Tribute to Kirk Douglas

(1916−2020) Actor, director & producer 


“France is my sec­ond coun­try. Peo­ple here love me more than in the Unit­ed States.”

A dim­pled chin. A detail, but it is the one that comes to mind when one thinks of Kirk Dou­glas, who died this past Feb­ru­ary 5th, at the age of 103. Despite hav­ing been a major fig­ure in Amer­i­can film, one of the last Old Hol­ly­wood stars and an archi­tect of that system’s demise, a bold pro­duc­er, a tal­ent­ed writer and above all, an actor of uncom­mon force and courage, it is that trou­bling cleft chin – “How do you shave that thing?” Kim Novak asked him in Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet (1960) – that stands out.

One might also see it as emblem­at­ic of the wounds and scars afflict­ing the char­ac­ters Kirk Dou­glas played over the course of a career that spanned the entire lat­ter half of the 20th century.

Shorn of a fin­ger in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky (1952) and an ear in Vin­cente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1957), blind­ed in Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), cru­ci­fied in Stan­ley Kubrick’s Spar­ta­cus (1960) and run over by a truck in Elia Kazan’s The Arrange­ment (1969), he shared none of John Wayne’s tri­umphant hero­ism, instead an ambiva­lent fig­ure whose pub­lic image as a patri­arch – the actor Michael Dou­glas is his son – was like­wise shat­tered after the death by over­dose of anoth­er son, Eric, in 2004.

In 1996, a stroke that severe­ly impaired his speech wasn’t enough to keep Kirk Dou­glas defin­i­tive­ly out of the spot­light. A reg­u­lar guest of the world’s great­est film fes­ti­vals, he also became a recur­ring pres­ence on book­store shelves. A mem­oirist and nov­el­ist, sev­er­al of his books – includ­ing “The Rag­man’s Son” (Renais­sance Press, 1988), the first vol­ume of his mem­oirs – enjoyed long stays atop best­seller lists. In recent years, he dis­tin­guished him­self on the Web with a blog that showed an unex­pect­ed spon­tane­ity for a nonagenarian.

Of Jew­ish descent, the Danielovitch fam­i­ly came from Belarus to set­tle in Ams­ter­dam, on the Hud­son Riv­er in upstate New York. Issur was born there on Decem­ber 9th, 1916, only broth­er to the six daugh­ters of Her­schel, a rag­man, and Bry­na. He had an impov­er­ished child­hood and had to take on var­i­ous small jobs to finance his education.

He found his call­ing as an actor in ado­les­cence and enrolled in St. Lawrence Uni­ver­si­ty. Bat­tling anti-Semi­tism at every stage of his career, he became a star on the wrestling team, and soon took dra­ma class­es in New York. Issur Danielovitch took on the pseu­do­nym Kirk Dou­glas and was a peer of Bet­ty Joan Perske, the future Lau­ren Bacall. When the U.S. went to war, the young man joined the Navy and was med­ical­ly dis­charged for injuries in 1944.

A Hol­ly­wood star by now, Lau­ren Bacall rec­om­mend­ed her friend to Warn­er pro­duc­er Hal B. Wal­lis, and Kirk Dou­glas made his screen debut at age 30 in Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, in 1946.

Despite his pow­ers of seduc­tion, Kirk Dou­glas was cast in unsa­vory roles at first, such as the mob­ster seek­ing revenge on Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), “son of a bitch roles”, as he lat­er called them. But also imper­fect males, like the hus­band in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Let­ter to Three Wives (1949).

Kirk Dou­glas soon met Vin­cente Min­nel­li, his direc­tor of choice. In 1952, they made The Bad and the Beau­ti­ful togeth­er, a piti­less and extreme por­tray­al of the black mag­ic of cin­e­ma, and the ways it both glo­ri­fies and cor­rupts. In 1956, they made Lust for Life, “the one role in which I near­ly lost myself”, the actor lat­er admit­ted. His vio­lent per­for­mance wasn’t enough to earn him the 1957 Oscar for Best Actor, which went instead that year to Yul Bryn­ner for The King and I (Wal­ter Lang). Min­nel­li and Dou­glas reunit­ed a third time for Two Weeks in Anoth­er Town, in 1962.

While not sub­scrib­ing to the Actors Stu­dio method imposed by Mar­lon Bran­do and James Dean on Hol­ly­wood, Dou­glas com­mit­ted intense­ly to each role, to the point of putting him­self in psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal dan­ger. He end­ed the shoot of of The Big Sky (1952), Howard Hawks’ bucol­ic West­ern, with pneu­mo­nia. And that is real­ly him danc­ing on the oars of a mov­ing long­ship in The Vikings.

This taste for risk also man­i­fest­ed in Dou­glas found­ing his own pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, Bry­na, named after his moth­er. This inde­pen­dence allowed him to under­take films that depart­ed from Hol­ly­wood “enter­tain­ments.” Even The Vikings, a major spec­ta­cle in which he per­formed oppo­site Tony Cur­tis, stood out for the efforts made by its screen­writ­ers and design­ers to attain a sem­blance of his­tor­i­cal truth. Kirk Dou­glas took on for him­self the role of the bar­bar­ian, a man whose mon­strous appetites pre­cip­i­tate his downfall.

Next, he hired the young Stan­ley Kubrick to direct Paths of Glo­ry, an anti-war dra­ma set in 1917, in which he played a French colonel charged with defend­ing sol­diers accused of deser­tion. In France, faced with threats by vet­er­ans’ orga­ni­za­tions and pres­sure from the Quai d’Orsay, Unit­ed Artists, the film’s dis­trib­u­tor, gave up apply­ing for a screen­ing visa. Audi­ences in France would have to wait until the sum­mer of 1975 to dis­cov­er Paths of Glo­ry. Back in 1957, Kirk Dou­glas, as shown in an inter­view with the tele­vi­sion news­cast­er Mike Wal­lace, was a pub­lic fig­ure called on to speak about the major issues of the day. He pub­licly denounced Com­mu­nism and “any­thing that might jeop­ar­dize the Amer­i­can Way of Life”.

Three years lat­er, he went into pro­duc­tion on Spar­ta­cus, fir­ing the direc­tor Antho­ny Mann and replac­ing him with Stan­ley Kubrick. Beyond its place in the his­to­ry of McCarthy­ism in Hol­ly­wood, Spar­ta­cus was also marked by inces­sant strife dur­ing its pro­duc­tion. One of the stars of its very British cast (the film also fea­tured Lau­rence Olivi­er, Jean Sim­mons and Peter Usti­nov), Charles Laughton, who detest­ed the screen­play, threat­ened to sue Kirk Dou­glas, and Stan­ley Kubrick stopped speak­ing to his cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, Rus­sell Met­ty. The adven­ture end­ed with a quar­rel between Kirk Dou­glas and the future direc­tor of Doc­tor Strangelove (1964), deemed by his pro­duc­er and actor as “incred­i­bly intel­li­gent, but so cold”. Spar­ta­cus would also be the last major film for the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Bryna.

The ear­ly 1960s were less pro­lif­ic. He appeared in big spec­ta­cles such as René Clément’s Is Paris Burn­ing? (1966) and in West­erns along­side John Wayne (Burt Kennedy’s The War Wag­on, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (Andrew McLaglen’s The Way West, 1967). In 1970, Kirk Dou­glas teamed once again with top film­mak­ers. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s There Was a Crooked Man… (1970) was the first West­ern from the author of “All About Eve”, pit­ting Kirk Dou­glas, in the role of a ruth­less crim­i­nal, against Hen­ry Fon­da, who played a prison war­den. It was also the year of Kazan’s The Arrange­ment.

The “On the Water­front” author adapt­ed his own nov­el to draw the por­trait of an Amer­i­ca adrift. Kirk Dou­glas brought his con­fi­dence and swag­ger to a high-lev­el exec­u­tive respon­si­ble for a suc­cess­ful adver­tis­ing cam­paign, who sees his life unrav­el after suc­cumb­ing to the charms of a younger woman (Faye Dun­away), an avatar of the new Amer­i­ca sprung forth from the social move­ments of the 1960s. Once again, Dou­glas brought his com­mit­ment and inten­si­ty of expres­sion – he isn’t and nev­er was the sub­tlest actor – to this role, which plays like a career sum­ma­ry. Unhap­py with Kazan’s end­ing, he went so far as to re-edit the film, but the director’s ver­sion was distributed.

The end of Kirk Dou­glas’ big-screen career spanned sev­er­al decades. He crossed paths with Bri­an De Pal­ma (The Fury, in 1978) and re-teamed with Burt Lan­cast­er, with whom he had shared the screen four times in their ear­ly careers, for Jeff Kanew’s Tough Guys in 1986. In 2003, Fred Schepisi’s It Runs in the Fam­i­ly gave him an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share the screen with his son Michael and his grand­son Cameron.

These films add noth­ing to his glo­ry, which remained immense. First, because the suc­cess of his son Michael Dou­glas, who became famous for the tele­vi­sion show The Streets of San Fran­cis­co (1972−1976) and then a star with Romanc­ing the Stone (1984), Wall Street (1987) and Fatal Attrac­tion (1987), reflect­ed back on his father. Then, because Kirk Dou­glas became a suc­cess­ful author. He pub­lished “The Ragman’s Son” in 1988. A best­seller in the Unit­ed States, it was trans­lat­ed around the world. In the book, Dou­glas recounts his pen­ni­less child­hood, his loves, and his artis­tic and polit­i­cal battles.

In 1991, he escaped death in a heli­copter acci­dent, which pro­voked in him a return to the Jew­ish faith, an evo­lu­tion that he would describe in his oth­er books, “Climb­ing the Moun­tain” (L’Archipel, 1999) and “My Stroke of Luck” (Michel Lafon, 2002). The lat­ter also recalls his efforts, large­ly suc­cess­ful, at recov­er­ing his speech in the after­math of his stroke.

The Venice and Berlin Film Fes­ti­vals hon­ored him with trib­utes and he final­ly received an Oscar for career achieve­ment in 1996. In 2007, along­side the pub­lish­ing of a new book, “Let’s Face It”, he cre­at­ed a page on the social net­work MySpace, and then a blog.


Thomas Sotinel, film critic

with the kind autho­riza­tion of Le Monde

All right reserved


Select­ed filmography



2008      Build­ing William Karel – TV

2004      Illu­sion Michal A. Goorjian

2003       It Runs in the Fam­i­ly Fred Schepisi

2000      Touched by an Angel John Masius – TV

1999      Dia­monds John Ash­er – Deauville 1999

1994      Take Me Home Again Tom McLough­lin – TV

Greedy Jonathan Lynn

1992      The Secret Karen Arthur – TV

1991      Ver­az Xavier Castano

L’Embrouille est dans le sac Oscar John Landis

1988      Inher­it the Wind David Greene – TV

1986      Tough Guys Jeff Kanew

1985      Amos Michael Tuch­n­er – TV

1984      Draw! Steven Hilliard Stern – TV

1983      Eddie Macon’s Run Jeff Kanew

1982      Remem­brance of Love Jack Smight – TV

The Man from Snowy Riv­er George Miller

1980      The Final Count­down Don Taylor

Sat­urn 3 Stan­ley Donen & John Barry

1979      Home Movies Bri­an De Palma

The Vil­lain Hal Needham

1978      The Fury Bri­an De Palma

1977      Holo­caust 2000 Alber­to De Martino

1976      Vic­to­ry at Entebbe Mar­vin J. Chom­sky – TV

1975      Once Is Not Enough Guy Green

La Brigade du Texas Posse Kirk Douglas */**

1974      Mousey Daniel Petrie – TV

1973      Scalawag Kirk Douglas *

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde David Win­ters – TV

1972      The Mas­ter Touch – Un uomo da rispettare Michele Lupo

The Spe­cial Lon­don Bridge Spe­cial David Win­ters – TV

1971      Catch Me a Spy Dick Clement

A Gun­fight Lam­ont Johnson

The Light at the Edge of the World Kevin Billington **

Sum­mertree Antho­ny Newley **

1970      There Was a Crooked Man… Joseph L. Mankiewicz

1969      The Arrange­ment Elia Kazan

1968      The Broth­er­hood Mar­tin Ritt **

The Leg­end of the Silent Night Daniel Mann – TV

Laugh-In Dig­by Wolfe – TV

A Love­ly Way to Die David Low­ell Rich

1967      The War Wag­on Burt Kennedy

The Way West Andrew V. McLaglen

1966      Paris brûle-t-il ? René Clément

Cast a Giant Shad­ow Melville Shavelson

1965      The Heroes of Tele­mark Antho­ny Mann

In Harm’s Way Otto Preminger

1964      Sev­en Days in May John Frankenheimer

1963     For Love or Mon­ey Michael Gordon

The List of Adri­an Mes­sen­ger John Huston

The Hook George Seaton

1962      Two Weeks in Anoth­er Town Vin­cente Minnelli

Lone­ly Are the Brave David Miller

1961     The Last Sun­set Robert Aldrich

Town With­out Pity Got­tfried Reinhardt

1960      Spar­ta­cus Stan­ley Kubrick **

Strangers When We Meet Richard Quine

1959      Oper­a­tion Pet­ti­coat Blake Edwards

The Devil’s Dis­ci­ple Guy Hamil­ton & Alexan­der Mackendrick

  Last Train from Gun Hill John Sturges

1958      The Vikings Richard Fleischer

1957      Paths of Glo­ry Stan­ley Kubrick

Gun­fight at the O.K. Cor­ral John Sturges

Top Secret Affair H.C. Potter

1956      Lust for Life Vin­cente Min­nel­li & George Cukor

1955      The Indi­an Fight­er André De Toth

Man With­out a Star King Vidor

The Rac­ers Hen­ry Hathaway

1954     20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Richard Fleischer

Ulysses – Ulisse Mario Camerini

1953      Un acte d’amour Ana­tole Litvak

The Jug­gler Edward Dmytryk

The Sto­ry of Three Loves Vin­cente Min­nel­li & Got­tfried Reinhardt

1952      The Bad and the Beau­ti­ful Vin­cente Minnelli

The Big Sky Howard Hawks

 The Big Trees Felix E. Feist

1951      Detec­tive Sto­ry William Wyler

 Ace in the Hole Bil­ly Wilder

Along the Great Divide Raoul Walsh

1950     The Glass Menagerie Irv­ing Rapper

Young Man with a Horn Michael Curtiz

1949     Cham­pi­on Mark Robson

A Let­ter to Three Wives Joseph L. Mankiewicz

1948     My Dear Sec­re­tary Charles Martin

 The Walls of Jeri­cho John M. Stahl

1947     I Walk Alone Byron Haskin

 Out of the Past Jacques Tourneur

Mourn­ing Becomes Elec­tra Dud­ley Nichols

1946     The Strange Love of Martha Ivers Lewis Milestone


* Also director

** Also producer




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