Kirk Douglas liked a good fight. “He fights with his wife, he fights with the maid, he fights with the cook,” Burt Lancaster, his late costar, friend and running partner once said. “God knows, he has fought with me.”
It is hardly surprising then that Douglas, who died on Wednesday, nearly two decades after suffering a stroke in 1996 that left him speech impaired, fought all the way to the end. The actor, one of the few whose outsized personality loomed as large in real life as it did on the big screen and one of the very last threads connecting us to the Golden Age Hollywood dream factory, was 103 years old.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” Michael Douglas said in a statement. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
“But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband,” Michael Douglas wrote.
“Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”
While suffering a stroke and courageously and publicly battling back from it may have softened Douglas’ image considerably (“Truthfully, [he’s] a much nicer person,” is how his famous son Michael put it), Douglas maintained a reputation as one of the more controversial figures in Hollywood history. No matter the opponent, he was a near constant battler, fighting for whatever he thought was right, best or really just most representative of his genuine self.
“I’m attracted and fascinated by how difficult it is to be an individual,” he told Roger Ebert in 1969. “The thing of being a so-called movie star works against you. Sure, you can always make exciting pictures, adventure pictures, but when you try something different they dump on you because you’re a star. And yet that theme of the individual, fighting against society— it’s always obsessed me.”
As Michael, the eldest of Douglas’ four sons, told Vanity Fair in 2010, “He was a very intense, talented survivalist. He was consumed with clawing out and making something of himself…”
Many— most notably, Douglas himself— traced this intensity back to his childhood; the actor used his Horatio Alger-like life story as the basis of many of his 11 books, including his bestselling autobiography from 1988, The Ragman’s Son.
Born Issur Danielovich in Amsterdam, New York, Douglas went by Izzy Dempsky before inventing his name when he moved to New York City. (Douglas was for Douglas Fairbanks and Kirk was just because “it sounded snazzy.”) His parents were illiterate Russian Jews who had escaped the Communists to Ellis Island; Douglas and his six sisters grew up speaking Yiddish. It’s safe to say, few actors grew up more impoverished.
“People often become actors because it’s a form of escape from the real world,” Douglas has said. “And I had plenty to escape, believe me. It was a helluva struggle and there were times when we didn’t know when the next meal was coming from.” He found his calling as a 5 year old when he read a poem in front of the parents of his first grade class and became enraptured by the applause. “An actor was born,” he said.
After high school, Douglas managed to talk his way into St. Lawrence University, where he acted, was a star on the wrestling team, and worked as a janitor. After college, he sweet-talked a scholarship from American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. There he dated Betty Pepske and his future first wife Diana Dill. Betty would eventually change her name to Lauren Bacall and recommend her old flame to Paramount’s Hal Wallis for a screen test.
Douglas hit Hollywood like a bat out of hell. When someone at the studio wanted him to fix his trademark chin dimple, he went ballistic: “If you don’t like the hole in my chin, I am going back to Broadway!” In a fight for control that would mark his entire career, he broke his five picture deal contract with Paramount after his 1946 debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
In 1947, he kicked off his longtime partnership with Burt Lancaster with I Walk Alone. It was the perfect pairing— the Matt and Ben of their day; gossip columnist Sheilah Graham dubbed them, “The Terrible-Tempered Twins.” Said Lancaster years later, “We were both young, brash cocky, arrogant. We knew everything. Nobody liked us.” (They didn’t like Douglas more: Photoplay named him the most hated man in Hollywood several years running.)
By the time he earned his first Oscar nomination—fittingly, it was for playing a boxer in 1949’s Champion—the father of two was divorced from Diana and developing an epic reputation as a ladies man. He dated, among others, Rhonda Fleming, Evelyn Keyes, Ava Gardner, Gene Tierney, Rita Heyworth, Joan Crawford, Marlena Dietrich and Pier Angeli, to whom he was briefly engaged.
It was an impressive enough tally that the reputation would dog him his entire life despite the fact that he married Anne Buydens in Vegas in 1957 and they stayed devoted to each other until his death. “Yeah, for a guy you call a womanizer I’ve been married for 57 years,” he said in 2011. “And I still write her love poetry. I wrote her several poems. In one, I said, ‘Romance begins at 80.’”
With Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus in 1960, Douglas would leave perhaps his most indelible mark on cinema both as an actor and as a producer who insisted that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be properly credited for his script.
“That was a terrible time in Hollywood history,” he told Interview. “It should never have happened. We should have fought it. But it’s over and I, in my old age, take solace in the fact that I remember.” (Some contend that Douglas, who published I Am Spartacus!: Making A Film, Breaking The Blacklist in 2012 may have overstated his role in breaking the blacklist.)