[Marxism] Kirk Douglas, a Star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dies at 103

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 6 07:01:59 MST 2020


NY Times, Feb. 6, 2020
Kirk Douglas, a Star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dies at 103
By Robert Berkvist

Kirk Douglas, one of the last surviving movie stars from Hollywood’s 
golden age, whose rugged good looks and muscular intensity made him a 
commanding presence in celebrated films like “Lust for Life,” 
“Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” died on Wednesday at his home in 
Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 103.

His son the actor Michael Douglas announced the death in a statement on 
his Facebook page.

Mr. Douglas had made a long and difficult recovery from the effects of a 
severe stroke he suffered in 1996. In 2011, cane in hand, he came 
onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, good-naturedly flirted with the 
co-host Anne Hathaway and jokingly stretched out his presentation of the 
Oscar for best supporting actress.

By then, and even more so as he approached 100 and largely dropped out 
of sight, he was one of the last flickering stars in a Hollywood 
firmament that few in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater on that Oscars evening 
could have known except through viewings of old movies now called 
classics. A vast number filling the hall had not even been born when he 
was at his screen-star peak, the 1950s and ’60s.

But in those years Kirk Douglas was as big a star as there was — a 
member of a pantheon of leading men, among them Burt Lancaster, Gregory 
Peck, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who rose to fame in the postwar years.

And like the others he was instantly recognizable: the jutting jaw, the 
dimpled chin, the piercing gaze and the breaking voice, the last making 
him irresistible fodder for comedians who specialized in impressions.

Three Movies a Year

In his heyday Mr. Douglas appeared in as many as three movies a year, 
often delivering critically acclaimed performances. In his first 11 
years of film acting, he was nominated three times for the Academy Award 
for best actor.

He was known for manly roles, in westerns, war movies and Roman-era 
spectacles, most notably “Spartacus” (1960). But in 80 movies across a 
half-century he was equally at home on mean city streets, in smoky jazz 
clubs and, as Vincent van Gogh, amid the flowers of Arles in the south 
of France.

Many of his earlier films were forgettable — variations on well-worn 
Hollywood themes — and moviegoers were slow to recognize some of his 
best work. But when he found the right role, he proved he could be very 
good indeed.

Early on he was hailed for his performances as an unprincipled Hollywood 
producer, opposite Lana Turner, in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), 
and as van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). Each brought an Oscar nomination.

Where to Stream ‘Spartacus’ and Other Great Kirk Douglas MoviesFeb. 5, 2020

Many critics thought he should have gotten more recognition for his work 
in two films in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957), 
in which he played a French colonel in World War I trying vainly to 
prevent the execution of three innocent soldiers, and “Lonely Are the 
Brave” (1962), an offbeat western about an aging cowboy.

Early on Mr. Douglas created a niche for himself, specializing in 
characters with a hard edge and something a little unsavory about them. 
His scheming Hollywood producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” was “a 
perfect Kirk Douglas-type bum,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote.

Mr. Douglas did not disagree. “I’ve always been attracted to characters 
who are part scoundrel,” he told The Times in an interview in 1984. “I 
don’t find virtue photogenic.”

Yet he often managed to win audiences’ sympathy for even the blackest of 
his characters by suggesting an element of weakness or torment beneath 
the surface.

“To me, acting is creating an illusion, showing tremendous discipline, 
not losing yourself in the character that you’re portraying,” he wrote 
in his best-selling autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988). “The actor 
never gets lost in the character he’s playing; the audience does.”

‘Going Over the Line’

The only time that discipline nearly cracked was during the filming of 
“Lust for Life.” “I felt myself going over the line, into the skin of 
van Gogh,” he wrote. “Not only did I look like him, I was the same age 
he had been when he committed suicide.” The experience was so 
frightening, he added, that for a long time he was reluctant to watch 
the film.

“While we were shooting,” he said, “I wore heavy shoes like the ones van 
Gogh wore. I always kept one untied, so that I would feel unkempt, off 
balance, in danger of tripping. It was loose; it gave him — and me — a 
shuffling gait.”

Most people who worked with Mr. Douglas were either awed by his 
self-confident intensity or put off by it. He was proud of his muscular 
physique and physical prowess and regularly rejected the use of stuntmen 
and stand-ins, convinced he could do almost anything the situation required.

Preparing for “Champion,” he trained for months with a retired 
prizefighter. He took trumpet lessons with Harry James for “Young Man 
With a Horn” (although James did the actual playing on the film’s 
soundtrack). He became a skilled horseman and learned to draw a 
six-shooter with impressive speed, lending authenticity to his Doc 
Holliday when he and Lancaster, as Wyatt Earp, blazed away at the 
Clanton gang in the final shootout in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957).

The engine that drove Mr. Douglas to achieve, again and again, was his 
family history.

The Ragman’s Son

He was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y., a 
small city about 35 miles northwest of Albany. As he put it in his 
autobiography, he was “the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants 
in the WASP town of Amsterdam,” one of seven children, six of them 
sisters. By the time he began attending school, the family name had been 
changed to Demsky and Issur had become Isadore, promptly earning him the 
nickname Izzy.

The town’s mills did not hire Jews, so his father, Herschel (known as 
Harry), became a ragman, a collector and seller of discarded goods. 
“Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the 
families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the 
ladder,” Mr. Douglas wrote. “And I was the ragman’s son.”

A powerful man who drank heavily and got into fights, the elder Demsky 
was often an absentee father, letting his family fend for itself.

Money for food was desperately short much of the time, and young Izzy 
learned that survival meant hard work. He also learned about 
anti-Semitism. “Kids on every street corner beat you up,” he wrote.

Mr. Douglas once estimated that he had held down at least 40 different 
jobs — among them delivering newspapers and washing dishes — before he 
found success in Hollywood. After graduating from high school, he 
hitchhiked north to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and was 
admitted and given a college loan.

He became a varsity wrestler there and, despite being rejected by 
fraternities because he was Jewish, was elected president of the student 
body in his junior year — a first for the St. Lawrence campus.

By that time he had decided that he wanted to be an actor. He got a 
summer job as a stagehand at the Tamarack Playhouse in the Adirondacks 
and was given some minor roles. He traveled to New York City to try out 
for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and performed well, but he was 
told no scholarships were available.

It was at the Tamarack, the summer after he graduated from college, that 
he decided to change his name legally to something he thought more 
befitting an actor than Isadore Demsky. (When he chose Douglas, he 
wrote, “I didn’t realize what a Scottish name I was taking.”)

Returning to New York, he studied acting for two years, played in summer 
stock and made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union 
messenger in “Spring Again.”

The next year he enlisted in the Navy and was trained in antisubmarine 
warfare. He also renewed his friendship with Diana Dill, a young actress 
he had met at the American Academy. They married in 1943, just before he 
shipped out during World War II as the communications officer of Patrol 
Craft 1139. They had two sons, Michael and Joel, before divorcing in 
1951. She died in 2015.

In 1954 Mr. Douglas married Anne Buydens, and they too had two sons, 
Peter and Eric. All his sons went into the film business, either acting 
or producing. Michael did both.

Eric Douglas died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription 
pills in 2004 at the age of 46.

In addition to his son Michael, Mr. Douglas is survived by his wife and 
his two other sons, as well as five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After being injured in an accidental explosion, Mr. Douglas was 
discharged from the Navy in 1944. He returned to New York, did some 
stage work and then headed for Hollywood.

He made his screen debut in 1946 in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” 
playing a weakling who is witness to a murder. In a big-name cast that 
also included Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Judith Anderson, Mr. 
Douglas more than held his own. He was equally solid in “I Walk Alone,” 
a 1948 film noir in which he played the heavy in the first of his 
half-dozen pairings with his close friend Burt Lancaster.

First Shot at an Oscar

But it was the 1949 film “Champion,” produced by the young Stanley 
Kramer, that made him a star. As Midge Kelly, a ruthless young 
prizefighter, he presented a chilling portrait of ambition run wild and 
earned his first Oscar nomination.

He had to wait nearly 50 years, however, before he actually received the 
golden statuette, for lifetime achievement. He never won a competitive 
Oscar.

The doors opened wide for him after “Champion.” A year later he appeared 
in “Young Man With a Horn,” in the title role of a troubled jazz trumpet 
player modeled on Bix Beiderbecke.

In short order came “The Glass Menagerie” (1950), the screen adaptation 
of Tennessee Williams’s play about a timid young woman (Jane Wyman) who 
finds solace in her fantasies, with Mr. Douglas as the gentleman caller; 
“Ace in the Hole” (1951), in which he played a cynical reporter 
manipulating a life-or-death situation; and, also in 1951, “Detective 
Story,” based on Sidney Kingsley’s play, in which Mr. Douglas played an 
overzealous New York detective who invites his own destruction. Mr. 
Crowther of The Times  wrote that Mr. Douglas’s performance was, 
“detective-wise, superb.”

Despite his film-star status and all the trappings that came with it — 
his autobiography chronicles his many sexual conquests — Mr. Douglas 
still hungered for success in the theater. As it turned out he had only 
one more opportunity.

In 1963 he seized the chance to play the lead role in the Broadway 
adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey’s novel about 
authority and individual freedom, set in a mental hospital. Mr. Douglas, 
to mixed reviews, played Randle P. McMurphy, the all-too-sane patient 
who is ultimately destroyed by the system. (Jack Nicholson played the 
part in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation.)

A few years earlier Mr. Douglas, who had worked his way free of a studio 
contract and formed his own company, Bryna Productions, made waves in 
Hollywood when he embarked on a film version of “Spartacus,” Howard 
Fast’s novel of slave revolt in ancient Rome.

He decided not only to hire Dalton Trumbo — who had been blacklisted 
during the McCarthy era on suspicion of Communist sympathies — to write 
the screenplay, but also to put Mr. Trumbo’s name in the credits rather 
than one of the pseudonyms he had been using.

“We all had been employing the blacklisted writers,” Mr. Douglas wrote 
in a 2012 memoir, “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the 
Blacklist.” “It was an open secret and an act of hypocrisy, as well as a 
way to get the best talent at bargain prices. I hated being part of such 
a system.”

(Mr. Douglas’s role in Trumbo’s redemption — although some people say he 
overstated it — was dramatized in the 2015 biographical film “Trumbo,” a 
film he praised, telling The Telegraph of London that “its spirit is 
true to the man I admired.” Dean O’Gorman played Mr. Douglas.)

“Spartacus,” released in 1960, was Mr. Douglas’s third blood-and-thunder 
spectacle set in the ancient past. In “Ulysses” (1955), as Homer’s 
wandering hero, he survived legendary perils to return to his faithful 
Penelope (Silvana Mangano). In “The Vikings” (1958), he and Tony Curtis 
were cast as half brothers who, ignorant of their blood ties, battle for 
control of a Norse kingdom. And in “Spartacus” it was Mr. Douglas, in 
the title role, who led his rebellious fellow slaves against the Roman 
legions (played by 5,000 Spanish soldiers).

One of the last cast-of-thousands spectacles to come out of Hollywood, 
“Spartacus” was notable as well for its international cast, which 
included Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter 
Ustinov, and for its talented young director, Stanley Kubrick, who had 
also directed Mr. Douglas in “Paths of Glory.” Most critics were not 
impressed, but the movie’s popularity has been long lasting. It was 
restored and rereleased in 1991.

Of all his films, Mr. Douglas was proudest of “Lonely Are the Brave,” 
also written by Mr. Trumbo, which Mr. Douglas insisted on making on a 
small budget and against studio advice. “I love the theme,” he said, 
“that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you.”

Mr. Douglas made many more films in the years ahead, but none quite 
lived up to his work of the 1950s and early ’60s. There were more 
westerns: “The Way West” (1967), with Robert Mitchum and Richard 
Widmark; “There Was a Crooked Man ...” (1970), with Henry Fonda; and “A 
Gunfight” (1971), with Johnny Cash. “Tough Guys” (1986), a comedy, was 
the last movie he made with Burt Lancaster.

There were more military roles. He was an Air Force colonel who foils an 
antigovernment plot in “Seven Days in May,” a 1964 Cold War thriller 
that also starred Lancaster. He was a naval aviator in “In Harm’s Way” 
(1965) and a Norwegian saboteur in “The Heroes of Telemark” (1966). In 
“Is Paris Burning?” (1966) he played Gen. George S. Patton, and in “The 
Final Countdown” (1980) he commanded a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

As fewer film roles came his way, Mr. Douglas turned to television. In 
the HBO movie “Draw!” (1984), he was an aging outlaw pitted against 
James Coburn as a drunken sheriff. In the CBS movie “Amos” (1985), he 
was a feisty nursing-home resident battling a tyrannical nurse played by 
Elizabeth Montgomery.

Setbacks and Triumphs

There were setbacks in his personal life. In 1986 Mr. Douglas was fitted 
with a pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat. In 1991 he survived 
a helicopter crash that left two other people dead. In January 1996 he 
suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with seriously impaired 
speech and depression so deep, he later said, that he considered suicide.

But he fought his way back, and by March he was able to appear at the 
Academy Awards ceremony, speaking haltingly, to accept an honorary Oscar 
for lifetime achievement.

By then he could add that statuette to his other lifetime awards: the 
Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Jimmy Carter just 
days before Mr. Carter left office in 1981, and a Kennedy Center Honors 
award, presented in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

In addition to acting and producing, Mr. Douglas found time to write. 
Besides “The Ragman’s Son,” he was the author of a number of books, 
including the novels “Dance With the Devil,” “The Gift” and “Last Tango 
in Brooklyn.” Besides his book on “Spartacus,” his memoirs include “My 
Stroke of Luck” (2001), about his recovery and comeback, and “Let’s Face 
It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning” (2007).

In his later years he devoted his time to charity, campaigning with his 
wife to build 400 playgrounds in Los Angeles and establishing the Anne 
Douglas Center for Homeless Women, for the treatment of drug and alcohol 
addiction; the Kirk Douglas High School, a program to help troubled 
students finish their education; and the Kirk Douglas Theater, to 
nurture young theatrical artists.

In 2015, on his 99th birthday, he and his wife donated $15 million to 
the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills toward the 
construction of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion, a $35 million facility 
for the care of people in the industry with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Douglas’s comeback from illness extended to acting as well. In 1999, 
at 83, he starred in the comedy “Diamonds,” playing a former boxing 
champion who, while recovering from a stroke, embarks on a hunt for 
missing jewels. It was his first film appearance since his illness. 
Critics judged the movie forgettable, but Stephen Holden, writing in The 
Times, found Mr. Douglas’s “hard, gleaming performance” a saving grace.

The last films in which he starred  shared something of a theme: the 
reconciliation between fathers and sons. One was a comedy, “It Runs in 
the Family” (2003), in which his son was played by his actual son 
Michael. The other was the drama “Illusion” (2004), in which he played 
an ailing father in search of his estranged son.

Perhaps, together, they were a fitting finale for the ragman’s son, an 
actor whose boyhood poverty and absent father were never far from his 
mind. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said in describing what had 
driven him. “That’s the core, that early part of you.”

He also reconciled himself to advanced age. In 2008, in an essay in 
Newsweek (“What Old Age Taught Me”), Mr. Douglas wrote:

“Years ago I was at the bedside of my dying mother, an illiterate 
Russian peasant. Terrified, I held her hand. She opened her eyes and 
looked at me. The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t be afraid, son, 
it happens to everyone.’ As I got older, I became comforted by those words.”

William McDonald and Julia Carmel contributed reporting.



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