culturally" of his "deep convictions," and he never tried to influence their own religious decisions. He notes, however, that Michael answered, "I'm a Jew," when once asked about what he was. Kirk Douglas' wife, Anne Buydens,converted to Judaism before they renewed their wedding vows in 2004.
Douglas is a lifelong supporter of the US Democratic Party. He has on occasion written letters to politicians who were friends. He notes in his memoir, Let's Face It (2007), that he felt compelled to write former president Jimmy Carter in 2006 in order to stress that "Israel is the only successful democracy in the Middle East. . . . [and] has had to endure many wars against overwhelming odds. If Israel loses one war, they lose Israel."
In January 1996, he suffered a severe stroke, partially impairing his ability to speak. On December 8, 2006, Douglas appeared on Entertainment Tonight, where the entire staff wished him a happy 90th birthday the night before. His son Michael and daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones were among the many celebrities who attended his birthday celebration. On the show, he discussed the books he has written and the death of his son Eric. Douglas celebrated a second Bar-Mitzvah ceremony in 1999 at the age of eighty-three.
A portrait of Douglas, titled "The Great and the Beautiful," which encapsulated his film career, art collection, philanthropy and rehabilitation from the helicopter crash and the stroke, appeared inPalm Springs Life magazine in 1999. The article said "For years, this energetic performer could be seen jogging several miles to get his morning paper, playing tennis with locals or posing for snapshots and signing autographs for star-struck out-of-towners. He has been a veritable one-man tourist promotion over the past four decades, extolling the virtue of the city he loves to virtually anyone who'll listen".
Douglas blogged regularly on his Myspace account, but no longer does so. At 96, he is the oldest celebrity blogger.