The actor starred in such films as ‘Champion,’ ‘The Bad and the Beautiful,’ ‘Lust for Life,’ ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ and ‘Spartacus,’ to name just a few.
Kirk Douglas, the son of a ragman who channeled a deep, personal anger through a chiseled jaw and steely blue eyes to forge one of the most indelible and indefatigable careers in Hollywood history, died Wednesday. He was 103.
“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 obtained by People magazine. “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.”
Douglas walked away from a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he refused to give in. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.
Nominated three times for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) — Douglas was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 1996. Arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era, he acted in more than 80 movies before retiring from films in 2004.
The father of two-time Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Michael Douglas, the Amsterdam, New York native first achieved stardom as a ruthless and cynical boxer in Champion. In The Bad and the Beautiful, he played a hated, ambitious movie producer for director Vincente Minnelli, then was particularly memorable, again for Minnelli, as the tormented genius Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.
Perhaps most importantly, Douglas rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by producing and starring as a slave in Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, making the actor a hero to those blacklisted in Hollywood. The film became Universal’s biggest moneymaker, an achievement that stood for a decade.
The broad-chested Douglas often bucked the establishment with his opinions, and he had the courage to back them up. “I’ve always been a maverick,” he once said. “When I was new in pictures, I defied my agents to make Champion rather than appear in an important MGM movie they had planned for me [The Great Sinner, which wound up starring Gregory Peck]. Nobody had ever heard of the people connected to Champion, but I liked the Ring Lardner story, and that’s the movie I wanted to do. Everyone thought I was crazy, of course, but I think I made the right decision.”
Never one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts, Douglas played classic heels in a number of films. In 1951, he showed a keen flair for portraying strong-minded characters like the sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He played more sympathetic types in Out of the Past (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) as Doc Holliday, Paths of Glory (1957) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).