Rest in Peace, Kirk Douglas

When I arrived at my mother’s house tonight, I was greeted by the sobering news that film legend Kirk Douglas had died at the age of 103. It was always such a pleasure in recent years to know that this cinematic giant was still with us. But now, knowing that he’s passed on, I can smile with the knowledge that whenever I’m in the mood for some first-rate emoting, I can pop in a DVD of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), or Spartacus (1960), or any one of a couple dozen other Kirk Douglas films and get my fix.

You can always count on Kirk.

One of seven children of Russian-Jewish immigrants Hershel and Bryna Danielovich, Kirk Douglas born Issur Danielovich on December 9, 1916, a native of Amsterdam, New York. Along with his six sisters, young Izzy – as he was known to his family and friends – endured a childhood of poverty.

“Unless you’ve been hungry-poor, you don’t know what poor means,” the actor once said.

To supplement his father’s meager income as a peddler of food, wood, and rags, Izzy worked a variety of jobs while growing up, including delivering newspapers and selling pop and candy to the workers at the local carpet mill. He was bitten by the acting but at an early age, however, with his recitation of a poem during a first grade production, and frequently involved his siblings in his theatrical exploits.

“We’d play theater all the time – that’s the way we played,” the actor’s sister, Fritzi Becker, recalled in a 1988 interview on the ABC-TV news magazine 20/20. “Kirk made us dance and we really had to practice the routine and do it well. Sometimes, we could’ve killed him. He would really take it seriously – he was like the director.”

Kirk and his son Michael.

The youngster’s budding acting talent was nurtured during his high school years and later at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he made ends meet by working as a gardener, janitor and waiter. After graduating with honors in 1939, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas. He studied for the next two years at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where one of his fellow students was Betty Jo Perske – soon to be known as Lauren Bacall. In 1941, he made his Broadway debut, portraying a young singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again.

Douglas’s stage career was interrupted by World War II; he served in the Navy for two years before an injury during a training activity earned him an honorable discharge. By this time, Douglas had married model-turned-actress Diana Dill. In 1944, the couple had their first child, Michael – who would grow up to earn fame as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – and three years later, they would have a second son, Joel, but the union would end in divorce in 1951.

Professionally, Douglas resumed his stage career after the war, but fate stepped in to alter his future in the form of Lauren Bacall, who recommended her former classmate to producer Hal Wallis for a role in his upcoming film. That film – The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – no only marked Douglas’s big screen debut, but also his entry into the world of noir.

With Marilyn Maxwell in Champion.

Douglas would go on to appear in five more noirs in as many years, each superb examples from the era: Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be the quintessential noir; I Walk Alone (1948), which marked the first of his seven pictures with lifelong friend Burt Lancaster; Champion (1949), for which he earned his first Oscar nomination; Ace in the Hole (1951), a chilling, unremittingly grim story directed by Billy Wilder; and Detective Story (1951), where he was a standout in a first-rate ensemble cast that included William Bendix, Eleanor Parker, Cathy O’Donnell, and George Macready.

Outside of the shadowy realm of noir, Douglas also appeared in a variety of memorable features, including A Letter to Three Wives (1948), a first-rate drama helmed by Joseph Mankiewicz – and in which Douglas’s character taught me the correct use of the word “badly”; The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), which landed him his second Oscar nomination; The Story of Three Loves (1953), for which he mastered and performed his own stunts as a trapeze artist; Lust for Life (1957), which earned the actor his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh. Although the 1957 Oscar was won by Yul Brynner for The King and I, Douglas received a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for his performance, and racked up widespread acclaim, including praise from co-star Anthony Quinn.

“I thought I was going to be lost in that picture because I didn’t think anybody could compete with [Douglas’s] performance,” Quinn said in a 1997 documentary. “It was absolutely magnetic to see him working.”

Kirk and Anne were married for more than 65 years.

Off-screen, after a brief engagement to Pier Angeli, his co-star in The Story of Three Loves, Douglas began dating German-born Anne Buydens, who had served as the actor’s publicist in Paris on his 1953 feature Act of Love. The two were married on May 29, 1954, went on to add two more sons to Douglas’s clan, Peter in 1955 and Eric in 1958, and remained wed for more than 60 years, until Douglas’s death.

In 1988, Douglas wrote his best-selling autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. It was the first in a series of well-received non-fiction and fiction books authored by the actor, including two children’s books. He also found time for pursuits that were completely outside of the creative realm – in the early 1960s, he served as a self-financed goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United States Information Agency service and the State Department. More recently, Douglas and his wife, through their Douglas Foundation, rebuilt and re-equipped nearly 200 of the 450 playgrounds in the Los Angeles Unified School District, personally attending the dedication of the new facilities. The Douglas Foundation has also funded an Alzheimer’s wing at the Motion Picture House and Hospital; created the Anne Douglas Shelter for homeless women in downtown Los Angeles; opened the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City; and donated $15 million to a new care center in Woodland Hills. Douglas amassed a wide varieity of awards and honors for his humanitarian efforts, including the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, awarded by President Jimmy Carter in 1981; the George Washington Carver Award for outstanding contributions to the arts, humanities, and betterment of racial relations; and the Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service.

During his book tour.

Despite his phenomenal triumphs, both professional and personal, Douglas was no stranger to struggles and near-tragedies. In 1991, he was involved in a life-threatening accident that resulted after the helicopter he was in collided in mid-air with a light plane shortly after takeoff. Two other passengers were killed in the crash and Douglas sustained severe back injuries. Five years later, that actor suffered a stroke that initially rendered him unable to speak, but after extensive rehabilitation, in 1999, he was back on screen in Diamonds, starring Dan Akyroyd and Lauren Bacall.

After his stroke, Douglas spoke frankly during a January 2002 promotional tour for his latest autobiography, My Stroke of Luck, sharing the realities of his health-related challenges and their frightening aftermath: “When I first had my stroke, I went through suicidal impulses,” he admitted. “It seemed hopeless with me at that age. At that time I was tinking I would never be able to talk and act.” In dealing with his stroke, Douglas developed an “Operator’s Manual” for living life – his six recommendations include, “When things go bad, always remember it could be worse” and “Stem depression by thinking of, reaching out to, and helping others.”

RIP Kirk Douglas.

“It seems as if only now I really know who I am,” Douglas said. “My strengths, my weaknesses, my jealousies. It’s as if all of it has been boiling in a pot for all these years, and as it boils, it evaporates into steam, and all that’s left in the pot in the end is your essence – the stuff you started out with in the very beginning.”

Rest in peace, Kirk Douglas.

~ by shadowsandsatin on February 5, 2020.

4 Responses to “Rest in Peace, Kirk Douglas”

  1. A great actor who made every picture he was in better. A great human being who made our world better.

  2. A wonderfully informative and touching portrait of the man and his legacy.

    For years I took comfort in the idea that the three leads of Young Man With a Horn were still with us. Now that has ended and I still have the movie, which is all I ever had yet I feel the loss.

    Note: This may be a repeat of my comment as the internet went out just as I hit “post” the first time.

  3. What a screen presence – and a terrific actor.

    Lovely tribute to Kirk, Karen. 🙂

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