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Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, legendary movie star Kirk Douglas died today at the age of 103. Douglas, the son of illiterate Jewish immigrants from Belarus, was a volcanic screen presence in Lust for Life, Spartacus, and about 80 other films.
Handsome, muscled and cleft-chinned, he looked as if carved out of the same lava rock as the Easter Island monoliths, even after fighting his way back from a 1996 stroke. He boasted that he made it by “playing sons of bitches,” and Burt Lancaster once quipped, “Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a difficult man. I would be the second.”
So poor that he collected horse manure his father spread to insulate the base of their house for winter, Douglas said poverty was an incentive to succeed — as was winning his father’s approval, which was not to be. But when he read the poem “The Red Robin of Spring” to his kindergarten class, students applauded. “I liked that sound,” he wrote in his memoir. “I still do.” Despite rampant antisemitism at St. Lawrence University in New York, his magnetism helped him get elected student body president.
In New York City after graduation, he waited tables, auditioned for stage roles, and inspired a crush in another hopeful actor, Betty Perske, who gave him her uncle’s overcoat for the harsh winter. After Douglas made Lieutenant JG and left the Navy in 1944 due to injuries, Perske — who changed her name to Lauren Bacall and was engaged to Humphrey Bogart — recommended him to producer Hal Wallis, who cast him as Barbara Stanwyck’s dominated spouse in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. His breakthrough was playing the unscrupulous boxer in Champion (1949), which channeled his combative energy and got him an Oscar nomination. He also earned nominations for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956), plus a 1996 statuette from the Motion Picture Academy honoring him as a creative and moral force in the industry.
Like his friend Lancaster, Douglas ensured his screen immortality by becoming an actor/producer, launching then-unknown filmmaker Stanley Kubrick with the 1957 antiwar film Paths of Glory and the 1960 Roman slave revolt epic Spartacus, for which Douglas hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, effectively breaking the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
On Broadway, he played the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1964), optioned it for the movies, and gave it to his actor son Michael, who won a Best Picture Oscar for producing it in 1975. He is survived by Anne, whom he wed in 1954, his sons Michael, Joel and Peter.
In announcing his father’s death on Instagram, 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. 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.”