Hollywood Legend, Kirk Douglas, Turns 100
He”s ruggedly handsome with his trademark cleft in his square chin, a Hollywood film legend: Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Who? The world knows him as Kirk Douglas. And on Friday he turns 100 years old. Let's take a look at Kirk Douglas and his only-in-America career.
At Thanksgiving, Kirk Douglas’s daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones posted a family portrait with her Instagram. The actor – hero of such legendary films as Spartacus and Gunfight at the OK Corral, his hair white as snow, is shown sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table, with grandkids Carys and Dylan planting a kiss on his cheeks. Sons Joel and Michael, along with Catherine, are also smiling into the camera.
“Thankful for so much today,” she wrote on her Instagram message.
Kirk Douglas, who turns 100 on Friday, has slowed his pace down a bit. Five years ago, he was still helping out serving Thanksgiving Day turkey meals to the homeless in Los Angeles, together with his wife Anne, now 97. Now he rarely is seen in public.
In mid-November, the Jewish World Congress honoured him with a prize for his work on behalf of Jewish culture. But it was his son Michael, 72, who accepted the award, calling it “an early birthday present” for his dad.
Just recently two-time Oscar winner Michael told the British TV programme “The Jonathan Ross Show” that his father was “doing absolutely great”. His dad could virtually “fly” with his roller, Michael said, adding that he was “super proud” of his father, a man who grew up poor as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, had worked his way to the top and now was donating his millions for worthy causes.
And, Kirk Douglas is at work on a new book, one based on letters he has written to his wife Anne, his wife since 1954. In his old age, he is anything but shy about telling it like it is. In a blog for the Huffington Post in September, he warned readers against Donald Trump. Douglas cited a Trump speech and his remarks against immigrants.
“These are not the American values that we fought in World War II to protect,” the actor wrote. In all his years he had never experienced such a panic-mongering presidential candidate as Trump. He himself was 16 years old when in 1933 a man came to power in Germany, he said, referring to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who at first nobody took seriously.
“He was seen as a buffoon who couldn't possibly deceive an educated, civilized population with his nationalistic, hateful rhetoric.”
And, concluding his commentary, Kirk Douglas said he had always been “deeply proud to be an American. In the time I have left, I pray that will never change.”
Kirk Douglas had to fight hard for his personal success story. Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on December 9, 1916, he grew up along with six sisters in a poor neighbourhood of the industrial town of Amsterdam, New York. He did all kinds of odd jobs – gardener, janitor, and even doing exhibition wrestling at carnivals – to make money for his studies and enter acting school. Around this time Issur Demsky changed his name to Kirk Douglas. Then came World War II, during which he served in the US Navy.
After the war he got his first break. An acting school classmate named Lauren Bacall, who had helped him get a number of small roles on Broadway, introduced him to the movie studio bosses of Hollywood.
His debut film in 1946 was as the alcoholic husband of Barbara Stanwyck in the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He was so convincing in the role that he quickly got more leading roles, including in such films as The Glass Menagerie (1950) and Ace In The Hole (1951).
Altogether, Douglas played in more than 80 films, working for such major directors as Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger and Elia Kazan. Seven of his films were together with his film buddy Burt Lancaster, starting with the gangster film I Walk Alone (1947), all the way to the ironic, self-deprecating comedy Tough Guys (1986).
In his film roles, he liked to play the bad guy, the go-getter, the flawed hero. He was nominated for an Oscar three times, as a brutal, ambitious boxer in Champion (1949), as a power-hungry producer in The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) and as the painter Vincent van Gogh in Lust For Life (1956).
Like the characters he portrayed in film, Douglas also never bowed to pressures from above. And, he set up his own production company so that he could be his own boss, giving the firm the name Bryna, after his mother who originated from the Ukraine.
A major success came with the huge, expensive production of Spartacus. For it, he hired Stanley Kubrick as director and Dalton Trumbo as scriptwriter, in defiance of the fact that Trumbo had been blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer. Douglas himself played the role of the legendary slave who led an uprising against the Roman rulers.
Kirk Douglas also finally did a film together with his son Michael, in the semi-autobiographical comedy It Runs In The Family (2003). By that time, the two men’s difficult relationship during which Michael had long stood in the shadow of his famous father, had been healed. And Kirk’s ex-wife Diana Douglas (1923-2015) also played in the film. The couple had separated when Michael and Joel were still very young.
Though he never won an Oscar for any of his film roles, in 1996 he did receive a special lifetime achievement Oscar. And the American Film Institute lists him as 17th on its all-time top 25 Greatest Male Film Legends. At 100 he is the oldest surviving member on the top-25 list, the only other being number 22nd-ranked Sidney Poiter, who is 89.