Kirk Douglas brought a highly charged dramatic energy to starring roles in Spartacus, Lust
for Life, Champion, Ace within the Hole and Paths of Glory, helping him to become one
of Hollywood’s foremost leading men and enduring stars.
Douglas, who amassed nearly 90 screen credits, entered Hollywood in 1946 as a product
of the studio system and later made the risky transition to being an independent producer
and star performer because the system crumbled.
Beyond his on-screen work, Douglas produced and directed films; helped put an end to
the Hollywood blacklist within the 1950s; wrote memoirs, novels and children’s books; and
with his second wife, Anne Douglas, ran a project to enhance school playgrounds in
Starting within the 1960s, he travelled round the world as a US State Department “goodwill”
ambassador, which sparked an interest in politics and brought him friendships with nearly
every president since John F Kennedy. In 1981, President Carter awarded him the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honour.
In the prime of his acting career, Douglas was a dashing figure, a golden-haired hunk with
chiselled countenance , steely blue eyes, a particular low guttural voice and pearly white
teeth that gleamed behind a disarming smile. He had a muscular build stretched over a 5ft
10in frame, trim and fit from years as an accomplished highschool and collegiate wrestler.
Built upon his raw physical strength were an
intelligence and intensity that he infused into his
movie characters. Many of them were
unscrupulous, stubborn, even diabolical. For
some movie critics, his acting seemed onedimensional, easily parodied by comics.
To Douglas, the seriousness and approach to the craft of acting never wavered. Indeed, he always
followed an easy formula. “When you play a strong character, find his weakness,” he once
said. “If you play a weak character, find his strength. His work covered a variety of genres, from westerns and epic dramas to romances and
action adventures. In Douglas’s earliest movies, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
and Out of the Past (1947), he was cast within the unlikely role of smarmy weakling. His
breakout role came in 1949 when he played a self-absorbed boxer in Champion, supported a
Ring Lardner story of a restless young man who alienates those closest to him as he
pursues a prize-fighting career.
He went on to play a troubled musician character supported the jazz trumpeter Bix
Beiderbecke in Young Man with a Horn (1950); an obsessed detective with violent
tendencies in mystery (1951); and an unscrupulous newspaper reporter in director
Billy Wilder’s Ace within the Hole (1951).
Douglas portrayed Vincent van Gogh in Lust for all times (1956); played the gunslinger Doc
Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957); and appeared as a primary war French
colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s scathing anti-war movie Paths of Glory(1957).
The son of a rag collector, Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in 1916, in
Amsterdam, New York, where he was the youngest child and only son during a family of seven
children. On a wrestling scholarship, he entered St Lawrence University in Canton, New
York, and worked as a janitor to assist with tuition. After his graduation in 1938, he studied
at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in ny and made his Broadway debut as
a singing Western Union boy in Spring Again (1941).
At the beginning of the Second war , he enlisted within the navy and served as a
communications officer with an anti-submarine unit. Before he might be sent to combat
duty, a bout with amebic dysentery led to an honourable discharge in 1944.
After a quick return to the ny acting scene, he won the eye of Hollywood
producer Hal Wallis on the advice of Lauren Bacall, a former classmate at the