The Ragman’s Son. Kirk would later name his independent film production company after his mother, Bryna.
Kirk was the only boy among six sisters. To help ends meet in his desperately poor family, Kirk took on a variety of odd jobs while growing up. He began acting in plays in high school, where he excelled in both academics and sports. He worked his way through St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, where he was a prominent member of the wrestling team.
After graduation, Kirk attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City on a special scholarship. When World War II broke out, he joined the US Navy, from which he received an honorable discharge in 1944.
While serving in the Navy, Kirk saw a photo of Bermuda-born Diana Dill, a fellow student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, on the cover ofLifemagazine and swore he was going to marry her. True to his word, Kirk married Diana on November 2, 1943. The couple subsequently had two sons, Michael, born in 1944, and Joel, born in 1947, before divorcing in 1951.
After his discharge from the Navy, Kirk began being cast on the New York stage, as well as in radio. Lauren Bacall, another of Kirk’s fellow students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, insisted that film producer Hal Wallis audition him for the Barbara Stanwyck filmThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers(1946). Kirk was cast and played his role to huge critical success, launching his Hollywood career.
Kirk’s early film roles included appearances in two film classics, the film noirOut of the Past(1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and Joseph Mankiewicz’sA Letter to Three Wives(1949). In 1948, he appeared with Burt Lancaster inI Walk Alone. This was the first of a seven-film series of Douglas-Lancaster collaborations, which included such notable films as the WesternGunfight at the O.K. Corral(1957) and the political thrillerSeven Days in May(1964), directed by John Frankenheimer.
Kirk achieved full-fledged stardom, and his first Academy Award nomination, in 1949, playing a ruthless boxer inChampion, directed by Mark Robson. This was Kirk’s first part playing “sons of bitches” and heels. It certainly wasn’t the last, despite the many heroic roles he would also take on. Kirk’s next starring role was as a jazz trumpeter, based on Bix Beiderbecke, inYoung Man with a Horn(1950), where he played opposite Doris Day.
In 1951, Kirk starred as an unscrupulous reporter in Billy Wilder’sAce in the Hole. Although the film was not a success on its first release, it is now recognized as one of both Wilder’s and Kirk’s best. That same year, he starred in the successful crime dramaDetective Story, directed by William Wyler. Kirk also started playing a variety of Western roles at this time, first inAlong the Great Divide(1951), and then in Howard Hawks’s 1952 filmThe Big Sky.
Kirk garnered his second Oscar nomination with another role as a heel, the “bad” film producer in Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 Hollywood melodramaThe Bad and the Beautiful, opposite Lana Turner. Kirk and Minnelli reunited ten years later forTwo Weeks in Another Town, a sequel of sorts set in Rome during the ’60s heyday of the international film industry.
An earlier European film,Act of Love(1953), is notable because he married the film’s publicist, the German-born Belgian Anne Buydens, the following year. This marriage produced two sons, Peter, who was born in 1955, and Eric, born in 1958. Kirk and Anne’s marriage is notable for its longevity, with the couple celebrating a second “recommitment” ceremony on their 50th wedding anniversary.
In the year of his marriage to Anne, Kirk appeared in one of his best-loved comic roles, as a sailor in the hit Disney live-action version of Jules Verne’s20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 1956, he starred in another memorable role, as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s film biographyLust for Life, for which he received a third Oscar nomination.
In recent years, it has become common for film stars to form their own production companies. In 1955, when Kirk formed The Bryna Company, the practice was virtually unheard of. The company produced a critical hit early on:Paths of Glory(1957), the classic World War I anti-war drama directed by Stanley Kubrick, in which Kirk starred as Colonel Dax, a French commander who faces a life-defining moral dilemma. Just a year later, Kirk took on a very different kind of leading role in the rousing adventureThe Vikings, a huge box-office hit.
The Bryna Company’s finest moment may have been the production ofSpartacus(1960), again directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas in the title role of what is arguably the greatest “sword and sandal” epic film ever. The film is further distinguished by Kirk’s insistence that formerly banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be credited under his own name. This effectively ending the McCarthy-era blacklist, an achievement Kirk regards as the high point of his career. In 2012, following the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, Kirk explored the trials and tribulations behind the making of this classic and the breaking of the blacklist in his book I Am Spartacus!
In 1962, Kirk appeared in one of his favorite roles, as a cowboy whom time has passed by in the intimateLonely Are the Brave, also written by Dalton Trumbo and produced by Bryna. A year later, Kirk began a series of international trips, often accompanied by his wife Anne, as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department. In 1964, Anne and Kirk established The Douglas Foundation (www.douglasfoundation.org), one of the entertainment industry’s oldest and largest private philanthropic organizations. The Foundation’s work, focusing on health, education, and the disadvantaged, continues unabated.
At about the time he started The Douglas Foundation, Kirk starred as Randall McMurphy in a New York stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novelOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk eventually assigned the motion picture rights to the novel to his son Michael, who went on to produce a film version that swept the Academy Awards in 1975.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Kirk appeared in a series of major motion pictures, often with international settings, includingThe List of Adrian Messenger(1963),In Harm’s Way(1965),Is Paris Burning?(1966),The Arrangement(1969),Once Is Not Enough(1975), andThe Fury(1978), directed by Brian De Palma. In 1980, he appeared in the science-fiction time-travel classicThe Final Countdown, produced by his son Peter, and in 1982 travelled to Australia to star in the hit,The Man from Snowy River.
In the ’80s, Kirk turned to feature-length television films. He played the title role inAmos(1985), which was the highest-rated film for television of its year, and then appeared as William Jennings Bryan in an adaptation of the stage playInherit the Wind, which won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special in 1988.
In 1988, Kirk also published his immensely popular autobiographyThe Ragman’s Son,and started yet another career as an author. His books encompass both novels, such asDance With the Devil(1990) andLast Tango in Brooklyn(1994), and non-fiction, includingClimbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning(2001), My Stroke of Luck(2003), and I Am Spartacus! (2012). In 2014, he published his first book of poetry, Life Could Be Verse.
As his books of reflections reveal, even after achieving stardom, Kirk faced his share of adversity and grief. He was seriously injured in a helicopter accident near Santa Paula, California, northwest of Los Angeles, in 1993. He then suffered a severe stroke in 1996, which impaired his ability to speak and from which he has largely rehabilitated himself. His youngest son, Eric, died tragically in 2004.
While Kirk never departed from the Jewish faith in which he was raised, he became more deeply involved in Hebraic studies late in life, and underwent a traditional if rare second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He is also a proud grandparent seven times over.
Kirk has received numerous honors in the United States and aborad in recognition of both his film and philanthropic work. He accepted the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1991. In 1999, the AFI also placed him on its list of the top fifty stars of American cinema. In 1996, Kirk won an Honorary Academy Award “for fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”
Kirk has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, one of the few ever to be stolen and replaced. In 2004, a street in Palm Springs, California, was named “Kirk Douglas Way” in his honor.
In 1981, Kirk was also presented with the Presidential Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest civilian award, in recognition of his work throughout the world as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department. The French government presented him with the Legion of Honor in 1985. In 2001, he received the National Medal of the Arts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Kirk maintains a busy schedule of film, television, and public appearances, in addition to his many philanthropic activities. He is the rarest of the rare: a classic film star with immense life-long impact and appeal.