We say farewell to Kirk Douglas, great actor, last survivor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and so much more.
Douglas, the son of Jewish immigrants to the US, grew up speaking Yiddish and had a tough early life. After being invalided out of the US Navy in 1944, he got radio work, then turned to stage drama, before making his film debut in 1946 in Hal B. Wallis’s The Strange Love of Martha Ives. For the first and only time, he played a weakling, dominated by his ruthless wife.
Many great films followed, including Lonely Are the Brave, Billy Wilder’s debut Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spartacus, and Lust for Life. His total credits as an actor run to at least 100, but he was also a notable producer, bringing to the screen Spartacus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he set in motion before handing it over to his son Michael. Beyond that, he found time to write ten novels and memoirs, as well as becoming a notable activist and philanthropist. A near-death experience in 1991, when he was a passenger in a helicopter that crashed, killing two others, led to him rediscovering the Judaism of his youth.
Late in life, he said that more than all the films, the thing he was most proud of was breaking the Hollywood blacklist by giving the scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo on-screen credit for Spartacus. The truth is a bit more complicated, and this is not the first time an actor has over-stated a personal achievement, but there is no doubt that it was a symbolic gesture of great importance. The presence or otherwise of communist writers in Hollywood is one of the subjects of Hail Caesar, a forthcoming film in this year’s CFS programme.
In 1996 Douglas suffered a stroke that impaired his ability to speak. Nonetheless, after gruelling speech therapy, he was able to thank the audience for his honorary Oscar at that year’s Academy Award ceremony. He wrote about the stroke in a memoir, My Stroke of Luck, intending it as a guide for relatives of stroke sufferers. In 2016, he celebrated his 100th birthday in the presence of family and friends, including his son Michael and daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones.
He died from natural causes on February 5 at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 103.