Legendary icon and 'Spartacus' star Kirk Douglas dies at 103: Reports
Little stopped Spartacus, right to the end.
He liked to refer to himself as “the ragman’s son,” but to most people the cleft-chinned Douglas was the epitome of an old-fashioned movie star. The chiseled-featured actor with the winning smile left a legacy of dignity, grace and talent in the wake of his death.
Douglas thrived despite a severe stroke in 1996 at aged 85, which severely affected his ability to speak. He continued to be a vibrant Hollywood voice – flirting with Anne Hathaway during the 2011 Oscars as well as continuing to write books.
He was married to his second wife, Anne, for more than 60 years. “She was the most difficult woman I ever met,” Douglas told USA TODAY in April, with Anne chuckling by his side. (She famously turned the A-lister down for dinner when they first met, preferring to go home and make herself scrambled eggs.)
It was the German-born Belgian Anne who inspired a lifetime of art collecting, and who also helped clean up Douglas’ messy finances after they met in 1953.
“I think romance begins at 80,” he told USA TODAY. “And I ought to know, because I live with a girl who would tell you so!" He romanced his wife into his late 90s. "Of course! I send her a note, and put it on her pillow. She likes that."
In August 2012, the rugged star of 1960’s Spartacus was able to see a restored version of the classic film, 42 years after it was originally released in theaters. But he was alone on the stage to talk about the film, having outlived his Hollywood contemporaries.
“If you die young, you have a chance to be a hero,” he told USA TODAY at the time. “If you die of old age, most of us are forgotten."
He was wrong on that point. The legendary actor and father of actor Michael Douglas was never forgotten. During a photo shoot for Paramount studio’s 100th anniversary, Douglas was one of the most sought-after stars in a galaxy that included everyone from George Clooney to Justin Bieber.
“Everybody came by to pay respects,” Douglas said. “I felt like a king.”
Clooney would go on to write the forward to Douglas’ 2012 book I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, where he described his role in overcoming the dreaded communist blacklist of his era.
“Kirk Douglas is many things. A movie star. An actor. A producer,” Clooney wrote. “But he is, first and foremost, a man of extraodirnary character … the kind we always look for at our darkest hour.”
Douglas’ 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (referring to his Russian-Jewish ancestry) attests to his lean early years growing up in a New York ghetto, the son of illiterate Russian immigrants. Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in 1916, he nearly drowned at 5. It was one of a few close calls the actor had over the years; in 1991, a helicopter he was riding in crashed into a small plane. He suffered a compressed spine.
But Douglas laughed easily when he spoke of death, attributing his easy sense of humor to his mother, whom he quoted on the subject of dying: “Don’t be afraid. It happens to everyone.”
Though best known as an actor, Douglas wrote 12 books, including 2002's A Stroke of Luck, in which he chronicled how he beat depression after suffering a stroke and found salvation in his wife, Anne, his family, and in returning to work.
He said he wrote it hoping to help other stroke survivors. “Maybe it will help others to deal with depression,” he said. After his stroke, with his characteristic trademark self-deprecating humor, he wrote: “All I could do was babble like a baby, but I worked hard with my speech therapist and in a few months I could talk as well as my three-year-old granddaughter, Kelsey.”
Writing the book clearly had a cathartic effect on Douglas. The following year he starred in one of his final films, It Runs in the Family, a story of a dysfunctional family living in New York. The title might also have referred to the acting bug. The movie starred Douglas, his actor-producer son, Michael, his grandson Cameron and his ex-wife, Diana Dill Douglas.
In A Stroke of Luck, Douglas writes “I have been so lucky to be an actor. It has given me fame, money and satisfaction.
His ascension up the Hollywood ranks came after his athletic college years at St. Lawrence University, where he was a wrestling champion. Following his graduation, Douglas won an acting scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first stop was Broadway, followed by a stint in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to the theater and also performed in radio plays. He married Dill in 1943, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Joel.
They were divorced in 1951 and he married the Belgian-born Anne Buydens in 1954, with whom he had two more sons, Peter and Eric. Eric died in 2004.
Douglas’ movie career began after fellow classmate Lauren Bacall urged producer Hal Wallis to give Douglas a screen test. The test went so well that he was cast in the lead role in 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. After receiving a host of kudos for that performance, he went on to make I Walk Alone with another future screen legend, Burt Lancaster. Their chemistry was so potent that they made seven films together, including the western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and the political thriller Seven Days in May (1964). Their last collaboration was in the gangster comedy Tough Guys in 1986.
Though they were good pals, Douglas joked at one point: “I’ve finally gotten away from Burt Lancaster. My luck has changed for the better. I’ve got nice-looking girls in my films now.”
His busiest decades were the ’50s and ’60s. Douglas was nominated for an Oscar in 1952 1953 for The Bad and the Beautiful and again in 1957 for his portrayal of Van Gogh in Lust for Life. In the following few years he would take on his pivotal roles, as Colonel Dax in the anti-war epic Paths of Glory (1957) and as the leader of the Roman empire in Spartacus (1960).
Douglas executive-produced Spartacus and detailed in his 2011 book, I am Spartacus, how he was instrumental in breaking the Hollywood blacklist by insisting blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo be given the proper credit for his screenplay. It was an experience detailed in the 2015 film Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston.
"When I hired Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus under the pseudonym Sam Jackson, we all had been employing the blacklisted writers,” wrote Douglas in I am Spartacus. “It was an open secret and an act of hypocrisy, as well as a way to get the best talent at bargain prices. I hated being part of such a system."
He remained busy in the 1960s, starring in a host of films including Lonely Are the Brave (1962) in which he played an outlaw cowboy in a contemporary setting, a part he said he considers his best performance, and co-starred with John Wayne in the World War II drama In Harm’s Way (1965) and in the comedy/western The War Wagon (1967).
Douglas had his share of missteps. He starred in a couple of bombs, including the loopy western The Villain (1979) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and (1980) with Farrah Fawcett.
"I have made almost 90 pictures," Douglas said. "Lots of them are bad. Fortunately, I forget the bad pictures."
He remained a staunch Luddite as he got older. “Technology frightens me. I don't have a cellphone. I don't even have a watch," Douglas told USA TODAY in 2015. "My wife insisted on buying me a computer. I know nothing about computers. But one thing: I love having a place to play solitaire. I play all the time."
On his 100th birthday, Anne gifted him his first iPad, and the milestone was celebrated with a starry bash in Beverly Hills, with Steven Spielberg and Don Rickles among the guests present.
Douglas was also known for his humanitarian work and was a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department since 1963. Nearly two decades later he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French bestowed him with the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He dedicated a Tel Aviv playground in honor of Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister of Israel.
But he didn’t play favorites. Douglas was also a friend of King Hussein of Jordan.
Closer to home, he rehabilitated dilapidated playgrounds in inner-city Los Angeles and raised $2 million for the Alzheimer’s wing at the hospital for retired Motion Picture Academy workers. It was named Harry’s Haven, after Douglas’ father. “Somebody complained that that made it sound like a saloon,” he said. “That would have made my father very happy, because he used to spend a lot of time in saloons.”
At age 99, he and Anne donated an additional $15 million toward an Alzheimer’s care center, bringing their total donations to the Motion Picture & Television Fund to $40 million.
At 100, he reflected on his charitable efforts. “I have given most of my money away because that pleases me,” he told Variety. “I was born a poor boy. My mother and father came from Russia; I don’t think they could have gotten into the country today. So I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Perhaps it was this sensitivity to those in need that informed his nuanced performances. He once said: “When I play a strong character in a movie, I search for some weakness, and when I play a weak character, I search for some strength.” Whether playing good guys or bad, he was always convincing and his portrayals consistently powerful.
A devout Jew, after his stroke, Douglas studied the Bible and began to read in depth about Judaism. Though he had celebrated his bar mitzvah at the traditional age of 13, he decided to celebrate it again at 83.
He had learned to read Hebrew as a child. “But I never understood what I was saying,” said Douglas, who also spoke German and French.
In Stroke of Luck, Douglas urged readers to seek out prayer.
“Pray, however you perceive that higher power to be. Pray, it will help you,” he wrote, adding that on the Sabbath he prayed over candles in antique candlesticks his mother brought over from Russia. “In doing that, I am reminded of my mother, I feel closer to God, to my family and I have increased The Light, even if only for a moment.”
Contributing: Andrea Mandell