Remembering Kirk Douglas: A Career Retrospective

Remembering Kirk DouglasTo commemorate the passing of Kirk Douglas, MovieFanFare presents this overview of his amazing life and career, originally printed in 2016.

While the frequently volcanic intensity of his performances has provided fodder for generations of mimics, they have also indisputably made this self-described “Ragman’s Son” one of the foremost Hollywood leading men of the post-WWII era. Born Issur Danielovitch to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in upstate New York in 1916, he was bitten by the acting bug in high school and–after attending St. Lawrence University and starring on its wrestling team–made his way to New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was there that he would eventually change his name to Kirk Douglas and would become friends with fellow student Betty Perske, later to gain fame as Lauren Bacall.

Following a Broadway career interrupted by naval service in World War II, the actor got a screen test with producer Hal Wallis (thanks to the efforts of former classmate Bacall), and made his Hollywood debut alongside Barbara Stanwyck in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers for Paramount. He slithered his way across the screen in RKO’s classic “film noir” mystery Out of the Past (1947) and showed his versatility when he quickly followed with a comedy, My Dear Secretary, in ’48, co-starring with Laraine Day. The movie posters proclaimed, “He chased her… ’til she caught him!”

Fox wanted him for their 1949 star vehicle, A Letter to Three Wives, in which Kirk shines in a supporting role opposite Ann Southern. This is the movie that helped everyone stand up and take notice of Douglas. Stardom and his first Oscar nomination came with his portrayal of the jaded boxer in ’49’s Champion, torn between taking a dive for the mob or trying to live with himself afterward. Now at the top of his game, Douglas was a dynamo to be reckoned with, and Warners recruited him for their 1950 drama, Young Man With a Horn, allegedly based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, teaming with studio A-lister Doris Day and old buddy Bacall.

Numerous memorable turns would follow through the ’50s, and in 1951 he scored a hat trick with three major successes. Raoul Walsh directed Douglas in the frontier drama Along The Great Divide and co-starred him with one of Walsh’s favorite actresses, Virginia Mayo. He went from nasty to rotten and possibly tolerable as a cynical newsman in the Billy Wilder classic, Ace in the Hole, which did not do well at the box office but scored with later audiences as a bonafide winner. And Kirk was a powerhouse in Detective Story as a tough no-nonsense cop, living his job to the letter of the law until a family secret jolts him into re-examining his priorities. Whatever Paramount lost at the box office with Wilder’s movie was made up in spades with this one.

Back at Warners in 1952 with his first color movie, The Big Trees, Douglas was an unscrupulous lumber baron out to mow down the California redwood forests. He was always a good judge of his work and said later, “It was a terrible movie.” However, it did lead the path to his acclaimed performance (which garnered him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination) as the ruthless film producer in director Vincente Minnelli‘s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) for MGM. It was the following year that Kirk appeared in the first Hollywood movie to be filmed in Israel, The Juggler, playing a WWII refugee who lost his wife and children in the Holocaust. The Stanley Kramer production was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who was about to be caught up in the machinations of the House Un-American Activities Committee and find himself blacklisted. Douglas thought Dmytryk was unfairly marked, and the outspoken actor would, in later years, help other members of the “Hollywood Ten.”

The Story of Three Loves (1953), another Technicolor film and the second of four movies Douglas made with director Minnelli, was a beautiful love story showing Kirk’s tender side. Walt Disney came calling in 1954 for Kirk to appear in his live-action epic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Based on the Jules Verne novel, the Oscar-winning undersea adventure even offered Kirk a chance to demonstrate his singing ability, as he performs “A Whale of a Tale”! Also in ’54, Douglas took another literary sea voyage, donning a tunic to play Homer’s wandering hero Ulysses for producer Dino De Laurentiis. The Italian-produced mythological actioner, in which Kirk seemed to be having a grand time, didn’t reach American shores until the following year, by which time he had swapped his sandals for six-guns and starred in a pair of western dramas, Man Without a Star and The Indian Fighter.

He then followed with his role as tortured 19th-century painter Vincent Van Gogh in the Minnelli-helmed biography, Lust For Life (1956). For his efforts, Douglas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. He would ultimately lose out to The King and I lead Yul Brynner, although co-star Anthony Quinn took home a Best Supporting Actor statue for his turn as Van Gogh’s fellow artist Paul Gauguin. In a tribute to his famous dad on TCM, actor Michael Douglas said that when he, as a child, witnessed the scene where his father cuts off his ear, it was just too intense for his young eyes.

Douglas was working at a fever pitch and appeared in many top-notch films in rapid succession. Top Secret Affair (1957) brought Douglas back to comedy after a nine-year hiatus, as an Army general in a political and romantic battle of wits with magazine publisher Susan Hayward. That same year Gunfight at the O.K. Corral featured him as Doc Holliday opposite Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp; it was the second (after 1948’s I Walk Alone) of seven pictures the pair would be in together.

By the late ’50s, Douglas became one of the first stars to establish his own independent production company, which turned out many of his best later vehicles. Among theses effort was director Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), a biting anti-war drama which brought out fine performances from a cast that also included Ralph Meeker and Adolphe Menjou, and the costume saga  The Vikings (1958), where Douglas and Tony Curtis are bitter enemies and unwitting half-brothers who clash over Janet Leigh. Back at Paramount, he and Lust for Life co-star Anthony Quinn are friends-turned-enemies in the crowd-pleasing adult Western Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) , while The Devil’s Disciple (also ’59), based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, found Douglas, Lancaster, and Laurence Olivier in a Revolutionary War-era comedy. And in Strangers When We Meet (1960), unhappily married architect Kirk man neglects wife Barbara Rush for an illicit romance with neighbor Kim Novak.

When he re-teamed with Kubrick in 1960, he became enmeshed in one of his most popular and most successful outings in the gladiator classic Spartacus, co-starring Olivier, Jean Simmons and his long time friend Tony Curtis.  Upon Curtis’ death in 2010, Douglas said, “Tony Curtis was one of the best-looking guys in Hollywood. He was often described as beautiful, but he was also a fine actor. I worked with Tony in The Vikings and in Spartacus, and we were friends for a long time. What I will miss most about him is his sense of humor. It was always fun to be with him.”

Remembering Kirk Doluglas

Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter blacklisted during the McCarthy era, had worked on some films using an alias…actually, more than one. Kirk wanted Trumbo to get his due and insisted that his name appear on-screen in Spartacus, a risky move at the time. But Kirk, as he had when trying to help Edward Dmytryk years earlier, stuck to his guns and was lauded for his vision. His action was helpful in making people aware of some of the injustices brought about by the “Red Scare” of the late ’40s and ’50s.

Behind the scenes, Douglas was a great humanitarian, however not well-known to most people. He began his journey as Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S.State Department in the early ’60s. It would be 20 ears later when Kirk would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to a US civilian, from President Jimmy Carter in 1981.

Town Without Pity (1961), a controversial courtroom drama, showed a distraught Kirk as an Army lawyer brought in to save the necks of four soldiers accused of rape; and Kirk struggled to adjust to the times as the Old West fades away in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), which he said was a personal favorite of his. And 10 years after their The Bad and the Beautiful collaboration, Vincente Minnelli reunited with Douglas for another inside look at Hollywood, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), along with Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. In his continuing streak of hit independent productions, he joined with John Huston and played four roles in the elusive The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) before re-teaming with Lancaster (who had a cameo in The List of Adrian Messenger) in one of the most powerful military movies of either man’s career, Seven Days in May (1964). Douglas was originally cast to play the villainous Army general who launches a plot to take over the U.S. government, with his friend Lancaster playing the role of the loyal colonel who uncovers the planned coup d’état. Once production got under way, however, Douglas confided that he realized Burt wanted Kirk’s role and agreed to switch to the less showy part of Col. Casey.

Douglas played a truly rotten character in the star-studded World War II naval drama In Harm’s Way (1965), but he redeemed himself to his fans that same year in another WWII outing,  Anthony Mann’s gripping actioner The Heroes of Telemark, as a scientist who must figure out a way to outwit the Nazi command. Cast A Giant Shadow (1966) was an action film based on the true story of  David ‘Mickey’ Marcus, a Jewish-American who became leader of the Israeli army during the country’s 1948 formation; Douglas’s co-stars here included Frank Sinatra and his In Harm’s Way buddy John Wayne.

Kirk Douglas In The Way WestIn 1967, Kirk teamed with Wayne again to rob a shipment of gold from a heavily protected carrier known as The War Wagon. Douglas made four films with Wayne and after The War Wagon was completed, Kirk offered, “I did four movies with John Wayne. We were a strange combination. He was a Republican and I was a Democrat. We argued all the time!” He must have truly incensed “Duke” by doing a TV spot in the late ’60s for Democratic Governor of California Edmund Brown — Wayne was endorsing the Republican contender, fellow actor Ronald Reagan. Kirk wrote in his 2007 book, Let’s Face It, that although they were always at odds, constantly bickering about politics, when Duke passed away in 1979, Michael Wayne came over to Kirk and told him how much his dad had always loved him.

Also in ’67, Douglas joined Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum on The Way West, a sprawling frontier opus about a wagon train of settlers facing hardships along the Oregon Trail. By the 1970s and ’80s, Kirk’s output was copious but not all were gems. In 1971’s A Gunfight he co-starred with Johnny Cash as gunfighters facing off in a bull ring. More indie efforts followed, including the Cold War spoof Catch Me a Spy (1971) and the caper thriller The Master Touch (1972). He directed himself in the 1973 swashbuckler Scalawag, with Kirk having the time of his life as a peg-legged pirate, and even found time to play the title dual role in a 1973 TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the ’60s, after appearing in a Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he bought the movie rights, planning to star as rebellious mental hospital inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy himself. But as the years passed and after every major movie studio turned down the project, Douglas realized he was past the age for the part. Douglas met filmmaker Milos Forman in Prague and had the feeling that he would be the ideal director for the project. Eventually he assigned the rights to son Michael, who with Saul Zaentz jointly produced the film, which would become the “grand slam” winner of all five major Academy Awards in 1975.

In Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (1975), Douglas is involved in a dysfunctional family situation involving a closeted lesbian wife and a spiteful daughter… let the fun begin! And in 1977’s Rain of Fire (shown in some theaters as Holocaust 2000) high-power nuclear plant executive Kirk has more than an “omen” that his son just might be the Antichrist. In The Fury (1979) at Fox, Brian dePalma directed Kirk in a mind-blowing thriller about an evil government agency run by John Cassavetes that searches for psychically-gifted people. Douglas then joined Ann-Margret and future “governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger in the wacky western spoof The Villain, playing a calamity-prone outlaw whose mishaps brought Wile E. Coyote to mind more than once.

The Final Countdown (1980) returned Kirk to the kind of film his fans expected, as the captain of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz, which lands in the Pacific just before December 7, 1941 thanks to a mysterious time warp; and in a adventure epic set against the beautiful Australian mountain ranges, Douglas played two roles as twins who are mortal enemies in The Man From Snowy River (1982). Some major TV movies dotted his resumé during this time, among them the Holocaust survivor drama Remembrance of Love (1984) with Pam Dawber, the Old West comedy Draw! (1984) with James Coburn, and opposite Jason Robards in Inherit the Wind (1988). 1987’s Queenie was an all-star small-screen affair — a thinly disguised story based on the life of 1940s screen actress Merle Oberon and her marriage to director Alexander Korda, played by Douglas in a role not too different from his appearance in The Bad and the Beautiful. He knew his roster of work better than anyone when he quipped, “I’ve made a career of playing sons of bitches.”

Back in movie theaters, Tough Guys (1987) gave Kirk the chance to ham it up with old pal Burt Lancaster one more time as aging gangsters trying to keep to the straight and narrow. In the 1990s, Kirk slowed down a bit, appearing as Sly Stallone’s dying dad in Oscar (1991), and in The Secret (1992) as a man hiding something from his family. But there was true chemistry on screen between Douglas and Michael J. Fox in the comedy Greedy (1994) as a rich patriarch of a conniving family enlists his young nephew’s help to keep the old man’s money out of their pockets.

If there is one movie that Kirk could point to and say, “I’m so glad I made that movie,” it just might be It Runs in the Family (2003). Sure it’s no Paths of Glory or Spartacus, but it is a family affair starring three generations of the Douglas clan. Considering Kirk survived a stroke in 1996 that partially affected his speech and a helicopter crash five years earlier, he digs right into this bittersweet comedy-drama, playing a stroke victim facing his own mortality. He’s a cantankerous lawyer trying to reconcile an often combative relationship with his son, who is also having problems with his own pot-dealing college student son, played by son Michael and real-life grandson Cameron. Diana Douglas, who was Kirk’s wife from 1943-1951, is also on hand as Michael’s mother…in fact, she really is his mom.

Kirk’s output was so voluminous, appearing in more than 90 films, and yet he found time to add to his accomplishments by writing seven books, the most successful of which was The Ragman’s Son: An Autobiography.

Mr. Douglas passed on Tuesday at the age of 103. He is a true Hollywood icon, and one of the biggest stars in movie history.