Kirk Douglas, intense star of dozens of movies, dies at 103

Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times photo

Kirk Douglas, American film’s clenched fist, died Wednesday. He was 103.

His son actor Michael Douglas announced the death in a statement on his Facebook page.

Mr. Douglas had made a long and difficult recovery from the effects of a severe stroke he suffered in 1996.


“My life is like a B movie,” Mr. Douglas said in 1988 Boston Globe interview. ”If they sent me the script, I’d have turned them down.”

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It didn’t take Mr. Douglas long to find his persona. After playing a weak district attorney in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) and a sensitive schoolteacher in “Letter to Three Wives” (1949), he found a breakthrough role as the prizefighter-heel in “Champion” (1949). Years later, Mr. Douglas laughingly recalled how he overcame the doubts producers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman had about his ability to convince as a boxer. Removing his jacket and shirt, Mr. Douglas pumped up his chest, flexed his muscles, and got the role.

Mr. Douglas starred in the1957 film “Paths Of Glory.”
Mr. Douglas starred in the1957 film “Paths Of Glory.”

In his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” he wrote how he developed the intense style with which he was to become identified. “I didn’t want to use a body double,” he wrote, “so I worked out. We developed a boxing style suitable for my character: always moving forward, no matter how many times or how hard I got hit. Even when I got smashed in the face, I kept moving in. I was relentless,” he wrote, with undisguised pride.

That was Mr. Douglas through the years — tightly wound, pressing forward, leading with his famous cleft chin — onscreen in more than 80 roles, offscreen in fights with studio bosses and in a bold gesture that singlehandedly ended the Hollywood blacklist.

During the 1950s, Hollywood studios informally — but very effectively — banned the employment of actors, directors, and screenwriters who had been members of the Communist Party or accused of having been Communist sympathizers. One of the prominent names on the blacklist was that of Dalton Trumbo. Like other blacklisted writers, Trumbo worked, but always under aliases. When Mr. Douglas produced and starred in “Spartacus” (1960), a costume epic about the slave who led an uprising against the Roman Empire, he gave Trumbo a screen credit. Nothing happened, and the blacklist fell apart. Fittingly, Mr. Douglas’s onscreen revolt had an offscreen parallel.


Mr. Douglas named his production company Bryna, after his mother, Bryna (Sanglel) Demsky. She and Mr. Douglas’s father, Herschel Danielovitch Demsky, were immigrants from what is now Belarus. Issur Danielovich Demsky was born in Amsterdam, N.Y., on Dec. 9, 1916. His father worked as a ragman (hence the title of Mr. Douglas’s autobiography) who never was able to crack the American dream and took out his frustrations on his son. His mother was as gentle as his father was harsh, Mr. Douglas wrote, and he revered her as he remained estranged from his father.

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Mr. Douglas produced and starred in Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” (1960). By giving writer Dalton Trumbo a credit, he helped end the Hollywood blacklist.

Not until he was writing his book, he said, did he realize what an angry man he was, too. There’s more aggression than sensuality in the many affairs of which he writes. And his pugnacious approach to life energized the crackling twist he put on the standard Hollywood macho persona.

Mr. Douglas majored in English at St. Lawrence University, where he was student government president and competed on the wrestling team. He won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in New York. In that 1988 interview he spoke of what drew him to the theater. “With acting, I could escape into an imaginary world with imaginary characters. If I looked deeply inside the characters, maybe I wouldn’t have to look too deeply inside myself.”

At AADA he briefly dated a fellow student, the future Lauren Bacall. The two remained lifelong friends. It was Bacall who got Mr. Douglas a screen test, after he served in the Navy during World War II.

“Champion” got Mr. Douglas his first Oscar nomination. His second came for a Hollywood version of the boxer who stepped on everyone — the bad Hollywood producer opposite beautiful Lana Turner in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). That confirmed the ruthless tough-guy image he fashioned as the manic cop in “Detective Story” (1951), the cynically manipulative reporter in “Ace in the Hole” (1951), and a score of other such roles. He only occasionally played good guys — the general in “Seven Days in May” (1964) and the romantic old cowboy trying to get away from it all in “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) — his favorite role.


Mr. Douglas was one of the few actors able to make audiences share his own gusto, even in over-the-top roles — most notably as the one-eyed swashbuckler in “The Vikings” (1958). More than any other macho actor, Mr. Douglas was willing to appear maimed, losing not only an eye in “The Vikings” and an ear, as Vincent van Gogh, in “Lust for Life” (1956), but being crucified in “Spartacus,” stabbed with a scissors in “Ace in the Hole,” and wrapped in barbed wire in “Man Without a Star” (1955).

He was most quintessentially American in his refusal to take himself seriously or inflate his intentions. “Jesus, I’ve made some bad movies,” he said in that 1988 interview. “Don’t I know it. What the hell; out of 80 movies, 20 of them aren’t too bad and a couple of them are damn good.”

More than a couple. Mr. Douglas’s amiably menacing gangster is integral to “Out of the Past” (1947), one of the very best film noirs. Other notable roles include his dedicated French officer in “Paths of Glory” (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s impassioned antiwar film, Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” and “Lust for Life,” in which he gave his “Bad and the Beautiful” director, Vincente Minnelli, the most emotionally convincing portrayal that any American actor has ever mustered as a painter.

Growing up in a time when Jewish ancestry was no social advantage, Mr. Douglas began by trying to assimilate but later took pride in his Jewish roots and fought anti-Semitism. The citation for the lifetime achievement Academy Award he received in 1996 read: “For 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”

Writing his autobiography and, simply, aging, seemed to enable Mr. Douglas to resolve many of his aggressions. In later years he took pleasure in discovering he could be a star author, spent time with an old friend like Burt Lancaster, with whom he made several films, starting with “I Walk Alone” (1947) and ending with “Tough Guys” (1986), prior to Lancaster’s death, in 1994. He also was fond of joking that his chief claim to fame had become that he was Michael Douglas’s father. But, typical among actors of his generation, he felt slightly uneasy about being a movie star, equating real acting with the New York stage, where he began, but never achieved success comparable to that of his film career.

Ironically, Mr. Douglas in 1963 produced and starred on Broadway in the stage version of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but it flopped after good out-of-town reviews. His son Michael took over the rights and produced the film version in 1975. It became an Oscar-laden megahit — but with Jack Nicholson in the role played on stage by Mr. Douglas.

By the time the film was made, Michael Douglas considered his father too old for the role — a view Mr. Douglas did not share at the time. “I wanted to kill him,” he said in that 1988 Boston Globe interview. “But they made such a great film, and I was so proud of him, and Jack was so great. How could I stay mad?”

On Wednesday, his son said in a statement, “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 author of this obituary, Jay Carr, was the Globe’s film critic for two decades. He died in 2014. Globe staffer Mark Feeney contributed to this obituary.