Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, 1960.

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, 1960. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Kirk Douglas, an actor whose searing blue eyes, forceful delivery and perfectly dimpled chin turned him into a paragon of masculinity during Hollywood’s golden age in such screen classics as “Paths of Glory,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Spartacus,” died Wednesday, his family said. He was 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 for all of us to aspire to," his son Michael said in a statement on his Instagram account.

Kirk Douglas' death was first reported by People magazine.

A World War II veteran who made his screen debut at age 29, Douglas played men, never boys, during a career that lasted more than 60 years. Tall and wavy-haired with strong features, Douglas specialized in playing virile, rock-ribbed individualists who followed their own code and brooked no compromise. He was the gunslinger Doc Holliday in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), a military lawyer battling a kangaroo court in “Paths of Glory” (1957), a rebellious gladiator in “Spartacus” (1960) and the noble cowboy Jack Burns — his favorite role — in “Lonely are the Brave” (1962).

“At the time, I never thought, ‘Oh, this is a picture about an individual bucking society,’” Douglas told the Washington Post in 1986. “But looking back, I thought, ‘How strange, how often that attracted me, that theme -- how difficult it is to be an individual.’ People follow. I guess I’ve always been a maverick.”

Douglas also charted his own path off screen. In the late 1950s, while Hollywood was still beset by anti-communist blacklisting,  Douglas hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — then using a pseudonym — to work on “Spartacus.” At the front gate of Universal Studios, Douglas left passes for Trumbo under his real name and later insisted on giving him full screen credit. When “Spartacus” was released in theaters, President John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see it, effectively ending the blacklist era.

In 1996, Douglas received an Academy Honorary Award in recognition of “fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”

It was the only Academy Award he ever received, despite three best actor nominations for “Champion” (1949), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and “Lust for Life” (1956). An actor of sometimes alarming intensity who often delivered his lines between clenched teeth, Douglas yearned for the respectability of the stage — he made his Broadway debut in a 1949 production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” — but settled instead for screen stardom.

“You have to have guts to be an actor,” Douglas said. “You have to be able to fail. As far as I’m concerned as an actor, and maybe I’ve overdone it, I don’t want to play it safe.”

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y., to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Bryna and Herschel Danielovitch. In his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” he wrote of a childhood marred by poverty, anti-Semitism and the shame of his father’s lowly profession: “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”

He discovered acting in high school, worked his way through St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. (where he was a champion wrestler) and attended Manhattan’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. One classmate there was Betty Joan Perske, later to be known as Lauren Bacall; another was Diana Dill, whom he married in 1943. By the time he served in the Navy from 1942 to 1944, the hopeful actor known as Izzy Demsky had legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas. (Karl Malden, born Mladen Sekulovich, helped think up the name.)

In New York City after his Navy service, Douglas landed his first movie role, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) thanks to a word from Bacall. His eighth film, “Champion,” provided his breakout role as an ambitious but heartless boxer, and Douglas followed up by playing a string of strong-willed personalities: a brilliant jazz musician in 1950’s “Young Man With a Horn” (loosely based on the bandleader Bix Beiderbecke), a cynical newspaperman in “Ace in the Hole” (1951), and a manipulative movie mogul in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). He also frequently played military men in such films as “Town Without Pity” (1961), “Seven Days in May” (1964) and “Cast a Giant Shadow (1966).”

Douglas made seven films with an equally strong-chinned and broadly-built actor, Burt Lancaster, including “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “The List of Adrian Messenger” (1963) and “Victory at Entebbe” (1976). The two eventually spoofed their lifelong connection by starring in the 1986 action-comedy “Tough Guys” as aging train robbers. Off camera, the actors enjoyed a collegial friendship and a mutual respect.

“Kirk is very opinionated, very difficult to work with,” Lancaster said shortly before “Tough Guys” was released. “Tells me how to act. Tells the director how to direct. He’s just like me!”

Douglas was known as a large personality in an industry that was full of them. While making “Spartacus,” which he also produced, Douglas fired director Anthony Mann and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick, himself a famously controlling figure. The two clashed, particularly over Trumbo’s script, and Douglas later claimed that the main reason he broke Hollywood’s blacklist was to prevent Kubrick from taking Trumbo’s credit. After “Spartacus,” Douglas said, he never saw the director again.

“I know that some people say, ‘What a difficult guy Kirk Douglas is,’ ” the actor told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “My answer to that is: ‘Did Joseph Mankiewicz say I was difficult? Did Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and other directors I worked with?’ Maybe people who say that are the ones who weren’t doing their job.”

As a father and husband, Douglas was far from perfect. His tendency to sleep with his co-stars — he wrote of flings with Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Gene Tierney, to name a few — eventually led to a divorce with Diana in 1951. By his own account, he was a stern father to their two children, the actor Michael Douglas and the producer Joel Douglas. After seeing Michael’s first stage appearance, in a college play, the father told the son he was “terrible.”

But the Douglas men eventually grew close, even though Michael played a role in dashing his father’s lifelong dream of starring in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Kirk Douglas worked for 15 years to adapt Ken Kesey’s counter-culture novel, in which a mental patient battles his tyrannical captors, but eventually sold the rights to Michael. The starring role in the 1975 film, however, went to Jack Nicholson, who won the Oscar for best actor. Michael, as the film’s co-producer, won an Oscar for best picture.

“Be nice to your kids,” Kirk later wrote. “You never know how they’re going to grow up.”

The firebrand eventually mellowed, if only slightly. In 1954 he married Anne Buydens, with whom he produced two children: the producer Peter Douglas and the actor Eric Douglas, who died of a drug overdose in 2004. Despite a 1991 helicopter crash that left him with chronic back pain, and a 1996 stroke that left his speech severely impaired, Douglas remained active and productive. He wrote nearly a dozen books, including a 2001 memoir about rediscovering his Jewish roots and a 2012 account of the making of “Spartacus.” He also continued to act, starring in a 2003 comedy-drama, “It Runs in the Family,” with Michael and Michael’s son Cameron. In 2009, at age 92, Douglas launched a one-man stage show, “Before I Forget,” in Culver City, Calif.

“I like the person I am now much better than the person I was before,” he told the Daily News in 1999. “I’m a better father and grandfather. I think more about my family now instead of thinking too much about myself.”

With AP

These are some of the many noteworthy movies Douglas starred in over the decades.

“Champion” (1949): Douglas had his breakout in this drama, as the troubled boxer “Midge” Kelly, and earned his first of three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.

“Ace in the Hole” (1951) The star plays a disgraced New York City newspaperman toiling in New Mexico in this Billy Wilder classic.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952): Douglas received another Oscar nomination for starring opposite Lana Turner in this Hollywood melodrama.

“Lust for Life” (1956): Showing some serious range, Douglas got Oscar nominated again for playing Vincent Van Gogh in this biopic.

“Paths of Glory” (1957): The first of two Douglas collaborations with Stanley Kubrick is one of the all-time great anti-war movies.

“Spartacus” (1960): Movies simply don’t get more iconic than this epic.

“Seven Days in May (1964): Douglas stars opposite Burt Lancaster in this Cold War thriller classic, one of eight films they appeared in together. -NEWSDAY STAFF

Top Stories


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months