Last week we lost a Hollywood icon. Many people believe he was, in fact, one of the last members of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” (Generally considered to be from 1915-1963 the GA was characterized by glamorous movie stars and the few dominant studios, such as Warner Brothers and MGM, that controlled them and the industry as a whole.)
From unbelievably humble beginnings, he became one of the most famous and successful entertainers of his generation. He achieved fame primarily as an actor, but he was also a successful writer, director and producer. His life was truly an example of what one can achieve in America with hard work, determination, talent, and, yes, a dash of good fortune.
Issur Danielovitch was born on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, a small city in upstate NY near Kingston, the only son (along with six daughters) of poor Jewish immigrants from present-day Belarus. The family changed its surname to “Demsky,” after an uncle who had previously adopted the name. Such Americanization of names was very common among immigrants who wanted a fresh start in their newly adopted country. So, Issur Danielovitch became Izzy Demsky. Izzy changed his name, legally, to Kirk Douglas just prior to entering the Navy.
In his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” which I have read and strongly recommend, Kirk described what a “ragman” did thusly: “buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes.” To characterize the Demsky family as “poor” was an understatement. According to Kirk, “even … in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung of the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.” It is truly amazing to me how a person with such dire beginnings could rise to the level that Kirk did. Read on and, hopefully, you will appreciate the level of his determination to succeed.
Growing up, Kirk worked at a succession of mostly menial jobs, anything to earn a few dollars for the family. A few examples were, selling snacks to mill workers in town, delivering newspapers, gardener, janitor, busboy, waiter, and wrestling in a carnival. There were too many to list all of them here, but you get the idea. According to his Wiki bio Kirk worked at some 40 jobs before he became an actor. In his words, he considered his home life to be so “stifling” that it “lit a fire under [him].” He was “dying to get out.”
Kirk would do any job to earn a few dollars. Legend has it he even spent a night in jail just to have a place to sleep. I suppose in his desperation “three ‘hots’ and a cot” sounded not so bad.
Supposedly, Kirk decided he wanted to be an actor from the age of five. In high school he acted in several plays. Following graduation in 1934 he didn’t have any money for college, so, after talking his way into the dean’s office at St. Lawrence University for an interview, he somehow wrangled a student loan, which he supplemented with some of his many part time jobs.
After graduation in 1939 he managed to obtain a scholarship to the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC. While there, he met two aspiring actresses who would have a significant impact on his life: (1) Diana Dill, who would become his first wife and the mother of Michael Douglas, and (2) Betty Jean Perske. Who was Betty Jean Perske? Perhaps, you know her as Lauren Bacall. Bacall, who was eight years his junior, later wrote she had a huge crush on Kirk, but he was not interested in her as she was “clearly too young [for him].”
Kirk joined the Navy in 1941 where he served as communications officer aboard ship. He was medically discharged in 1944 due to an injury whereupon he returned to NY to resume his acting career.
Initially, he was focused on becoming a stage actor. However, the aforementioned Lauren Bacall recommended him to Hal Wallis who, as it happened, was looking for a fresh face for his film, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” He got the part. Ironically, his film character, was a weak insecure, alcoholic who was dominated by his strong, ruthless wife (played by Barbara Stanwyck). That was to be the last time he played a weak character. As we all know, he made his career playing strong, heroic, tough characters.
Kirk appeared in some 90 movies in a career that spanned over 60 years. Though known, primarily for his acting he was an extremely versatile entertainer. He was also a producer and a director. Furthermore, he appeared on tv and on the stage many times, and he wrote ten books, both fiction and non-fiction.
Kirk’s breakthrough role was in “Champion” where he played a tough, selfish boxer. According to film historian Ray Didlinger, Kirk “absolutely nailed” the part. Moreover, “Variety” described the movie as “a stark, realistic study of the boxing rackets.” The movie earned six AA nominations, including Kirk as Best Actor. Its success convinced Kirk he should specialize in “strong” roles, prospectively.
Furthermore, he became more aggressive in his personal life. He was determined to take firmer control of his career. For example, he broke his studio contract and formed his own producing company, Byrna Productions, which was named after his mother.
As a producer, Douglas had a tough reputation. He worked hard and he expected his actors to do so as well. He was intense and direct, which likely offended some actors, but that was Kirk.
Kirk’s peak period was the 1950s and 1960s. During this time he churned out one success after another. He continued to play strong, independent, tough characters and utilize his rugged good looks highlighted by his signature dimple.
There were many memorable movies, too many to list them all, but some of the most famous of these films included “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), (another AA nomination), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) (featuring an underwater wrestling match with a giant squid), “Lust for Life” (1956), (in which he played the famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh), “Paths of Glory” (1957), “The Vikings” (1958), “Spartacus” (1960) (perhaps his signature performance, and featuring the signature line “I am Spartacus.”), and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962). During this time he appeared with many of the leading actors and actresses of the era, again, too many to mention here. In addition, he appeared on tv many times.
“Spartacus” was significant in another way. As many of you know the 1950s was famous, or perhaps, infamous, for the Hollywood blacklist. One of the blacklisted writers, Dalton Trumbo, was the screenwriter for the movie. Kirk insisted that Trumbo be given full on-screen credit. Although it was an open secret that blacklisted writers were actually writing movies under other names it was not acknowledged, publicly. Kirk’s action was a big no-no, but given his status as a megastar he felt he could get away with it, and he did. Some claim that that effectively “broke” the blacklist (although there is some difference of opinion).
A significant event occurred on the set of The Vikings.” Kirk’s co-stars were Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who also happened to be the parent of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was around 10 years old. As Jamie Lee told it, one day while riding her tricycle she pedaled it into a pool. Kirk dove in and rescued her from drowning making him a real-life hero in addition to a cinematic one.
During his long career Kirk received dozens of awards. Some of the highlights included an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, three AA nominations, the Presidential Medal of Achievement, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Moreover, he is designated #17 on the American Film Institute’s list of “greatest male screen legends.”
He was married to his second wife, Anne, for 65 years, very rare in Hollywood where marriages are often measured in months, not years. They met in Paris while Kirk was filming “Lust for Life.” Anne had been born in Germany as Hannelore Marx, and her family had emigrated to Belgium prior to WWII to escape the Nazis. One reason why the marriage lasted so long was that Anne chose to overlook his frequent affairs. Her attitude was that “as a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage.”
Kirk’s final public appearance was as a presenter at the 2018 Golden Globes” with his daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Douglas attributed his good health, vitality, boundless energy, and longevity in large part to his tough childhood and early life pre-acting. Additionally, there was a large measure of luck. In 1991 he narrowly escaped death when a helicopter in which he was riding collided with a small plane. In 1996 he suffered a stroke, which impaired his ability to speak (which he recovered after several months of therapy).
He often credited his mother, Bryna, for his aggressive nature and for developing the philosophy of “gambling on yourself.” In “The Ragman’s Son” he characterized himself as a “son of a bitch,” adding “I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood, and I feel pretty good about it, because that’s me. I was born aggressive, and I guess I’ll die aggressive.” Frequent co-star, Burt Lancaster, once commented “Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second.”
Kirk and Anne were very philanthropic. They donated to many non-profit causes, such as medical facilities, schools, an Alzheimer’s treatment facility, and various playgrounds in the US and Jerusalem.
Kirk died at his home in Beverley Hills on February 5, 2020 of “natural causes.” Rest in peace Kirk. Your life and career epitomized the American “rags to riches” dream, and was an inspiration to us all. You will be sorely missed.