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Life and career of Kirk Douglas

| Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

Kirk Douglas, considered one of the most influential actors of the mid-20th century, died on Feb. 5. He was 103.

Kirk Douglas left quite an impression on the world of Hollywood, having starred in countless films. Douglas was also known for his work with various charitable organizations. 

Born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, New York, to Jewish parents, Douglas enlisted in the United States Navy for World War II in 1941. The only boy in a family of seven children, he first knew he wanted to be an actor after reciting the poem “The Red Robin of Spring” when he was in kindergarten — and received applause for his efforts.

Douglas’s “big break” came when he was cast in the 1946 film “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” He played the role of a young, insecure man whose life is dominated by a ruthless wife, causing him to suppress his feelings through alcohol abuse.

Upon the film’s release, Douglas was praised by critics for exuding what they deemed to be natural star quality. Three years later, Douglas starred in  “Champion,” a film noir drama sport piece about a boxer who has to fight his inner demons while also competing in the boxing ring. The film was praised for its original story, and Douglas was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (but lost to Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men”).

In 1954, Douglas starred in the Disney adaptation of Jules Verne’s science fiction novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” He took on the role of a happy-go-lucky sailor who, within the film, serves as foil to the brooding Captain Nemo, thereby showing that, in addition to serious, driven characters, he was adept to roles that require a lighter, more comic touch. This film was a major box office hit and was considered a precursor to the steampunk genre.

Following the success of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Douglas broke ties with Warner Brothers and Hal B. Wallis in order to start his own film company, Bryna Productions, in honor of his mother, Bryna. His first film with his new company was the 1955 film “The Indian Fighter.”

However, the most famous film from Bryna Productions is the 1960 epic historical drama “Spartacus.” The film tells the story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, within the larger context of the Third Seville War. Since the film’s screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was on the Hollywood blacklist when it was released, then president-elect John F. Kennedy helped to end the practice of blacklisting altogether.

Douglas last appeared on film in 2008, when he starred in the “Empire State Building Murders,” a French mockumentary made for TV. In March 2009, Douglas performed an autobiographical one-man show, “Before I Forget,” at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California. 

Douglas married his first wife, Diana Dill, in 1943. They had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas, before divorcing in 1951.

Three years later, Douglas married Anne Buydens, a fellow producer and philanthropist. Douglas celebrated his 100th birthday in 2016 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, joined by several of his friends and members of his family, including Don Rickles, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, his son Michael and his daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones. He was described by his friends and family as being in good shape and able to walk into the Sunset Room with confidence.

Although suffering a stroke in 1996 impaired his ability to speak, he never lost his love of acting.

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