|Activity||Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, to Bryna (née Sanglel) and Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch, a businessman. Douglas's parents were illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants from Gomel, now in Belarus. His father's brother, who had emigrated earlier, used the surname of Demsky, which Douglas's family adopted. For a time, Douglas was known as Izzy Demsky, though his name was never legally changed to that.|
Coming from a poor family, as a boy, Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and claims to have worked at more than forty jobs before becoming an actor. He found living in a family of six sisters to be stifling, "I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me." During high school, he acted in school plays, and discovered "The one thing in my life that I always knew, that was always constant, was that I wanted to be an actor."
Though he couldn’t afford tuition, Douglas talked his way into St. Lawrence University and received a loan, which he paid back working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team, and one summer he wrestled in a carnival to make some extra money.
His talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he received a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (soon to be better known as Lauren Bacall), who later would play an important role in launching his film career. Another classmate was aspiring Bermudian actress, Diana Dill, who later became his wife. While doing summer stock theater during a college term break, he began using the name Kirk Douglas, which he would legally adopt. He also earned his first money as an actor. After graduating from drama school, Douglas made his Broadway debut as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again.
Douglas served in the United States Navy from the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 and received a medical discharge for war injuries in 1944. On May 3, 1943, Diana Dill, his former classmate, appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Seeing her photograph, Douglas told his fellow sailors that he would marry her, which he did on November 2, 1943. Their son, Michael Douglas, was born in 1944. They divorced nine years later.
After the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio theatre and commercials. His stage break occurred in Kiss and Tell, which led to other roles. Douglas had planned to remain a stage actor but Lauren Bacall helped him get his first screen role in the Hal B. Wallis film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis was on his way to New York to look for new talent when Bacall suggested he visit Douglas, who was rehearsing a play called The Wind Is Ninety. Douglas finished the play's run and with no follow up work in sight, headed to Hollywood. He was immediately cast in the leading role, and made his film acting debut as a weak man dominated by a ruthless woman, unlike his later roles where he often played dominating roles.
Douglas established his image as a tough guy in his eighth film, Champion, playing a selfish boxer, and from then on, he made a career of playing "sons of bitches." From that film on, he decided that to succeed as a star, he needed to ramp up his intensity, overcome his natural shyness, and chose stronger roles. He conceded later, "I don’t think I’d be much of an actor without vanity. And I’m not interested in being a 'modest actor'." Early in his Hollywood career, he demonstrated his independent streak and broke his studio contracts to gain total control over his projects, forming his own movie company "Bryna Productions", named after his mother.
Douglas was a major box office star in the 1950s and 60s, playing opposite some of the leading female actors of that era including Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, Doris Day, Jeanne Crain, Rhonda Fleming, Virginia Mayo, Lizabeth Scott, Laraine Day, Jane Wyman, Eleanor Parker, Lana Turner, Kim Novak, Susan Hayward, Janet Leigh, and Jean Simmons.
Among his various roles, Douglas played a cowboy in his first western Along the Great Divide (1951). Douglas quickly became comfortable with riding horses and playing gunslingers, and returned in many westerns. In Lonely Are the Brave (1962), one of his favorite roles, Douglas plays a cowboy trying to live by his own code, much as he did in real life.
In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), one of his three Oscar-nominated roles, Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a hard-nosed film producer who manipulates and uses his actors, writers, and directors. In Young Man with a Horn (1950), Douglas portrays the rise and fall of a driven jazz musician, based on real-life horn player Bix Beiderbecke. Composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, playing the sidekick role, added realism to the film and gave Douglas insight into the role, being a friend of the real Beiderbecke.
Douglas played many military men, with varying nuance, in Top Secret Affair (1957), in Paths of Glory (1957) (his most famous role in that genre), Town Without Pity (1961), The Hook (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), In Harm’s Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Is Paris Burning (1966) and The Final Countdown (1980).
His role as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), filmed mostly on location in France, was noted not only for the veracity of his appearance but also for how he conveyed the painter’s internal turmoil. Director Vincente Minelli stated, "Kirk Douglas achieved a moving and memorable portrait of the artist—a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award."
Douglas played the lead with an all-star cast in Spartacus (1960). He was the executive producer as well, raising the $12 million production cost. He also played an important role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist by making sure that Dalton Trumbo's name was mentioned in the opening and ending credits of the film for the outstanding screenplay he did for the film. The movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick who three years earlier had collaborated closely with Douglas in Paths of Glory, where Douglas played one of his most notable roles as Colonel Dax, the commander of a French regiment during World War I.
In addition to serious, driven characters, Douglas was adept at roles requiring a comic touch, as in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), an adaption of the Jules Verne novel, wherein he plays a happy-go-lucky sailor who is the opposite in every way of the brooding Captain Nemo (James Mason). This was Walt Disney's first full-length live action movie and a box office hit. He manages a similar comic turn in the western Man Without a Star (1955) and in For Love or Money (1963).
Jimmy Carter greets Kirk Douglas and Mrs. Douglas, March 16, 1978Douglas made several films over the decades with Burt Lancaster, including I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Devil's Disciple (1959), Seven Days in May (1964), and Tough Guys (1986). Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these films but, with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were more or less the same size. Both actors arrived in Hollywood at the same time, and first appeared together in the fourth film for each. They both became actor-producers who sought out independent Hollywood careers.
Douglas stated that the keys to acting success are determination and application, "You must know how to function and how to maintain yourself, and you must have a love of what you do. But an actor also needs great good luck. I have had that luck." Douglas had great vitality, "It takes a lot out of you to work in this business. Many people fall by the wayside because they don’t have the energy to sustain their talent." His intensity spilled over into all elements of his film-making. As an actor, he dove into every role, dissecting not only his own lines but all the parts in the script to measure the rightness of the role, and he was willing to fight with the director if he felt justified. According to his wife, he often brought home that intensity, "When he was doing Lust for Life, he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house — it was frightening."His distinctive acting style and delivery made him, like James Stewart, a favorite with impersonators, especially Frank Gorshin.
Unlike some actors like Robert Mitchum, Douglas had a high opinion of actors, movies, and moviemaking, "To me it is the most important art form—it is an art, and it includes all the elements of the modern age." But he also stressed the entertainment value of films, "You can make a statement, you can say something, but it must be entertaining."
His first film as a director was Scalawag (1973). In his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, he said "Since I was accused so often of trying to direct the films I was in, I thought I ought to really try my hand at directing." It was a difficult debut with many production problems, requiring his wife to act as producer. Douglas plays a charming scoundrel with one leg, a considerable challenge to his athleticism, and though he got credit for his role, the film received unimpressive reviews. Later in 1973, Douglas appeared in a made-for-TV musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Douglas received three Academy Award nominations for his work in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. He was especially disappointed for not winning for the latter film, "I really thought I had a chance." Douglas did not win any competitive Oscars, but received a special Oscar in 1996 for "50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community".
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Kirk Douglas has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Blvd. Douglas is one of the few personalities (along with James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Gene Autry) whose star has been stolen and later replaced. In 1984, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA.
In October 2004, the avenue "Kirk Douglas Way" in Palm Springs, California was named in his honor by the Palm Springs International Film Society and Film Festival. Popular at home and around the world, Kirk Douglas received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, the French Legion of Honor in 1985, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001.