Kirk Douglas, the self-styled “ragman’s son” who became the last great star of Hollywood’s golden age, has died at the age of 103.
His son Michael announced the news in a statement posted on Instagram on Wednesday evening.
“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,” the statement said.
“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.”
“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 said. “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.”
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants, Douglas estimated that he had worked as many as 40 jobs before finding fame as an actor. This hard-scrabble upbringing would come to define him. Even in moneyed middle-age, the actor had a reputation as a tough customer – both on-screen and off it. “I’ve made a career playing sons of bitches,” he once admitted.
As news broke of Douglas’ death on Thursday, the film industry began expressing their condolences on social media, with many, such as William Shatner, calling Douglas “an incredible icon” of the film industry.
Actors and film industry stalwarts paying tribute to Douglas on Thursday included Star Trek legend George Takei, who said on Twitter, “Douglas was a champion for many just causes and lived a long and storied life. He was adored and beloved, and he shall be missed.”
Douglas made his screen debut in the 1946 film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers before giving what would prove his breakthrough performance, playing opposite Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in the classic film-noir Out of the Past. With his square jaw, cleft chin and ice-chip eyes, he went on to hone a ruthless, alpha-male image on such films as Champion, Ace in the Hole, I Walk Alone and The Bad and the Beautiful.
Yet Douglas was also shrewd enough to avoid the pitfalls of typecasting. In 1956 he attracted rave reviews for his impersonation of anguished Vincent Van Gogh in Vicente Minnelli’s Lust For Life. John Wayne, for his part, was horrified. “Christ, Kirk, how can you play a part like that?” he reportedly demanded. “We got to play strong, tough characters, not these weak queers.”
Douglas was similarly active behind the scenes. His production company, Bryna Productions, was instrumental in developing what would arguably prove to be his two greatest pictures – Paths of Glory and Spartacus, both directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Other key roles includes a swashbuckling turn in The Vikings and his performance as a doomed modern-day cowboy in 1962’s Lonely are the Brave. For good measure he made seven films opposite Burt Lancaster, running the gamut from Gunfight at the OK Corral to the political thriller Seven Days in May.
Douglas was Oscar nominated three times – for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust For Life – but had to be content with the honorary award he was eventually given in 1995. In 1981 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by his friend Jimmy Carter.
By the 1970s Douglas’s star was on the wane. He was judged to be too old to play the role of rebellious RP McMurphy in his long-cherished mission to adapt the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film was later produced by his son Michael, with Jack Nicholson in the leading role.
Despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 1996, Douglas continued to be active. He made his final screen appearance in 2004 – playing a dying film director in the low budget drama Illusion – and appeared in a one man show, Before I Forget, at the Culver theatre in Culver City, California, in March 2009. In later years he became an active celebrity blogger and confessed that his last great ambition was to meet the actor Angelina Jolie – “provided my wife lets me”.
In his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas recalled his rise from poverty – via work as a bellhop and a stint as a professional wrestler – to the Hollywood A-list. “Life is like a B-movie script,” he concluded. “It’s that corny. If someone offered me my life story to film, I’d turn them down flat.”
Film director Rob Reiner said, “Kirk Douglas will always be an icon in the pantheon of Hollywood. He put himself on the line to break the blacklist. My love goes out to my friend Michael and the whole family.”
Douglas is survived by his wife, Anne Buydens, and his three sons: Michael, Joel, and Peter. A fourth son, Eric, died in 2004.