Kirk Douglas “acted like a star when he was a nobody,” producer Stanley Kramer once remarked. “He came at you, center stage, and there it was.” Douglas vibrated cocksure masculinity, bringing a beguiling blend of charisma and menace to an impressive collection of cinematic antiheroes during a seven-decade career.
The star of such films as Spartacus, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, and an instrumental figure in breaking the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, Douglas died Wednesday at 103, his family announced exclusively to PEOPLE.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” son 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.”
Born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, and later known as Izzy Demsky, Douglas was the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants. His hardscrabble upbringing in Amsterdam, New York, seeped into his many characters, who often led with his trademark chin.
“In a sense, I’ve always felt on the outside, looking in,” Douglas wrote in The Ragman’s Son, a 1988 autobiography. ”It’s my background, damn it.”
Izzy Demsky became Kirk Douglas while working at a summer stock playhouse during college, and he went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he was a classmate of Lauren Bacall and met his first wife, Diana Dill. He legally changed his name before serving a stint in the Navy in World War II.
Hunger for respect and success fueled Douglas’ rise, first on Broadway and eventually in Hollywood, where he became one of the most successful actors of the postwar period.
In a 12-year stretch beginning in 1949, he starred in 28 movies, receiving Oscar nominations for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956). Mixed in were iconic turns as Doc Holliday opposite Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp in 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the title role in 1960’s gladiator epic Spartacus.
As one of the producers behind Spartacus, he fought for a young Stanley Kubrick (with whom he’d worked on Paths of Glory) to take over as director after Anthony Mann was fired. At the same time, Douglas dealt a death blow to the Hollywood blacklist by hiring and, more importantly, properly crediting pariah screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
“It was one of the proudest decisions of my life,” Douglas recalled in a 2011 letter to The New York Times.
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Off screen, Douglas and Dill had two sons — actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas — before divorcing in 1951. Douglas met Anne Buydens, who was working in film translation and publicity, in 1953, and they wed the following year. They had two sons: Peter Douglas, a producer, and Eric Douglas, an actor and comedian who died of an accidental overdose in 2004.
Kirk Douglas returned to Broadway in 1963 to star in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he had mixed feelings when his son Michael won an Oscar for producing the film adaptation 12 years later; the elder Douglas had been told he was too old to reprise the role, which ultimately went to Jack Nicholson.
Douglas was “devastated” that director Milos Forman didn’t want him for the part, he wrote in his 2007 memoir Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning. But he took pride in his son’s accomplishment.
“My naches — gratification, in Yiddish — from Michael’s success surpassed my disappointment in having failed,” Douglas wrote. “Besides, he tried.”
Douglas’ zest for life never subsided. Weeks after a 1996 stroke robbed him of his classic diction, he bravely accepted an Honorary Oscar for “his fifty years as a creative and moral force in the film community.” His other honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors, and lifetime achievement awards from the Screen Actors Guild and AFI.
Douglas penned a dozen books over the years, including the last one with his wife, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood. The couple also dedicated much of their time and energy to philanthropy, establishing the Douglas Foundation and giving tens of millions of dollars to such causes as medical research, education, youth programs, and combating homelessness.
In 2009, Douglas was center stage again at 92, performing an autobiographical one-man show in Southern California. And things came full circle for him in 2015, when Dean O’Gorman played him in the biopic Trumbo, which starred Bryan Cranston in the title role. “It’s a very good film,” Douglas said, “and its spirit is true to the man I admired.”
For his centennial birthday in 2016, Douglas was feted by family and friends at a star-studded gathering in Beverly Hills. Among the guests was Steven Spielberg, who told Douglas, “I’ve worked with the best of them, and you’re the only movie star I’ve ever met.”
Douglas spoke briefly, thanking everyone for coming, and he capped the party with a sip of vodka, which his doctor had promised him years before if he made it to 100.
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