The venerable actor Kirk Douglas has finally passed away in February 2020 away at the age of 103. While the acclaimed US actor, who was this son of a Russian Jewish emigre, did not make many space or science fiction films – only the unmemorable Saturn 3 (1980) and the time travel story The Final Countdown (1980) come to mind – although the former US Navy man was good as a happy-go-lucky sailor in the Jules Verne submarine story Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – his presence on screen in many famous blockbusters about other subjects more than made up for this.
With his famous dimpled chin, piercing blue eyes and cheeky smile, Kirk Douglas, appeared in many worthy and enjoyable films. While he never won a Academy award (although he did later receive an honoury one), he received three Oscar nominations the first of which was for the boxing Film Noir Champion (1949). This presaged his heyday as a leading actor in 1950s and 1960s. While tales from the past would later make him the most famous, Kirk Douglas initially starred in more contemporary morality tales with Ace in the hole (1951) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) being the best.
Kirk Douglas later acted in roles ranging from the artist Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) for which he received his third Oscar nomination, a French army officer in World War I morality tale Paths of Glory (1957), and playing the drunken good guy Doc Holiday in the Western Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) in between. While his lithe muscular physique made him look taller on screen, in fact, Kirk Douglas was only a mid-sized five feet eight inches (1.73 m) tall and his ego had him often trying not to appear next to much taller actors.
Two of Douglas’ best roles were in the excellent historical epics, the Vikings (1958) and Spartacus (1960), in both of which he appeared with the diminutive but beautiful Tony Curtis. Spartacus, of course, vies with Charlton Heston’s performance in Ben Hur (1959) as the best ever “sword and sandal” title role in a Roman epic.
A little less historically distant was when he starred in the very good wartime movie, The Heroes of Telemark (1965), which was an exciting story based on the factual commando raids which stopped Nazi Germany’s acquisition of Norway’s heavy water which it needed for its nuclear weapons programme.
Kirk Douglas’ later film roles were less memorable – he was by the 1970s looking a tad too old to play a romantic or heroic leads (his forte) – but he carried on working until 2008, despite close run-ins with death in a helicopter air collision/crash in 1991, and via a stroke in the late 1990s. He gained the sympathy of Hollywood when these happened, not least, from long time acting collaborator and friend Burt Lancaster, with whom he again starred with in the amusing gangster homage Tough Guys (1986). However, the very resilient Kirk had the last laugh when he outlived Burt and most of his other Hollywood “golden age” contemporaries.
Kirk Douglas’ private life and his personality have a very mixed reputation. Most damaging of all was the rumour that he had been the “unnamed married film star” who allegedly violently raped the teenage actress Natalie Wood after she was lured to an audition in a hotel room in 1954. This unsubstantiated identification is probably unfair given that Wood and Douglas appeared to have had a very cordial social relationship with each other subsequent to the alleged event. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Kirk Douglas was an notorious womaniser who used his looks and charm to seduce many of the famous beautiful actresses of the day including: Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner – a factor which caused his first marriage (to Diana Dill) to fail.
A famous anecdote from the time has Douglas going to a therapist after bedding 29 different women over 29 days, with the concern that he could not sexually perform on the 30th day. In the story, the therapist reputedly tells the normally priapic Douglas that God had given him a day of rest.
Apart from his sexual activities, Kirk Douglas did also have a fairly deserved reputation for being a “difficult” actor. As Burt Lancaster put it: “Kirk Douglas would be the first to admit he can be a difficult man to work with, and I would be the second.”
Despite being a troublesome colleague and as a infamous seducer of women, Douglas could be a very moral and courageous man when it came to issues of justice and fairness. For example, as an actor, he bravely fought the domination of the Hollywood studio system. Douglas was also admired for being one of the few who was prepared to make a stand against the McCarthy witch hunt when others would not. For example, he supported having Dalton Trumbo write the script under his own name for Spartacus (1960), even though Trumbo had been publicly blacklisted by the anti-communist witch hunt. That said, later Douglas somewhat blotted his achievement when he distanced himself from Trumbo.
While his womanising continued for a time, Douglas also tried his best to become a better family man later in his life after he married Anne Buydens in 1954. In the final decades of his life Douglas also gave tens of millions of his wealth in philanthropic donations.
Kirk Douglas has now passed on, but acting will stay alive in his family. All four of his sons entered show biz in various acting and producing capacities, one of whom, Eric, predeceased Kirk when he died of drugs abuse. Most successful was his actor eldest son Michael Douglas, taking over as a mainline film star where his father left off.
While he made errors in his personal life which were undoubtedly damaging to others, nevertheless, for his work and performances, we give our salute to Kirk Douglas and our sympathy to his family and friends.
Post Script: It was nice to note that accomplished actor Tom Hanks paid tribute to Kirk Douglas at this years Oscars (Academy Awards) ceremony. “I am Spartacus!” he yelled.