Kirk Douglas, Hollywood Tough Guy And 'Spartacus' Superstar, Dies At 103

Feb 5, 2020
Originally published on February 6, 2020 8:12 am

Kirk Douglas, the self-described "ragman's son" who became a global Hollywood superstar in the 1950s and '60s, died on Wednesday. He was 103. Douglas was often cast as a troubled tough guy in films, most famously as a rebellious Roman slave named Spartacus. Off-screen, he was devoted to family and to humanitarian causes.

His son Michael Douglas announced the actor's death: "To the world he was a legend. ... But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad."

"Kirk's life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet," Michael Douglas wrote.

Kirk Douglas was a classic Hollywood alpha male, with his cleft chin, his gritty voice and a set to his jaw that made him seem to be talking through clenched teeth. He made a conscious choice to go his own way by playing men who went theirs. In Stanley Kubrick's World War I epic, Paths of Glory, Douglas played the principled Colonel Dax, stepping into an iconic role of the good man fighting the establishment.

But Douglas seemed almost more comfortable playing what he liked to call "tough sons of bitches," or flawed men who were, one way or another, gaming the system. Two of his earliest title roles, as the backstabbing boxer in Champion and the self-destructive cornetist in Young Man With a Horn, portrayed stars who turn into heels just as the public embraces them.

Before long, Douglas had developed that reputation himself. Looking back in his memoirs, Douglas described his younger self as "egotistical and ambitious" and claimed not to like him very much. But his best performances, such as his portrayal of an abrasive but driven Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, were memorably electric.

For more than two decades in Hollywood, Douglas "cast a giant shadow," as one of his titles proclaimed, playing two or even three starring roles each year. When he was not cast for Ben-Hur, losing the role to Charlton Heston, Douglas countered the loss months later with his own Roman epic, Spartacus. Douglas produced the film and starred as the title character who famously revolted against his Roman captors.

Off-screen, Douglas also led an open revolt, against Hollywood's blacklist. The communist witch hunts of the 1950s had destroyed many careers, including that of Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had written for years under an alias. Douglas was disgusted by this hypocrisy, and saying, "To hell with it," he put Trumbo's real name in the film credits.

When Spartacus became a hit, the blacklist was effectively finished. More than three decades later, speaking with NPR's Susan Stamberg, Douglas reflected upon this impulsive but life-defining decision: "Sometimes I often think that if I were much older, would I still have done it? Anyhow, I did it. It was an impulsive thing. I'm proud of it. I think it's one of the good things that I've done in life."

Douglas the bold blacklist-breaker had come a long way, and from very humble beginnings. Born Issur Danielovitch in New York to illiterate, desperately poor Russian Jewish parents, he was the only boy among seven siblings. He would later tell his own children that they didn't have his "advantage of being born into abject poverty."

From an early age, that "advantage" forced Douglas to put himself out there with the public, and he worked odd jobs, scrounged for food and talked his way into college and loans. Acting school and a stint in the Navy followed college, as well as minor success on Broadway using the new stage name that he would keep for the rest of his career. Then Hollywood beckoned, and within four years, Douglas had made eight films, had established his persona as a tough guy and had earned the first of his three Oscar nominations as a barrel-chested prizefighter in Champion.

True to the roles he liked to play, success did not make Douglas a "nice guy." Though married, he had affairs with actresses Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner. He was mostly an absentee father to his first two sons; frequently he broke studio contracts and feuded with directors. In 1964, he said, "I am probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood, and I feel pretty good about it, because that's me."

Douglas with his eldest sons, Joel (center) and Michael, circa 1956.
Arnold M. Johnson / Hulton Archives/Getty Images

The 1960s were his glory days as he starred in hit after hit. Douglas battled a presidential overthrow in Seven Days in May and was torn between Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr in The Arrangement. He played gunslingers, lawyers, admirals, doctors and con men, and he worked steadily through the next two decades.

When the tough guy schtick got old, Douglas turned to comedy and mocked it in a film called Tough Guys, in which he starred with his friend and frequent co-star Burt Lancaster. Not even a helicopter crash in 1991, when he was 74, slowed Douglas down — though the fact that a pilot and another passenger had died, he told NPR, did change his worldview. "It makes you think about other people," Douglas said. "I think that you have to — as you get old in life and as you mature — you have to be aware more of the outside world and other people."

Just a year after that 1994 interview, a stroke left him almost entirely unable to speak. He had thoughts of suicide. He wrote: "What does an actor do who can't talk? ... Wait for silent pictures to come back?"

Douglas' book My Stroke of Luck describes how he recovered by reaching out to others and by rediscovering the Judaism he'd been neglecting for 60 years.

Douglas and his wife Anne Buydens would spend the next decade and millions of dollars fixing up playgrounds in California — more than 400 altogether. Every time he reopened one, he slid down its slide, joking after one such slide at age 92: "Every dedication I risk my life."

In between the odd acting jobs that came his way, Douglas found time to write memoirs, novels and children's books. He also became one of the world's oldest bloggers at 92. And at 94, he returned to the stage, delighting audiences at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre with an autobiographical solo show called Before I Forget.

Douglas was the last great movie star of his generation. He outlived the likes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston and his buddy Burt Lancaster — and younger audiences probably know him better as Michael Douglas' father than as a star in his own right. But he was a star and, for a long time, among the brightest in the Hollywood firmament.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Kirk Douglas, the self-described ragman's son who became a global Hollywood superstar in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 103. Douglas was often cast as a troubled tough guy in films, most famously as a rebellious Roman slave named Spartacus. Off-screen, he was devoted to humanitarian causes. Bob Mondello offers this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: That cleft in his chin, the grit in his voice, the set of his jaw in moments of intensity that made him seem to be talking through clenched teeth - Kirk Douglas was a classic Hollywood alpha male, one who made a conscious choice to go his own way by playing men who went theirs, like the principled Colonel Dax in the World War I epic "Paths Of Glory" who bucked his commanders to try to save three soldiers at their court-martial.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATHS OF GLORY")

KIRK DOUGLAS: (As Colonel Dax) Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I'm ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion. The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice. To find these men guilty would be a crime to haunt each of you to the day you die.

MONDELLO: Colonel Dax was a good man fighting the establishment, but Douglas seemed almost more comfortable playing what he liked to call tough sons of b*****es, flawed men who were, one way or another, gaming the system. Two of his earliest title roles - the backstabbing boxer in the "Champion" and the self-destructive cornetist in "Young Man With A Horn" - were stars who turn into heels just as the public embraces them.

Before long, Douglas had developed that reputation himself. Looking back in his memoirs, Douglas describes the young Kirk Douglas as egotistical and ambitious and claims not to like him very much. But his performances as, say, an abrasive, driven Vincent van Gogh in "Lust For Life," were electric.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUST FOR LIFE")

DOUGLAS: (As Vincent van Gogh) When I paint the sun, I want to make people feel it revolving, giving off light and heat. When I paint a pheasant in the field, I want to feel the sun pouring into him like it does in the corn.

ANTHONY QUINN: (As Paul Gaugin) Is that what you think you're doing when you overload your brush? What I see when I look at your work is just you paint too fast.

DOUGLAS: (As Vincent van Gogh) You look too fast.

MONDELLO: For more than two decades in Hollywood, Douglas cast a giant shadow, as one of his titles had it, playing two or even three starring roles each year. He had clout enough that when he didn't get cast in "Ben-Hur," he could counter it just months later with his own Roman epic, both producing and starring as the rugged, chisel-featured slave Spartacus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPARTACUS")

DOUGLAS: (As Spartacus) Take that back to your senate. Tell them you and that broken stick is all that's left of the garrison of Rome. Tell them we want nothing from Rome - nothing - except our freedom.

(CHEERING)

MONDELLO: Off-screen, Douglas also led an open revolt against Hollywood's blacklist. The communist witch hunts of the 1950s had destroyed many careers. "Spartacus" screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been forced for years to write under an alias. Douglas was disgusted by the hypocrisy; said, to hell with it; and put Trumbo's name in the credits. When "Spartacus" was a hit, the blacklist was effectively finished.

More than three decades later, speaking with NPR's Susan Stamberg, Douglas was philosophical about the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DOUGLAS: If I were much older, would I still have done it? Maybe. Who knows? It was a time - I was young, impulsive. Sometimes they say as you get older, you get more cautious. I like to think that I don't. But it could be. Anyhow, I did it. It was an impulsive thing. I'm proud of it. I think it's one of the good things that I've done in life.

MONDELLO: Born Issur Danielovitch in New York to illiterate, desperately poor Russian Jewish parents, the future leading man was the only boy amongst seven siblings. He would later tell his own children that they didn't have his advantage of being born into abject poverty. From an early age, that advantage forced him to put himself out there with the public, working odd jobs, scrounging for food, talking his way not just into college but also into a loan to pay for it.

Acting school followed and a stint in the Navy, a name change to Kirk Douglas and minor success in New York. Then Hollywood beckoned. And within four years, he'd made eight films, established his persona as a tough guy and earned the first of his three Oscar nominations as a barrel-chested prizefighter in the "Champion."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHAMPION")

DOUGLAS: (As Midge) Did you hear that crowd? For the first time in my life, people cheering for me. Were you deaf? Didn't you hear them?

MONDELLO: Success did not make Douglas a nice guy. Though married, he had multiple affairs with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner. He was a mostly absentee father to his first two sons. He broke studio contracts and feuded with directors. In 1964, he said, I am probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood, and I feel pretty good about it because that's me.

Later, he felt less good about it. But the '60s were his glory days, with hit after hit - battling a presidential overthrow in "Seven Days In May," torn between Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr in "The Arrangement." He played gunslingers, lawyers, admirals, doctors, con men and worked steadily through the next two decades.

When the tough-guy shtick got old, he turned to comedy and mocked it in a film called "Tough Guys" with his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster. Not even a helicopter crash in 1991 when he was 74 could slow him down, though the fact that a pilot and another passenger had died, he told NPR, did change his worldview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DOUGLAS: Why am I alive? Why did two young people die? And it makes you think about other people more. I think you have to, as you get older in life and as you mature - you have to be aware more of the outside world and other people.

MONDELLO: Just a year after that interview, a stroke left him almost entirely unable to speak and thinking of suicide. He wrote of wondering, what does an actor do who can't talk - wait for silent pictures to come back? His book about that stroke, though, is called "My Stroke Of Luck" and tells how he recovered by reaching out to others and by rediscovering the Judaism he had been neglecting for 60 years.

Douglas and his wife Anne were to spend the next decade and millions of dollars fixing up playgrounds in California - more than 400 altogether. Every time he reopened one, he slid down its slide, joking after one such slide at 92, every dedication, I risk my life.

In between the odd acting jobs that came his way, Douglas found time to write memoirs and children's books. He also became one of the world's oldest bloggers at 92. And at 94, he returned to the stage, delighting audiences at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre with an autobiographical solo show called "Before I Forget."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUGLAS: When you have a stroke, you must talk slowly to be understood. And I've discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen.

(LAUGHTER)

DOUGLAS: They think I'm going to say something important.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Having said plenty in his time, he really didn't have to anymore, but that didn't stop him.

Kirk Douglas was the last great movie star of his generation. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, his buddy Burt Lancaster - Douglas outlived them all by so many years that younger audiences probably know him better as Michael Douglas' father than as a star in his own right. But he was a star for a long time, among the brightest in the Hollywood firmament.

I'm Bob Mondello.

CORNISH: Kirk Douglas died today at age 103.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.