Kirk Douglas, one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age and father of Michael Douglas, has died at the age of 103.
Michael Douglas confirmed news of his father’s passing, saying in a statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103. 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 of us all to aspire to.”
Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York to a family Jewish immigrants, he would later change his name to Kirk Douglas prior to joining the US Navy during World War II. As a youth, he spent much of his time working odd jobs to make ends meet for his home. After acting in a few high school plays, Douglas began dreaming of Hollywood, and managed to talk his way into St. Lawrence University, paying off his loan by working as a janitor, a gardener, and even copping wrestling gigs at a carnival. Eventually, Douglas turned enough heads to receive a special scholarship for New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Upon graduating in 1941, Douglas debuted on Broadway with Spring Again, only to enlist in the Navy a year later. He was stationed out in the Pacific throughout much of World War II, serving as a communications officer until 1944, when he was honorably discharged as a lieutenant. Soon after, he returned to the stage, appearing in a number of productions with The Wind Is Ninety catching Hollywood’s eye. More specifically, producer Hal Wallis, who cast him in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers alongside Barbara Stanwyck.
The rest, as they say, is history: With his chiseled jaw and ocean eyes, Douglas went on to work with some of the most iconic filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. From Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1949’s A Letter to Three Wives) to Mark Robson (1949’s Champion), John Sturges (1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) to Richard Fleischer (1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), the list goes on and on. And by 1955, he had already established his own production company in Bryna Productions, named after his mother.
With Bryna, Douglas began producing a number of eclectic works with some of Hollywood’s most extraordinary minds. He worked alongside a then-unknown Stanley Kubrick with 1957’s Paths of Glory and 1960’s Spartacus, the latter of which was written by then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. That wasn’t happenstance: At the time, Douglas strongly rebelled against the country’s rampant McCarthyism, and his work with Trumbo on the record-breaking blockbuster Spartacus saved the writer’s career.
McCarthy wasn’t his only political target. Throughout his life, Douglas was heavily involved in politics and public service. As a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Information Agency and State Department, Douglas toured South America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East during both the Kennedy and Johnson administration. In 1966, he visited six Iron Curtain countries, once again on behalf of the State Department, quickly realizing his status as a celebrity could open all sorts of doors — but, above all, for good reason.
All of that work landed him a Medal of Freedom in 1981 from President Jimmy Carter, S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen in 1983, a National Medal of Arts in 2002 from President Bush, and several other awards by governments and organizations of various countries, including France, Italy, Portugal, Israel, and Germany. Of course, that’s without recognizing his myriad accolades in film, which include Lifetime Achievement awards by the Academy, the Foreign Press, and SAG.
Douglas married twice. His sons Michael and Joel were with his first wife, the late actress Diana Douglas, who he divorced in 1951. He then married his second wife, Anne Buydens, shortly after in 1954, and the two lived together until his death. Much like his father, his son Michael has also built a similar legacy for himself as both an actor and a producer. The two had worked on several projects together, most notably One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, which Kirk starred in on Broadway and Michael helped produce into an Oscar-winning hit.
Of his long lasting legacy, Douglas told The Huffington Post in 2014 that his favorite works included The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Champion, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Love, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Indian Fighter, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, and Seven Days in May.
A legend of Hollywood, Douglas is survived by his sons Michael, Joel, and Anne.