Kirk Douglas, the legendary Hollywood icon whose own apparent immortality was matched by the staying power of his fierce performances has died, People reports. Douglas was among the greatest actors of his generation, refusing to be held to any standard set during the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. His ability to make audiences laugh one moment and cower in fear the next made him a unique and imposing figure. If any modern man truly could claim to be Spartacus, it was Kirk Douglas.
Douglas, who was born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, New York, appeared in over 90 films and television shows. Powered by a cleft chin whose only competition was Cary Grant’s, Douglas began his film career with a supporting role in the 1946 Barbara Stanwyck noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Douglas was married twice, first to the late Diana Douglas from 1943 to 1951, then to the love of his life, Anne Buydens, in 1954 until his death. His children also went into film business, including two-time Oscar-winner Michael Douglas. His other sons were Joel Douglas, Peter Douglas and the late Eric Douglas.
Here’s a look at the monumental life of Kirk Douglas.
1. Douglas Was Born Issur Danielovitch & His Parents Were Jewish Immigrants From the Russian Empire
Douglas was the son of Russian immigrants and was born Issur Danielovitch. His family spoke Yiddish at their home in Amsterdam, a small town in Upstate New York. His parents were Herschel “Harry” and Bryna “Bertha” Danielovitch. He had six sisters and worked dozens of jobs to achieve his dream of becoming a professional actor.
Douglas’ production company Bryna Productions was named after his mother. He established the company in 1955, and Douglas became one of the first successful actor-producers of the era. Its first project was 1955’s The Indian Fighter.
The most famous Bryna production of them all is Spartacus. The film, which was begun under the direction of Anthony Mann and finished by Stanley Kubrick, is credited as the movie that broke the Hollywood blacklist. Douglas insisted that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo adapt the novel by Howard Fast and get credit for it. Douglas wrote a whole book on his fight against the blacklist, which blocked writers suspected of Communist sympathies, called I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.
As The Atlantic reported in July 2012, Douglas might have overstated his role in breaking the blacklist over the years. There’s also the fact that director Otto Preminger told the media in January 1960, before Spartacus came out, that Trumbo would get screen credit for adapting Leon Uris’ Exodus.
“I think I did it because I was young enough,” Douglas told the Atlantic in 2012. “If I had been older I would have been more conservative—well, let someone else do it. Of course, I was considered a brash young man.”
2. Douglas’ Film Career Might Have Never Started Without Lauren Bacall’s Help
Douglas credited Lauren Bacall with helping his movie career. As Douglas wrote for The Hollywood Reporter after Bacall’s death in 2014, they met at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when she was 17 and he was 24. “Betty,” as Douglas called Bacall, noticed that he was struggling to make ends meet and couldn’t even afford enough food. She convinced her uncle to give her two thick coats that he wore for three years.
By the time World War II ended and Douglas was honorably discharged from the Navy, Bacall was already in Hollywood to work on To Have and Have Not. It was her first movie and co-starred her eventual husband, Humphrey Bogart. Before Douglas went back to New York, he had dinner with Bacall and told her she will be a star. Of course, he was right.
Douglas went back to New York and got good reviews for a play called The Wind Is Ninety. In Los Angeles, Bacall told producer Hal Wallis to see the play because her friend was in it. Wallis was impressed and cast him in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers. Bacall and Douglas eventually got to work in a movie together, 1950’s Young Man With a Horn.
“It’s hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey,” Douglas wrote for THR. “In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm — the girl who believed in me enough to talk Hal Wallis into giving me a Hollywood career. That was my first lesson in helping others without looking for thanks. I will continue to think about her whenever I put it into practice.”
3. He Starred in the Broadway Production of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ & Desperately Hoped to Star in a Film Version
One of the few dreams Douglas had that was never fully realized was starring in a film version of Ken Kesey’s iconic book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. After buying the rights to the novel, he produced it first as a stage play, which earned mixed reviews. He starred in the role of McMurphy and hoped to reprise the role on film.
“My father, Kirk, had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel in the early 1960s and developed it into a Broadway play, with him playing the lead character, RP McMurphy,” Michael Douglas told The Guardian in April 2017. “He tried for years to turn it into a film, but it never got any momentum. Meanwhile, I was at university in Santa Barbara and was very politically active, what with the Vietnam war going on. I loved the book: it was a brilliantly conceived story of one man against the system. I had never thought about producing, but told my dad: ‘Let me run with this.'”
For years, Douglas struggled to scrap the money together to make a film and eventually gave the project to son Michael. At the time, Michael had only been in a handful of movies and stage productions. But in 1975, Michael joined Saul Zaentz to produce a film version. By then, Douglas was too old to play McMurphy, and the role went to Jack Nicholson.
Michael Douglas’ first screenwriter was Lawrence Hauben, who shared the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay with Bo Goldman. Michael told The Guardian that it was Hauben who introduced him to the works of Czech director Miloš Forman. Hal Ashby, who was considered to direct, first suggested Nicholson for the role, but Michael and Zaentz didn’t see it at first.
“It was difficult to see at first, because he’d never played anyone like that before. We were delayed for about six months because of Jack’s schedule, but that turned out to be a great blessing: it gave us the chance to get the ensemble right,” Douglas told The Guardian.
The final film is a classic, becoming the first film to win the “Big Five” Oscars since It Happened One Night in 1934.
4. He Was Nearly Killed in a Helicopter Crash in 1991 & It Inspired Him to Embrace His Jewish Identity
In his long life, Douglas survived two near-death experiences.
In February 1991, Douglas was a passenger in a Helicopter crash at Santa Paula Airport, the Los Angeles Times reported. The crash happened when a helicopter and a small plane collided above the airport. Douglas was 72 at the time and was aboard the helicopter with its pilot, Noel Blanc, the son of the late voice actor Mel Blanc. A third person in the helicopter was a Beverly Hills police officer, who was also injured. The two men on the small plane were killed.
In 1996, Douglas was dealt another blow. He suffered a stroke, which has made it difficult for him to speak ever since. Two months later, he stunned Hollywood by appearing in person to receive his Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards.
After both experiences, Douglas’ response was to find new meaning in life. Following the crash, he embraced his Jewish heritage, which he felt he had spent too much time running from. He wrote about that in his 2001 book Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning.
“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,” Douglas wrote on AISH.com. “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.”
After his stroke, Douglas wrote the book My Stroke of Luck. He dreamed of seeing the book become an “operation manual” for life after a stroke. But he soon realized that it was about much more.
“I thought my book was going to be an operation manual on how to handle a stroke. As I got into it, I noticed that it was an operation manual for life,” Douglas told Ability Magazine. “Think about other people. That’s very important. We’re all so selfish. I’ve been selfish for a long time.”
Douglas hlso dedicated himself to philanthropic causes throughout his life. To celebrate his 99th birthday, he donated $15 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation to establish the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion at its Woodland Hills Campus. In 1992, Douglas and Anne Douglas established Harry’s Haven, an Alzheimer’s unit named after his father.
“Anne and I created Harry’s Haven in 1992 because we wanted to help families in the entertainment community struggling to care for and comfort their loved ones who have Alzheimer’s. What MPTF has done at Harry’s Haven over the past 25 years never ceases to amaze me. We wanted visitors as well as patients to experience a warm and loving environment, and MPTF has fulfilled our wishes admirably,” Douglas said in a statement. “When Jeffrey Katzenberg explained the urgency of enlarging the current facility to accommodate more patients, we had to say yes! Jeffrey knows it is our philosophy to provide funding where it is needed most. The Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion is going to help a lot of families in our community.”
5. Douglas Became the Oldest Celebrity Blogger When He Joined MySpace
Douglas was born before movies could talk, tore down the Hollywood Blacklist, survived the crumbling of the studio system and saw the Cold War end. His life stretched from telephone to cell phone to the birth of social media. He even became the oldest celebrity blogger when he joined MySpace, which he of course outlived.
Douglas started using the platform in March 2007 to promote his memoir Let’s Face It.
“I take it seriously. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I don’t have to do it, I don’t make money. It’s something that gives me personal satisfaction,” Douglas said of blogging in 2008.
When MySpace was no longer available as a blogging platform, Douglas moved on to The Huffington Post, beginning in 2012. Douglas’ last post was titled “The Road Ahead,” in which he expressed his disappointment in President Donald Trump’s election.
“I have lived a long, good life. I will not be here to see the consequences if this evil takes root in our country. But your children and mine will be. And their children. And their children’s children,” Douglas, a Democrat all his life, wrote. “All of us still yearn to remain free. It is what we stand for as a country. I have always been deeply proud to be an American. In the time I have left, I pray that will never change. In our democracy, the decision to remain free is ours to make.”