Kirk Douglas, the Tough-Guy Star of ‘Spartacus’, Dies Aged 103

(Bloomberg) -- Kirk Douglas, the three-time Oscar-nominated actor who played resolute heroes and formidable villains in more than 80 movies, including “Spartacus” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” has died. He was 103.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his Oscar-winning son, Michael Douglas, said Wednesday on Instagram. “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.”

Kirk Douglas, the Tough-Guy Star of ‘Spartacus’, Dies Aged 103

Known for his toothy grin, cleft chin, blazing eyes and granite-chiseled features, Douglas specialized in self-centered, cocky characters and worked with top directors including Stanley Kubrick and Vincente Minnelli. His death was first reported by People Magazine

He won lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute in 1991 and the Screen Actors Guild in 1999 and, in 1996, an honorary Academy Award “for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” It was presented by his son, Michael, who had won an Oscar for best actor in “Wall Street” (1987). Other sons and a grandson also worked in films.

On stage at the 2011 Oscars to announce the best-supporting-actress winner, Douglas, at 94, poked fun at his own failure to win one of the trophies for acting. “I’ll never forget this moment,” he said. “Three times, and I lost every time.”

Golden Globe

His portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” did earn him a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle Award. He also won a Best Picture Golden Globe for “Spartacus.” In 1981, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Douglas infused every role with passion, and his performances were often multilayered ones,” movie critic Leonard Maltin said. “He could bring sinister traits to sympathetic characters, and vice versa.”

Film critics called the agile, athletic Douglas one of the first action heroes, from his performance in films including “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954).

Kirk Douglas, the Tough-Guy Star of ‘Spartacus’, Dies Aged 103

In “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), Douglas created a humorous rivalry with Burt Lancaster, playing Doc Holliday to Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp. The two were close friends who made six films together.

He said his biggest career regret was not playing the main character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), which was co-produced by his son Michael and won the Academy Award for best picture. He had played the lead on stage in the 1960s but was too old by the time the film, directed by Milos Forman, was ready to shoot. Jack Nicholson got the role and won the Oscar for best actor.

Ragman’s Son

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York. His parents, Harry and Bryna, were illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants. His father sold rags. In “The Ragman’s Son,” his 1988 autobiography, Douglas said his impoverished childhood was fraught with anti-Semitism that fueled his ambition and competitive drive.

He graduated from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, in 1938 and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan in 1941. After changing his name in 1939, Douglas first appeared on the New York stage in 1941 in “Spring Again.”

He made his film debut in 1946 as Barbara Stanwyck’s district-attorney husband in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” His breakout role as devious boxer Midge Kelly in 1949’s “Champion” cemented his forceful, intense screen persona, making him a star and earning him an Oscar nomination.

Hollywood Blacklist

Like Lancaster and John Wayne, Douglas was one of the first movie stars to form his own production company to manage his career. Through Bryna Productions, founded in 1952, Douglas hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted for alleged Communist ties, to write the “Spartacus” screenplay.

This action unofficially ended the blacklist and allowed filmmakers banned during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist push in the 1950s to return to work in Hollywood. In a letter to the New York Times in 2011, Douglas said backing his friend Trumbo against the blacklist “was one of the proudest decisions of my life.”

At the height of his career in the 1950s, Douglas kept himself at Hollywood’s center, sometimes turning out three films a year. He starred in well-reviewed movies with A-list directors, including Billy Wilder’s “The Big Carnival,” as a callously ambitious reporter, and Howard Hawks’s “The Big Sky,” as a frontiersman.

He was nominated for two Oscars working with Minnelli, as a ruthless movie producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and as depressed artist Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life.”

Production Company

Douglas played an idealistic French officer battling military corruption in Kubrick’s antiwar film “Paths of Glory.” He then used his production company, which made “Paths of Glory,” to bring “Spartacus” to the screen in 1960. Kubrick directed Douglas in the title role as a slave who leads an insurrection against tyrannical Roman leaders.

Most of his films in the 1960s and 1970s were Westerns and war films in which Douglas played a rugged individual. Approaching 60, the athletic actor still flexed his leading-man muscles in three films he called a trilogy: as a Mafia leader in “The Brotherhood,” an advertising executive in “The Arrangement” and a prison inmate in “There Was a Crooked Man.”

In his later years, he appeared less frequently in films, mostly in character roles. In 2003, Douglas starred with his first wife Diana, son Michael and grandson Cameron in “It Runs in the Family.” Diana Douglas died in 2015.

Personal Trials

He suffered personal tragedies and severe health problems in the 1990s. In 1991, he was the only survivor of a helicopter crash that killed two people. A 1996 stroke left him with a severe speech impediment.

After the crash, Douglas reconnected with his Jewish faith. He studied the Talmud and Torah and made his second bar mitzvah at age 83. He wrote two children’s books about Judaism.

In 2002, he wrote “My Stroke of Luck,” detailing his battle with depression and helplessness after his stroke. Douglas said he felt so hopeless that he became suicidal, putting the loaded gun he had used in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in his mouth. Before he could pull the trigger, he hit a bad tooth, causing such pain he had second thoughts.

He had four sons from two marriages, all of whom entered the movie business -- Joel and Peter as producers, Michael and Eric as actors. Eric Douglas died in 2004.

Douglas celebrated his 90th birthday in December 2006 by issuing a news release urging “America’s young people” to tackle problems such as poverty, global warming and AIDS.

“The world is a mess,” Douglas said, “and you are inheriting it. We have done very little to solve these problems. Now, we leave it to you.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.