Douglas, Kirk


Douglas, Kirk
(December 9, 1916– )
   Few film actors have garnered the sort of international stardom that Kirk Douglas has enjoyed during his remarkable career of more than 53 years, encompassing some 80 motion pictures. Douglas has commanded the screen in a wide variety of roles, essaying a body of work rich in spirit, humor, and daring. His vital and charismatic performances, ranging from consummate cowboy to tortured artist, have made him one of the most intriguing leading men in the history of the American film industry.
   Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of illiterate Russian immigrants, Douglas was driven to leave behind the poverty of his upbringing. He told Parade magazine, “I feel like my parents came from the Middle Ages, and that I went from there to the 20th century. ” His means of escape was a wrestling scholarship to St. Lawrence University, and he also worked as a janitor to pay his school expenses. A second scholarship, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, put him on the road to a stage career. Douglas made his Broadway debut as a singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again, but he put his career on hold in 1942 to enlist in the U. S. Navy, where he served as a communications officer in antisubmarine warfare. After the war, in 1945 he returned to Broadway in a widely acclaimed role as a ghost soldier in The Wind is Ninety. Lauren Bacall, who had dated Douglas when they were acting students together, recommended him to producer Hal Wallis, who saw the actor on the New York stage. As a result, Douglas landed his first film role, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s sniveling husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
   Three years later, Douglas won stardom and his first Academy Award nomination for his role as the cynical boxer in Stanley Kramer’s Champion (1949). He received his second Oscar nomination in 1952 for his role as an opportunistic movie mogul in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. A third nomination came for the portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Minnelli’s Lust for Life, for which Douglas won the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award for best actor of 1956.
   On several occasions throughout his career, Kirk Douglas worked alongside his fellow actor Burt Lancaster, and the two became great friends over the years. Their first film together was a 1947 melodrama produced by Hal Wallis, I Walk Alone. Other films in which they costar include Gunfight at the O. K. Corral (1957), The Devil’s Discipline (1959), Seven Days in May (1964), and Tough Guys (1986).
   When STANLEY KUBRICK and JAMES B. HARRIS were developing PATHS OF GLORY, they came to realize that in order to get the film made, they had to have a big-name star attached. They wanted Kirk Douglas for the lead role of Colonel Dax, so they had their agent send him the script. In his autobiography, Douglas recalls telling Kubrick in their initial meeting about Paths of Glory, “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it. ” After some uncertainty as to when Douglas would be free to start shooting the film, he finally committed to the project. His agent,Ray Stark, drove a hard bargain on his client’s behalf, netting Douglas a salary of $350,000 and a five-picture contract in which Harris and Kubrick were essentially to work for Bryna, Kirk Douglas’s production company. Even though the deal only left Harris and Kubrick with salaries of roughly $25,000 for the film, not to mention the five-film commitment to Bryna, they felt they had to accept Douglas’s terms. After all, Kirk Douglas could get the film made—which indeed he did, forcefully persuading United Artists to finance Paths of Glory when no other major studio would bankroll it.
   When Douglas arrived in Munich to start production, he discovered that the script with which he had been so enamored had been changed beyond recognition. “Stanley . . . had revised it on his own, with Jim Thompson,” Douglas recalls in his autobiography. “ It was a catastrophe, a cheapened version of what I had thought had been a beautiful script. The dialogue was atrocious. My character said things like: ‘You’ve got a big head . . . You’re so sure the sun rises and sets up there in your noggin you don’t even bother to carry matches. ’ . . . Speeches like this went on for pages, right up to the happy ending, when the general’s car arrives screeching to halt the firing squad and he changes the men’s sentence to thirty days in the guardhouse. . . . I called Stanley and Harris to my room. ‘Stanley, did you write this?’ ‘Yes. ’ Kubrick always had a calm way about him. I never heard him raise his voice, never saw him get excited or reveal anything. He just looked at you through those big, wide eyes. I said, ‘Stanley, why would you do that?’ He very calmly said, ‘To make it commercial. I want to make money. ’ I hit the ceiling. I called him every four-letter word I could think of . . . I threw the script across the room. ‘We’re going back to the original script, or we’re not making the picture. ’ Stanley never blinked an eye. We shot the original script. ”
   Their contentious relationship prompted Douglas to say at the time:“He’ll be a fine director some day, if he falls flat on his face just once. It might teach him how to compromise. ” And later, in retrospect: “You don’t have to be a nice person to be extremely talented. You can be a shit and be talented, and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit. ”
   In 1958, Douglas broke the notorious Hollywood blacklist when he publicly announced that blacklisted screenwriter DALTON TRUMBO—a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” who had been jailed because of his alleged communist affiliations—was writing the screen adaptation for SPARTACUS. Executive producer Douglas and his longtime associate, producer EDWARD LEWIS, had originally hired Trumbo s ecretly, listing Lewis as the screenwriter and funneling payments to “Sam Jackson,” the pseudonym that Trumbo was using at the time. Finally, Douglas and Lewis grew so uncomfortable with the situation that they abandoned the ruse and openly declared Trumbo the screenwriter. In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union paid tribute to Kirk Douglas with the Bill of Rights Award, for “bringing to a close a shameful period of persecution. ”
   Edward Lewis had brought HOWARD FAST’s novel Spartacus, to Kirk Douglas’s attention in 1957. It seemed a perfect fit for Douglas—as both producer and star—for its socially conscious themes and extraordinarily heroic main character. Getting the project off the ground proved quite a challenge for Douglas, as United Artists (UA) announced its simultaneous development of a film also based on the historical figure of Spartacus, to be directed by Martin Ritt and starring Yul Brynner. With a tenacity befitting Spartacus himself, Douglas went toe to toe with UA head Arthur Krim, who finally agreed to let Douglas move ahead using the title Spartacus. Despite the clashing of egos on Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas’s first choice of director for Spartacus was the young genius Stanley Kubrick, who was under contract to Bryna. Universal Studios, however, insisted on veteran director Anthony Mann. But after just two weeks of shooting, Douglas saw that Mann did not have the mettle to direct successfully, given the forceful personalities involved: LAURENCE OLIVIER, CHARLES LAUGHTON, and PETER USTINOV. Universal relented, allowing Douglas to remove Mann gently from the helm and replace him with Kubrick, whom Douglas hired onto the project with only 24 hours’ notice.
   As the star of Spartacus, Kirk Douglas delivers a prime example of his signature performance style, playing the role of a fiercely individualistic rebel and champion of the people. Some aspects of the production, however, required Douglas to extend his range. For the grueling gladiator training and battle scenes, Douglas studied under a team of six professional stuntmen who taught him to fight like a gladiator and a rebel warrior.
   According to VINCENT LOBRUTTO, throughout the production Douglas attempted to stay on good terms with Kubrick, but Kubrick seemed disinterested in being a part of the “family” of the film. But star/producer and director did share some aesthetic sensibilities, notably their affinity for using music to set the mood for a scene as it was being shot. This practice had been used widely in the silent era in order to create a mood off which actors could Kirk Douglas (left) and Charles McGraw in Spartacus (1960) (Author’s collection) emote, and Douglas and Kubrick used it extensively on Spartacus.
   Ultimately, though, Spartacus proved a tremendously frustrating experience for Kubrick creatively. He told GENE D. PHILLIPS: “Spartacus is the only film on which I did not have absolute control. When Kirk offered me the job of directing Spartacus, I thought that I might be able to make something of it if the script could be changed. But my experience proved that if it is not explicitly stipulated in the contract that your decisions will be respected, there’s a very good chance that they won’t be. The script could have been improved in the course of shooting, but it wasn’t. Kirk was the producer. He and Dalton Trumbo. . . . and Edward Lewis . . . had everything their way. ”
   Kirk Douglas’s relationship with Stanley Kubrick came to an end in December 1961. Kubrick and his attorney, Louis Blau, negotiated with Douglas to release Kubrick from his contract with Bryna Productions, a settlement that Douglas later lamented: “In the . . . years since Spartacus, Stanley has made only seven movies. If I had held him to his contract, half of his remaining movies would have been made for my company. ”
   In 1963, Douglas bought the dramatic rights to Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and starred in the Broadway production. For the next 10 years, he tried unsuccessfully to bring the story to the big screen. Finally in 1975, his son Michael Douglas produced the film and won an Oscar for best picture.
   In 1981, President Jimmy Carter awarded Kirk Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest peacetime civilian award, in recognition of the many trips around the world Douglas and his wife had made to speak to university students and others about why democracy works and what freedom means. Douglas visited West Germany, India, Thailand, the Philippines,Yugoslavia, Greece,Turkey, Poland, Romania, Hungary,Tunisia, the USSR, and other countries. Since then, Douglas has delivered the same message in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. He visited U. S. Marines in war-torn Beirut, and Red Cross hospitals and Afghan refugee camps near the Khyber Pass. In 1979 in France, for his stature in cinema arts and the high esteem in which he is held by the French public, Douglas was made a commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. In 1985, he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor for services to France, and in 1990 he was elevated to an officer of the Legion of Honor. These awards hold a tinge of irony, considering that Paths of Glory was originally banned in France and in French-controlled sectors of occupied Berlin, due to its negative portrayal of French military justice. In 1989, the government of Portugal presented Douglas with the Golfinho Life Achievement Award; that same year, Italian movie critics presented him with the Merit of Achievement Award for his distinguished career and his perennial popularity with the European film-going public. While doing research for his starring role in Amos (1985), a TV movie produced by his son Peter, Kirk Douglas became aware of the tragic abuse of the elderly in the United States. His efforts to bring this problem to public attention have included editorials and letters to newspapers, appearances on national television, and testimony before Congressman Claude D. Pepper’s Select Subcommittee on Aging. Douglas’s autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, published in 1988 by Simon & Schuster, became an international best-seller, occupying a spot on the New York Times best-seller list for 34 weeks. His second book, a novel entitled Dance With the Devil, appeared in 1990 and also made the New York Times best-seller list. Six other books have followed from the Bryna Company and Random House.
   In his 1991 picture, Veraz, a French-Spanish-Italian coproduction, Douglas stars as a hermit who imparts his love for the wilderness to a teenage boy obsessed with computers. This demanding role required that Douglas act out each of his scenes twice: once in French and once in English. Douglas’s most recent film, as of this writing, is Diamonds (1999), in which he costars with his former schoolmate, old flame, and longtime friend, Lauren Bacall. In February 1991, Douglas was returning home from the farm of Uriela Obst, his editor and close friend, when the helicopter he was in collided with a small plane just 50 feet above the landing strip of the Santa Paula, California, airport. The two men in the plane died, and Douglas sustained serious injuries. As a result of the tragedy, he experienced a spiritual reawakening. Since then, Douglas has devoted much of his life to the study and practice of Judaism, his religion by birth, which he had neglected for many years.
   On the occasion of Douglas’s winning the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, George Stevens Jr. offered the following tribute: “For nearly five decades now, hardly a year has gone by without a film from Kirk Douglas. No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul—and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature. His special gift had been to show us the flaws in every hero and the virtues in every heel. And that same, unique intensity, that sense of depth and defiance that made him a star, served him as a producer—gambling on a young director for Paths of Glory, standing firm for a blacklisted writer on Spartacus. Was it the ragman’s son or the young fighter in Champion who first said:‘I don’t want to be a “Hey, you . . . ” I want people to call me “Mister,” and I want to amount to something. ’What Mister Kirk Douglas amounted to is what brings us together to honor him with AFI’s Silver Star. He is an American original, a hero with a thousand faces, but a single, fiery, unforgettable spirit. ”
   References
   ■ “Biography: Kirk Douglas,” American Film Institute, 1991;
   ■ Douglas, Kirk, “Kirk by Andy,” interview with Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol’s Interview 8, no. 5, (May 1978): 16–18;
   ■ ———, “Why My Boys Make Me Proud,” interview with Tom Seligson, Parade, May 25, 1986, 4–5+;
   ■ Lacher, Irene,“Kirk’s Drama,” Newsday, October 1, 1997: B3+;
   ■ Mills, Nancy, “His Lust for Life,” Daily News, Showtime section, December 12, 1999: 5;
   ■ Roberts, Jerry, “Action Hero,” Hollywood Reporter, March 25, 1996: 33+;
   ■ Stevens, George, Jr. ,“Remarks,”American Film Institute Salute to Kirk Douglas, 1991;
   ■ Stewart, Susan,“Tough Guy: Kirk Douglas Battles Back From His Stroke,” Newsday, February 16, 2000, p. B3.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • DOUGLAS, KIRK — (originally Issur Danielovich Demsky; 1916– ), U.S. actor. Douglas was born in Amsterdam, N.Y. A good student and a keen athlete, he wrestled competitively during his time at St. Lawrence University. In 1939 he enrolled at the American Academy of …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Douglas,Kirk — Douglas, Kirk. Originally Issur Danielovitch. Born 1916. American actor noted for his portrayal of tough characters in films such as Champion (1949) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1953). He won an honorary Academy Award in 1996. * * * …   Universalium

  • DOUGLAS, Kirk — (1916– )    Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in New York, the cleft chinned, intensely masculine actor has been a significant force in Hollywood film since he began his career in 1946. The Westerns of Kirk Douglas span the classic Western era and… …   Westerns in Cinema

  • Douglas, Kirk — orig. Issur Danielovitch later Isadore Demskey born Dec. 9, 1916, Amsterdam, N.Y., U.S. U.S. film actor and producer. He had minor Broadway roles before making his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and emerged as a major star… …   Universalium

  • Douglas, Kirk — • ДУ ГЛАС (Douglas) Кёрк (наст. имя и . фам. Иссур Демски, Demsky) (p. 9.12. 1916, по др. данным, 1918)    амер. актёр, режиссёр, продюсер. Учился в Ун те святого Лаврентия, в Амер. академии драм, иск ва в Нью Йорке. С 1941 в т ре, с 1946 в кино… …   Кино: Энциклопедический словарь

  • Douglas, Kirk — ► (n. 1916) Nombre artístico de Issur Daniélovich Demsky, actor cinematográfico estadounidense. Películas: El ídolo de barro y Espartaco, entre otras. En 1973 se inició como realizador. En 1996 recibió un Oscar honorífico por el conjunto de su… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Douglas, Kirk — pseud. di Demsky, Issur Danielovič …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • Kirk Douglas — Nombre real Issur Danielovitch Demsky Nacimiento 9 de diciembre de 1916 94 años …   Wikipedia Español

  • Douglas — Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Michael Kirk ► C. cap. de la isla británica de Man, en su costa SE, en el mar de Irlanda; 20 368 h. * * * (as used in expressions) Adrian, Edgar Douglas Bradbury, Ray (Douglas) Douglas, Aaron Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Michael …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Kirk Douglas — [Kirk Douglas] (1916–2005) a US film actor well known for playing tough characters. His films included Lust for Life (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and Spartacus (1960). In 1990 Douglas received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the …   Useful english dictionary


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