Kirk Douglas, whose masculine energy powered scores of film roles, dies at 103

Actor Kirk Douglas poses Dec. 13, 1976, in Washington. Washington Post photo by Craig Herndon

Kirk Douglas, the Hollywood actor with the distinctive cleft chin, raspy voice and highly charged dramatic energy whose starring roles in "Spartacus," "Lust For Life," "Champion," "Ace in the Hole" and "Paths of Glory" helped him become one of Hollywood's foremost leading men and enduring stars, died Feb. 5 at 103.

His son Michael Douglas, an Oscar-winning actor and producer, announced the death but did not provide further details. His health worsened after injuries suffered in a helicopter crash in 1991, followed by a debilitating stroke in 1996.

Douglas, who amassed nearly 90 screen credits, entered Hollywood in 1946 as a product of the studio system and later made the risky transition to being an independent producer and star performer as the system crumbled.

Beyond his screen work, Douglas produced and directed films; helped put an end to the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s; wrote memoirs, novels and children's books; and with his second wife, Anne Douglas, ran a project to improve school playgrounds in underprivileged neighborhoods.

Starting in the 1960s, he traveled around the world as a State Department "goodwill" ambassador, which sparked an interest in politics and brought him friendships with nearly every president since John F. Kennedy. In 1981, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.


In the prime of his acting career, Douglas was a dashing figure, a golden-haired hunk with chiseled facial features, steely blue eyes, a distinctive low guttural voice and pearly white teeth that gleamed behind a disarming smile. He had a muscular build stretched over a 5-foot-10 frame, trim and fit from years as an accomplished high school and collegiate wrestler.

Built upon his raw physical strength were an intelligence and intensity that he infused into his movie characters. Many of them were unscrupulous, stubborn, even diabolical. Douglas once summarized his on-screen personas this way: "I've made a career of playing sons of b------."

For some movie critics, his acting seemed one-dimensional, easily parodied by comics. Douglas tackled the slight head-on as host of a "Saturday Night Live" episode in 1980.

In one skit, he impersonated Kirk Douglas impersonators. Another skit parodied how Hollywood manufactures celebrity images and featured cast member Gilda Radner escorting her mother backstage to meet the legendary actor, only to be shocked that he stood just four feet tall.

To Mr. Douglas, the seriousness and approach to the craft of acting never wavered. Indeed, Douglas always followed a simple formula. "When you play a strong character, find his weakness," he once said. "If you play a weak character, find his strength."

Whether in major motion pictures or made-for-TV movies, Douglas worked with many of the best-known stars and directors of his generation. His work covered a range of genres, from westerns and epic dramas to romances and action adventures.

In Douglas's earliest movies, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" (1946) and "Out of the Past" (1947), he was cast in the unlikely role of smarmy weakling. His breakout role came in 1949 when he played a self-absorbed boxer in "Champion," based on a Ring Lardner story of a restless young man who alienates those closest to him as he pursues a prizefighting career.

He went on to play a troubled musician character based on the jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke in "Young Man With a Horn" (1950); an obsessed detective with violent tendencies in "Detective Story" (1951); and an unscrupulous newspaper reporter in director Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (1951), which bombed with audiences at the time but has since become a critical favorite.


Douglas portrayed a manipulative Hollywood producer in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952); played a Kentucky frontiersman in "The Big Sky" (1952); sang as Ned Land opposite James Mason's Capt. Nemo in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954); portrayed Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust For Life" (1956); played the gunslinger "Doc" Holliday in "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957); and appeared as a World War I French colonel in Stanley Kubrick's scathing antiwar movie "Paths of Glory" (1957).

The son of a rag collector, Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, where he was the youngest child and only son in a family of seven children.

On a wrestling scholarship, he entered St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and worked as a janitor to help with tuition. After his graduation in 1938, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and made his Broadway debut as a singing Western Union boy in "Spring Again" (1941).

At the start of World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a communications officer with an anti-submarine unit. Before he could be sent to combat duty, a bout with amoebic dysentery led to an honorable discharge in 1944.

After a brief return to the New York acting scene, he won the attention of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis on the recommendation of Lauren Bacall, a former classmate at the academy.

In "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," Douglas played Barbara Stanwyck's alcoholic and scheming husband, followed by a role as a gangster outfoxed by Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past."

Unsure about his career prospects, Douglas said later that he could easily identify with his character in "Champion" as someone ultimately struggling for respectability.

"Reading the script, I thought, what other actor can say the lines, 'I don't want to be a "Hey you" all my life,' " he wrote in his 1997 memoir, "Climbing the Mountain." "I want to hear people call me Mister."


"That role was made for me - a chance to express the turbulent feelings inside me," Douglas said.

He added that his agent did not want him to appear in "Champion" because it was a small film made by a then-obscure independent film company headed by then-unknown producer Stanley Kramer and screenwriter Carl Foreman.

His agency had lined up Douglas for a better-paying supporting role in MGM's "The Great Sinner," starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. But Douglas so longed to play the antihero lead in "Champion" that when he met with Kramer and Foreman he ripped off his shirt to show his chest muscles and cried out, "I can do it! You know I can do it!"

He got the part, his first starring role.

The small-budget independent movie emerged as a surprise hit, receiving six Academy Award nominations, including a best actor nod for Douglas. He lost to Broderick Crawford playing a self-made, self-aggrandizing populist politician modeled on Louisiana's Huey Long in "All the King's Men."

Douglas went on to establish himself as an actor with a prowess for roles requiring great physicality and unsympathetic characters driven by self-interest.

The 1950s proved to be a banner decade for Douglas, who received two more best actor Oscar nominations while establishing a film-production company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother, Bryna Sanglel, a Russian Jewish immigrant. His nominations were for "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Lust for Life," the second a stark departure from the strong macho parts coveted by Hollywood's leading men in the post-World War II era.

Douglas began to seek out complex characters wrought with inner demons and insecurities, but he still is best remembered for his tough-guy roles.


Douglas and Burt Lancaster developed a close friendship after the filming of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," in which Lancaster played the lawman Wyatt Earp. The two reunited in "Tough Guys" (1986), about old-time gangsters released after 30 years in prison who attempt another heist.

At a tribute for Douglas at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Lancaster poked fun at Douglas's reputation as a demanding actor. "Kirk would be the first person to tell you he's a very difficult man," Lancaster told the crowd. "And I would be the second."

Douglas developed a reputation for brooking little criticism. But the film scholar David Shipman quoted a movie critic's suggestion that his "cocky magnetism" was useful in creating a commanding screen presence.

Douglas rejected the idea that he was difficult to work with on a movie set. He considered himself a thinking man's actor who suggested script changes when he thought a storyline was weak or refused to film scenes he believed were too dangerous.

For example, during the filming of "Detective Story," Douglas balked at doing a scene that called for the actor Joseph Wiseman to shoot him at close range with a handgun loaded with a blank.

To demonstrate his concern, Douglas asked the film crew to fire the gun at a piece of cheesecloth at twice the distance at which Wiseman's character was to shoot Douglas.

The cheesecloth was torn to shreds by the blast.

"How would my face look if that hit me?" Douglas said.


In later interviews, he said his proudest professional achievement was his contribution to ending the Hollywood blacklist. That came about when Douglas, as executive producer of the big-budget epic "Spartacus" (1960), publicly credited Dalton Trumbo as the author of the screenplay.

Trumbo was one of 10 prominent screenwriters and directors who had been blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Until "Spartacus," Trumbo had been forced to write under pseudonyms.

"Spartacus," which starred Douglas in the title role as the leader of a Roman slave revolt and received four Oscars, led to Trumbo's reinstatement as a member of the Writers Guild.

Trumbo went on to write "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962), in which Douglas plays a defiant, old-fashioned cowboy in modern New Mexico who becomes a fugitive from the law. Although it received excellent reviews, the film did little business. Douglas said it was his favorite movie.

Douglas's lone Oscar came in 1996 when he was given a lifetime achievement award for his influence as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.

"There's a single thread drawing all his characters together," director Steven Spielberg said when the Oscar was presented. "It's called conscience. Every person he ever played had one. . . . Kirk Douglas never made his characters simple. No good guys or bad guys. He shaded heroics with self-doubt and shaped his villainy with compassion."

Douglas dedicated the Oscar to his wife, Anne, in his acceptance speech. He spoke in slurred speech, demonstrating the effects of the stroke a few months earlier.

About that time, he fell into a severe depression and considered ending his life, a heart-wrenching period he wrote about in his book "My Stroke of Luck" (2002).


He came close, placing a loaded a gun - the same one he used in "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" - in his mouth. But when he smacked his teeth with the pistol's barrel, the pain was so excruciating, he removed the gun and began chuckling, he recalled in his book.

"A toothache delayed my death," he said in an interview. "I laughed hysterically."

Douglas became an advocate for stroke survivors, relaying his own struggles and triumphs, as a way to raise public awareness about stroke symptoms, treatment and rehabilitation.

His first marriage, to the former Diana Dill, ended in divorce in large measure because of his rampant philandering. In 1954, he married Anne Buydens, and their marriage endured despite his carousing.

In addition to his wife and son Michael from his first marriage, survivors include another son from his first marriage, Joel Douglas; and a son from his second marriage, Peter Douglas. A son from Buydens, Eric Douglas, died in 2004 of a drug overdose.

One of Kirk Douglas's final film roles was "It Runs in the Family" (2003), a comedic melodrama co-featuring his first wife and Michael Douglas. The film also was the only time father and son appeared in the same movie.

Douglas told People in 1988 that he seldom worried about his screen legacy, saying he had been "more adventurous in my choice of roles than most stars of my generation." Nor did he fret much about the other kind of immortality, through dying.

"When a dog dies," he said, "does he go to heaven? Why should we think we're so special that we cannot just die? No, you only go around once and just hope you get the brass ring. The rest is ego."

Actress Lauren Bacall and actor Kirk Douglas at the annual Kennedy Center dinner at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 5, 1994. Washington Post photo by Margaret Thomas

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