“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his son, two-time Oscar winner Michael Douglas, said in a statement 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.”
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A three-time Academy Award nominee and recipient of an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1996, Douglas will be remembered for a prolific career in which he appeared in close to 100 movies and delivered numerous defining performances.
As a producer and performer he had an instinct for the dramatic moment, fighting with director Stanley Kubrick to shoot the iconic scene in 1960’s Spartacus where the rebel gladiator’s men refuse to identify him, each in turn rising to say, “I am Spartacus.”
As well as his titular role in Spartacus, in which he played the leader of a slave revolt against the Roman republic, his leading turns included fierce defense attorney Major Steve Garrett in Gottfried Reinhardt’s Town Without Pity, ambitious and devious journalist Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, and Colonel Dax in Kubrick’s anti-war story Paths of Glory.
Douglas also was a producer who established the label Bryna Productions in 1955. The company collaborated with then then-relatively unknown Kubrick on both Paths of Glory and Spartacus, the latter winning four Oscars and becoming Universal Studios’ highest-grossing production ever at the time.
The actor’s work on Spartacus also was notable because of his contribution to breaking the “Hollywood blacklist,” which saw many professionals who were considered to be communist sympathizers denied work throughout the 1940s and ’50s. In his 2012 book about the making of the movie, Douglas recalled how he was the driving force behind ensuring that Dalton Trumbo — one of the blacklisted figures who refused to answer questions about his involvement with the Communist Party — was given an official on-screen credit for writing the movie. Bryan Cranston earned an Oscar nom for playing the writing in the 2015 biopic Trumbo.
“I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist,” Douglas told the Jewish Chronicle in 2012. The actor began practising Judaism, the religion in which he was raised, following a near-fatal helicopter crash in 1991 in which two people were killed. He once commented that there was an underlying theme in several of his films about a man who ignores his Jewishness but eventually finds it.
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch to Jewish immigrant parents on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, NY. Growing up in poverty, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas shortly before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving as a comms officer on an anti-submarine vessel. Douglas recalled having more than 40 jobs before becoming an actor. He received a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, studying alongside Lauren Bacall, whom he dated on and off at the time.
After initial work in commercials and radio, he started to make his mark on the stage, before Bacall helped him land his first film role in Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which played in Cannes in 1947 and saw the actor gain some acclaim.
Douglas continued to act on stage throughout his career, starring in the 1963 Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest alongside Gene Wilder and William Daniels. Douglas retained the book’s rights after the play and, while he was unable to get backing for a feature version, he passed the rights onto his son Michael, who successfully produced it in 1975 with Miloš Forman helming and Jack Nicholson starring. The film was only the second picture at the time to sweep all five marquee Oscars.
Douglas was well noted in the biz for his fiery personality. The actor once claimed he was “the most disliked actor in Hollywood” because of his aggressive nature, though he also was highly regarded for his sense of humor.
Alongside Michael, Douglas had three other boys: the producers Joel and Peter, and the actor and stand-up comedian Eric, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2004. The elder Douglas was married to the actress Diana Webster from 1943-51, having Michael and Joel, and then the producer and philanthropist Anne Buydens from 1954 until his death.
Douglas and Buydens were involved in numerous philanthropic endeavors, including traveling to more than 40 countries as goodwill ambassadors to advocate for democracy. In 1981, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter for his efforts. The couple donated significant sums to causes including Alzheimer’s, homeless women and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and they also built parks and a theater in Israel.
In January 1996, Douglas suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak. Despite this, he underwent therapy and his speech returned quickly enough for him to accept his honorary Oscar that March. He also appeared at the 2011 Oscars, age 94, introducing the Best Supporting Actress nominees (Melissa Leo won for The Fighter) and poking fun at James Franco, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in a typically charming turn.
In later life, he also became an avid online writer and was considered to be probably the world’s oldest celebrity blogger. His blogs were hosted on the Huffington Post for a time, running until 2017, including one about his long friendship with Nancy Reagan, who died in 2016. Douglas also published 10 books, culminating with a collection of poems in 2014.
In 2009, he was the subject of a feature documentary titled Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget, in which he chronicled his life, family and work. It was culled from his one-man stage show of the same title that he performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre near the Sony lot in Culver City.
Along with his wife and sons, Douglas is survived by his sister, Lua Izzy; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A private funeral is planned, and a memorial service is in the works. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Harry’s Haven at Motion Picture and TV home.
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