Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to poor Belarusian Jewish parents from Homel in Belarus, it is not known why the muscular Douglas decided to forge a career as an actor after showing promise as a wrestler.
But initially he did believe that an acting scholarship may get him through college and pay the bills. If the plan was simply to help subsidise his tutorials, it was certainly a wise move considering that his career as an actor has made him one of the most famous and richest figures in Hollywood.
After entering the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, famous for nurturing many Hollywood talents such as Anne Bancroft, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford and Lauren Bacall, the handsome actor then went to serve in the US Navy during World War II in 1944.
Douglas’ return to acting after the war first began in radio drama and commercials while he was trying to get a break on Broadway. But it was Bacall who managed to procure his first screen role in Hollywood in the 1946 melodrama ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman with a dark secret trapped in a loveless marriage to Douglas.
Douglas waited until he was 27 and had established his career in Hollywood before marrying fellow acting student Diana Dill in 1923. They had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and Joel, who became a producer. The marriage to Dill was short-lived, seeing them divorce after only eight years in 1951. Despite the break-up, the two remained friends and acted together as recently as 2003 when Douglas played Dill’s on-screen husband in the family drama ‘It Runs In The Family’, which also featured Kirk’s son, Michael, and grandson Cameron as fellow performers.
Possessing a distinctive gravely voice and uniquely imposing features, including his trademark dimple, no doubt made Douglas an attractive prospect in the star-making machine. In 1949, his early wrestling skills were put to good use in the box office hit ‘Champion’ where Douglas played the tough ‘Midge’ Kelly, a boxer determined to win in the ring. The role brought Douglas an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
More nominations followed for ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ (1952) and ‘Lust For Life’. In the former, Douglas played Jonathan Shields, a film producer who alienates all those around him. Co-starring with Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame, it was the perfect role for Douglas to maximise his imposing qualities to the hilt. His performance won him a Best Actor nomination. Likewise in ‘Lust for Life’ (1956) Douglas’ interpretation of the emotionally disturbed genius Vincent Van Gogh, complete with a ginger punk hairdo, brought him another Best Actor nomination, but sadly not the winning prize on the night.
During this prolific era that saw Douglas become one of Hollywood’s shining stars, the Oscar nominated actor married for the second time, this time to Anne Buydens on 29 May 1954. They had two sons, Peter Vincent Douglas, who followed his father’s path as a thespian, and second son Eric Douglas, who sadly died in 2004 aged 50.
Douglas’ working relationship with director Stanley Kubrick began in 1954 when the actor produced the anti-war film ‘Paths of Glory’. In this powerful true life story about five French soldiers who were shot for mutiny, Douglas plays Colonel Dax who defends the accused men in the courtroom. The actor later revealed in his memoirs that he insisted on a more realistic and now famous denouncement, opposing Kubrick settling for a ‘happy ending’.
Such artistic differences and tussles between the two on the movie 'Titans' would resurface again almost ten years later when Kubrick took the director’s chair on Douglas’ self produced 'Spartacus' epic. The 1960 movie with its stellar cast including Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, a cast of 10,000 and a budget of $12 million, was a colossal affair for both director Kubrick and its star and producer Douglas. Ironically, despite the many awards this spectacular but historically incorrect film garnered, Douglas was not even nominated. Peter Ustinov, as ‘Batiatus’ the manipulative slave dealer, took Best Actor.
In total, Douglas produced around five movies during this time, including a period suspense version of Jules Verne’s ‘The Light At The End Of the World’ (1971) starring Yul Brynner which, despite its roster of big name stars and exotic locations, failed at the box office due to its violent and disturbing nature not sitting well with a family audience.
1973 saw Douglas take the director’s helm with ‘Scalawag’, a musical described at the time as ‘Treasure Island’ meets the ‘Wild West’. Douglas also starred among an Anglo-American cast that featured Britain’s own child star Mark Lester and a young Danny De Vito. The film, however, proved a box office failure and isn’t fondly remembered by Douglas who admitted that his first time experience as a director was not a happy one.
Perhaps the most odd appearance Douglas has made on celluloid, certainly the most oddball of pairings, was with Farrah Fawcett, when, at 64 and a veteran of over sixty-six movies, Douglas played the former Charlie’s Angels star’s lover. ‘Saturn 3’ (1980), a visually impressive but lame British sci-fi yarn in the style of ‘Alien’, saw Douglas and Fawcett as two space scientists battling with Harvey Keitel’s psychopathic professor who has the hots for Fawcett. The film was panned for being derivative and lacking suspense and not even a sultry Fawcett, bobbing around in a space station wearing a baby-doll nightie could distract from the weak script and tedium.
Sadly, Douglas made few films during the 1990s and tragically suffered a stroke in 1996, impairing his ability to speak. Despite this debilitating condition, he still performed with his son, Douglas, and grandson Cameron in family drama ‘It Runs In The Family’ that mainly consisted of the real Douglas clan.
In 2001, he released his second autobiography 'Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning', which focused on his spiritual journey, which occurred after surviving a helicopter crash in which two people died in 1991. Following this event, he decided to return to Judaism, which is the religion he was brought up in.
Kirk has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion picture industry. Also in October 2004, he was honoured by having an avenue in Palm Springs, California, named after him. The ‘Kirk Douglas Way’ is just one of many honours bestowed on one of Hollywood’s greatest stars from its Golden era and the figurehead of one of its most famous acting and film making families, which now includes Catherine Zeta Jones.
Despite the many nominations for his acting roles, Douglas failed to 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".
On 8 December 2006, he appeared on 'Entertainment Tonight' where the entire staff and members of his family including son Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta Jones wished him a happy 90th birthday.
In March 2009, Douglas starred in a one man autobiographical show called ' Before I Forget' at the Centre Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. He performed the show four times and they were recorded and turned into a documentary, which aired in January 2010.
He also made a public appearance on 27 February 2011 at the 83rd Academy Awards to present the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
At the age of 95, Douglas was named the oldest celebrity blogger as he regularly updated his Myspace account, although he has now quit the site.