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By Scott D. O'Reilly


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Kirk Douglas Publicity Photo from "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949)Of all the stars from Hollywood's golden age few have shone brighter or longer than Kirk Douglas.  Born into abject poverty as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam New York on December 9th 1916 the future actor decided early in life that he had nowhere to go put up.  Viewing acting as a ticket out of poverty Douglas' early interest in the theatre was interrupted by WWII and service in the Navy, but after the war a friend named Lauren Bacall recommended Douglas for a Hollywood screen test and the rest, as they say, is history.

Douglas's rise was hardly meteoric, as it is with some stars, but he was fortunate in landing juicy parts in strong films, working well with experienced stars while crafting memorable supporting roles.  His first film, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" directed by Lewis Milestone is a case in point.  A film noir classic starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, and Judith Anderson, Douglas's inaugural role had him playing a bespectacled weakling with a spine of jello, the very opposite of the screen persona he would develop over the next several decades.  It was an impressive performance and undoubtedly helped Douglas land an even better part in his second film, "Out of the Past," another classic from the film noir genre this time starring Robert Mitchum.

Black and white seemed to suit the handsome, seemingly chiseled features of the young Douglas, accentuating his trademark dimpled chin.  At 5' 11" Douglas wasn't as outsized as some of future co-stars like John Wayne and Burt Lancaster, but he invariably created a strong impression thanks to his striking looks, muscular build, and kinetic personality.  But it wasn't until 1949's "Champion" that Douglas came into his own as a box office star in his own right.  Playing a middleweight boxer who goes from rags to riches seemed a role perfectly tailored for the athletic Douglas whose capacity to express emotional and physical volatility on screen was virtually unmatched by any actor of his day.  Both a commercial and critical success the film helped make Douglas one of the most sought after talents in Hollywood, and over the next several years Douglas would work with many of Hollywood's leading directors including, Michael Curtiz in "The Man with a Horn," Vincent Minnelli in "The Bad and the Beautiful," and Billy Wilder in "Ace in the Hole."

Despite the versatility of his roles and his range as a performer Douglas had established himself as one of Hollywood's leading 'tough guys.'  It came as a something of a shock and a letdown to friend and fellow actor John Wayne when Douglas agreed to play the tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life."  Apparently Wayne had strong notions that stars like himself and Douglas were role models and that they shouldn't play characters that commit morally repulsive actions like cutting one's ear off and committing suicide.  Douglas took issue with The Duke, replying that he was just an actor playing a part.  Wayne and Douglas remained friends and frequent collaborators, of course, but Douglas let it be known that he thought his highly acclaimed performance, including an Oscar nomination, was a vindication.

Wayne and Douglas may have had their differences over what roles actors should play, but there is little doubt that their on screen pairings have proven enduringly popular with audiences.  No where is their on screen chemistry - and rivalry - more appealing than in "The War Wagon" a buddy western where the only question is will these two guys kill each other before the bad guys kill the them first.  In a scene that typifies their on and off screen competitiveness Wayne and Douglas out duel two bad guys in a gunfight after which Douglas turns to Wayne and boasts, "Mine hit the ground first."  To which Wayne retorts, "Mine was taller."

The Wayne/Douglas pairing proved enormously successful in war films too, most notably "In Harm's Way" directed by Otto Preminger.  But few movie pairings were more successful than the one Douglas made with his friend Burt Lancaster in their half dozen films together.  The two had first worked together in a crime noir thriller called "I Walk Alone in the late 1940's.   These two native New Yorkers seemed as natural together as Siamese twins; the stolid Lancaster perfectly complimented by the more expressive Douglas.  It would be hard to pick their best film together, but John Frankenheimer's political thriller "Seven Days in May" is a strong candidate.  Featuring an all-star cast including, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, and Frederic March, Douglas plays a colonel who must betray his superior officer (Lancaster) in order to prevent a presidential coup.  The film was years ahead of its time, and it remains one of the most sophisticated and uncompromising political films ever made.

But perhaps the most ambitious political film of its time was "Spartacus."  Based on a novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus is the story of a slave revolt during the Roman Empire.  Directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, Douglas led an international all-star cast including, Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and Peter Ustinov.  The film was epic in scale, and easily the most daunting film Douglas attempted as an actor and producer.  And in many ways is was also Douglas' most courageous, not just because of the impressive stunts the star insisted on doing himself, but also because Douglas insisted on using screenwriters who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to cooperate with the demagogic Joseph McCarthy and his House of Un-American Activities Commission.  "Spartacus" signaled the end of the anti-communist witch-hunt era, and was a spectacular box office and critical success to boot.

Spartacus was arguably Douglas greatest role and most successful film triumph.  But his biggest disappointment was almost certainly the role that got away, the part of the free spirited con Randle Patrick McMurphy played by Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest."  Douglas has played the role on stage, and for years had coveted the opportunity to bring Ken Kesey's story to the big screen.  Ironically, his son Michael - who followed his father's footsteps by becoming one of the leading actors of his generation - had bought the rights to the story and he and the other producers decided that Kirk, then approaching 60, was a little too old at that point for the role.    Nicholson, of course, went on to garner an Academy award for his performance, drawing praise from the veteran Douglas, but also regret that he missed the role of a lifetime.

Douglas would go on to prove that he was hardly over the hill for any type of role.  In 1980 he starred in the successful sci-fi action film "The Final Countdown" and in 1986 he teamed up with his lifelong buddy Burt Lancaster for "Tough Guys" an amiable comedy in which the two aging stars got to poke fun at themselves

Over his long lifetime Douglas has brought some of the most colorful, fascinating, and passionate characters to life on the screen.  His exuberant portrayal of seaman Ned Land in Disney's epic underwater adventure "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" contrasts brilliantly with the intensely introverted Captain Nemo played by James Mason.  His Colonel Daks in Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece "Paths of Glory" remains one of the most inspiring and impassioned characterizations on film.  And his portrayal of an old-fashioned and out-dated cowboy in "Lonely are the Brave" ranks as one of the screen's most poignant characters.

In a film career that spans six decades Douglas has never been out of demand.  During the 1980's and 90's Douglas displayed a knack for comedy appearing with a new generation of action stars like Sylvester Stallone in "Oscar" and Arnold1950 Kirk Douglas Press Picture Schwarzenegger in "The Villain."  He also made a number of highly regarded TV movies, most notably "Amos" and "Inherit the Wind."  During this time Douglas also developed a successful second career as a best selling author penning his highly successful autobiography "The Ragman's Son," and then delving into fiction with the equally well-received "The Gift."

Kirk Douglas is one of the few stars from Hollywood's golden era shining as brightly as ever the new millennium.  While in his seventies Douglas was nearly killed in a helicopter crash that took the lives of several stuntmen half his age.  In his eighties he survived a stroke that although it slightly impaired his speech did not lessen his ability or desire to act.  In 2002 he starred in "Diamonds" a comedy caper with Dan Aykroyd and long time friend Lauren Bacall.  His most recent film, "In the Family" brought three generations from the Douglas clan together as Kirk, son Michael, and grandson Cameron appeared together for the first time on-screen.  And Douglas has already started work on his next major motion picture "The Illusion."  Douglas seems intent on proving that a great actor from Hollywood's golden era never need go out of style.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology.  His work has been published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now, Intervention Magazine, Think, The New Standard, and The Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z (Continuum, 2004) and is working on a book called Socrates in Cyberspace that examines traditional conceptions of the soul in light of the latest neuroscientific findings.

Other Kirk Douglas Pages:

A Tribute to Kirk Douglas A definitive list of net links for the ultimate "tough guy," both on and off screen, a true living legend.