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Kirk Douglas, last of Hollywood's great matinee idols, dead at 103

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Kirk Douglas, the ferocious, cleft-chinned leading man and one of the last of Hollywood’s Golden Age matinee idols, died Wednesday, his son, actor Michael Douglas announced. The Spartacus star was 103.

The elder Douglas was a three-time Best Actor Oscar nominee and the headliner of more than 80 films. Key credits include Paths of Glory, the Stanley Kubrick war drama; Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the classic Western that paired him with favorite co-star Burt Lancaster; Lust for Life, the Vincent Van Gogh biopic; The Bad and the Beautiful, the definitive Hollywood melodrama; and the Billy Wilder media-circus exposé, Ace in the Hole.

But he is probably best known for Spartacus, the 1960 Roman slave epic that was also directed by Kubrick.

"Spartacus" star Kirk Douglas has died at 103. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
Spartacus star Kirk Douglas has died at 103. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

On screen and off, Douglas was a fighter.

“I came from abject poverty,” he once said. “There was nowhere to go but up.”

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to Russian immigrant parents in New York City on Dec. 9, 1916, Douglas literally fought his way out of the ghetto, first as a wrestler, then as a Navy lieutenant during World War II.

After the war, Lauren Bacall, an old friend of Douglas's from acting school, helped get him a Hollywood screen test.

Douglas’s film debut came in the 1946 noir drama The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers. Three years later, he notched his first Oscar nomination, for the boxing drama Champion.

Kirk Douglas pictured in a promotional portrait for "Champion" in 1949. (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Kirk Douglas pictured in a promotional portrait for Champion in 1949. (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

At the height of his career in the 1950s, Douglas excelled in nitty-gritty, black-and-white tales that maintain their edge even today, among them Detective Story and The Bad and the Beautiful, which earned him a second Oscar nod.

Other classic Douglas roles from the era were his Doc Holliday to Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and his portrait of the touched-by-madness artist in Lust for Life, a movie that brought him his third and final Academy Award nomination.

Douglas’s run as a big-screen leading man waned in the 1970s and 1980s. Working in TV, he earned two Emmy nominations, but as at the Oscars, never won.

However, he was celebrated with an honorary Academy Award in 1996.

“We actors are in business,” Douglas once said. “So, you've got to stick your neck out. If you can’t take it, get out and be an insurance salesman.”

Kirk Douglas stars alongside Peter Lorre in the 1964 movie "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea." (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Kirk Douglas stars alongside Peter Lorre in the 1964 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

True to his words, Douglas blazed trails, becoming one of the first stars to break away from the studio system and control his own projects. He wrote several books, including the 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son. He took charity work seriously — a tally of his contributions for the year 1997 alone filled three, single-spaced pages.

By his own assessment, his proudest moment came when he helped end the Hollywood blacklist by tapping untouchable screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to pen Spartacus. Even more key than the hire, Douglas called for Trumbo’s name — his real name — to appear on screen. While blacklisted writers such as Trumbo routinely worked during the era of Communist witch hunts, they worked under aliases. Until Douglas insisted otherwise.

“One day I decided no more secrets,” Douglas said in 1985. “And you know what? The sky didn’t fall in. Other companies started hiring blacklisted writers and actors.”

Off screen, Douglas was every bit as tenacious as he was on. He often spoke of how it was difficult to relate to his four sons. He said he was especially distant from his eldest, Michael, who would grow up to be every bit the star that the elder Douglas was. It took years, if not decades, but the father-and-son relationship mellowed, if not warmed.

“I think he has changed a lot,” Michael Douglas told 60 Minutes in 2003. “He had much less patience before, a hot temper, which is totally changed in these years.”

Actor Michael Douglas (L) and his father, actor Kirk Douglas, arrive at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, California February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) (OSCARS-PARTIES)
Michael Douglas and his father, Kirk Douglas, arrive at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, Calif. on February 26, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

In 1991, Michael hosted an American Film Institute tribute for his father, and five years later, he presented him with his honorary Oscar. In 2003, the two shared the big screen in the dramedy It Runs in the Family, which co-starred Cameron Douglas, Michael’s son and Kirk’s grandson, and Diana Douglas, Michael’s mother and Kirk’s ex-wife. Kirk and Michael later collaborated on the HBO documentary, A Father, a Son Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which the Douglas men told their family’s story, tensions, infidelities and all.

Douglas stood by Michael during the younger star’s battle with throat cancer, watched grandson Cameron sentenced to prison on drug charges and endured the 2004 accidental overdose death of his long-troubled youngest son, Eric Douglas.

On a happier note, the elder Douglas helped set Michael on the road to the younger’s first Oscar.

In the 1960s, Douglas bought the rights to the Ken Kesey novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with an eye toward playing McMurphy, the crook who turns out to be the sanest person at a grim mental hospital. But Douglas couldn’t get a movie going, and he turned the property over to Michael. In his son’s hands, the project got off the ground and ultimately won Michael a Best Picture Oscar as producer, and Jack Nicholson the Best Actor Oscar.

“That was the biggest disappointment in my life,” Douglas told Larry King in 2005. “And also the biggest triumph.”

In 1991, Douglas was the passenger in a helicopter that crashed, and killed two men. Douglas suffered cuts and bruises, but otherwise was OK. Then, in 1995, he suffered a stroke that robbed him of his distinctive voice, and, as he later revealed, left him staring down the barrel of a loaded gun that had once served him on the set of O.K. Corral.

“I stuck the long barrel of the pistol in my mouth, and it bumped my teeth,” Douglas wrote in his 2002 memoir, My Stroke of Luck. “It sent shivers through my teeth and I pulled the gun out. I began to laugh. A toothache delayed my death.”

Douglas went onto regain the power of speech, and stage a big-screen comeback, starting with 1999’s Diamonds. No, he never again sounded like the Kirk Douglas of old, but he forever battled like the Kirk Douglas of old.

“You have to make the effort,” Douglas told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “If I didn’t make the effort to talk slowly and distinctly, no one would understand me. It’s difficult because your thoughts are so far ahead of your speech. It’s a constant battle.”

At the 2011 Oscars, Douglas presented in the Best Supporting Actress category, and in an otherwise unmemorable show memorably proved he was still capable of commanding a room.

Even into his 90s, Douglas remained feisty and engaged, taking to the internet to chat with fans, or posting a lengthy apology for slavery in the United States.

His survivors include his three living sons, and the former Anne Buydens, his second wife, whom he married in 1954. He was also close to Michael’s wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, who remembered him with a sweet photograph shortly after the news became public.

The estate of Humphrey Bogart, the late husband of Douglas’s former co-star Bacall, who died in 2014, paid tribute to Douglas, too.

Looking back on his career, Douglas once said, “I don’t think I was so tough. I think I was more obsessed.”

Raechal Shewfelt contributed to this report.

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