Entertainment

Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas dies at 103

Kirk Douglas, the cleft-chinned movie star who fought gladiators, cowboys and boxers on the screen and the Hollywood establishment, died on Wednesday at the age of 103, his son Michael Douglas said.

Best known for starring roles in Spartacus and The Vikings

Actor Kirk Douglas died on Wednesday at age 103. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

Kirk Douglas, the cleft-chinned movie star who fought gladiators, cowboys and boxers on the screen and the Hollywood establishment, died on Wednesday at the age of 103, his son Michael Douglas said.

"It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103," Michael Douglas said in a statement to People magazine and on his Facebook page.

"To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to," Michael said.

"Kirk's life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet," Michael added, saying he was "so proud" to be his father's son.

Douglas made more than 90 movies in a career that stretched across seven decades and films such as Spartacus and The Vikings made him one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s and '60s.

He also played a major role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist — actors, directors and writers who were shunned professionally because of links to the communist movement in the 1950s. Douglas said he was more proud of that than any film he made.

Undated portrait of Douglas. He was best known for his starring roles in the films Spartacus and The Vikings. (AFP/Getty Images)

Tributes poured in from Hollywood. Actor and director Rob Reiner said on Twitter that Douglas "will always be an icon in the pantheon of Hollywood. He put himself on the line to break the blacklist."

Mitzi Gaynor, who appeared with Douglas in the 1963 movie For Love or Money, said the film would "always hold a special place in my heart."

"Thank you for so generously sharing your amazing talent with all of us," Gaynor tweeted.

Danny DeVito called him an "inspirational Scallywag," while Ed Asner tweeted, "I will always be in your awe."

'Humour saved me'

A stroke in 1996 at age 80 left Douglas with slurred speech and damaged facial nerves. But two weeks later, he showed his spirit by attending the Academy Awards ceremony to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also continued to take small acting roles through 2008 but said the stroke left him suicidal.

"Humour saved me," Douglas told Parade magazine in 2014. "At first, I thought my life was at an end. But when I put the gun in my mouth, it hit a tooth. Ow! And that struck me funny. A toothache was stopping me from committing suicide?"

In one of his last public appearances, Douglas was frail and barely audible in a wheelchair as he helped daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones present the Oscar for best screenplay in January 2018. In November of that year he joined his son Michael as the younger Douglas was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Douglas, 90, is photographed during an interview about his life and film career at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., in this 2007 file photo. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Douglas had a distinctive chin, razor-sharp cheekbones and a jutting jaw — looks that he passed along to Michael — and that made him a natural for playing all manner of rugged characters.

He also had a demanding nature that earned him a reputation in his prime as the actor who directed directors. Longtime friend and sometime co-star Burt Lancaster loved to introduce him by saying, "Kirk would be the first to admit he is a difficult person. [Pause] I would be the second."

"I make my own way," Douglas once told an interviewer. "Nobody's my boss. Nobody's ever been my boss ... I've been a maverick."

Douglas said playing Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life was his favourite role — but Spartacus was his favourite film because, as producer, he took a big step toward breaking the Hollywood blacklist.

The lifetime Oscar was Douglas' only Academy Award even though he was nominated for playing ruthless boxer Midge Kelly in Champion, a movie executive in The Bad and the Beautiful and van Gogh in Lust for Life.

Douglas was known for powerful performances as characters who had to endure intense on-screen pain. He was stabbed in Ace in the Hole, crucified in Spartacus, lost an eye in The Vikings, an ear in Lust for Life, and a finger in The Big Sky.

Douglas' independent streak led him to set up Bryna Production Co, which he named after his mother, in 1955, snubbing big studio bosses and helping break their monopoly on the industry.

Born to illiterate Russian immigrants

Born Issur Danielovich on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, Douglas was the only son of seven children born to illiterate Russian immigrants.

After graduating from high school, he hitchhiked to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where he became a wrestling champion. He also staged and starred in theatrical productions and changed his name to Izzy Demsy.

Michael Douglas (left) applauds his father during the 57th Annual Academy Awards, on Mar. 25, 1985. (Rob Boren/AFP/Getty Images)

After St. Lawrence, he graduated from New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1941 and changed his name to Kirk Douglas. He joined the Navy following two small Broadway roles.

While in the navy he married British actress Diana Dill and they had two sons, Michael and Joel, before the marriage ended after eight years.

Douglas had a reputation as a Hollywood ladies' man. Among the lovers listed in the 1988 book The Ragman's Son, one of several books he wrote about his life, were Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Maxwell, Patricia Neal and Gene Tierney.

While making Act of Love, Douglas met and Anne Buydens, the film's publicist, and they married in 1954. Their marriage became one of Hollywood's most enduring despite his affairs. They had two sons, Peter and Eric.

Douglas, who survived a 1991 helicopter crash that killed two people, tried to discourage his children from following him into acting. Still, Michael became a superstar and a successful producer, Joel and Peter also were producers and Eric was an actor until his 2004 death from a drug overdose.

Douglas arrives to receive an inaugural award for excellence in film in 2006. (Phil Klein/Reuters)

"You see how they listened to me," Douglas once said.

Douglas, who grew a long white ponytail in his later years, published several books, including a book of poetry, prose and photographs in 2014.

He established the Douglas Foundation for making charitable donations and in 2015 he and Anne announced plans to give away his $80 million US fortune to a variety of causes. The beneficiaries included a shelter for homeless women named after Anne, the Los Angeles public school district, St. Lawrence University and hospitals.

To mark his 99th birthday in 2015, he donated $15 million to the Motion Picture and Television Fund to help build a facility for entertainment industry figures with Alzheimer's disease.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now