Now 103: Kirk Douglas has lived the American Dream | Film | DW | 09.12.2019
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Now 103: Kirk Douglas has lived the American Dream

Kirk Douglas' life is quite literally a rags to riches tale. The headstrong actor has sparred with Hollywood and survived a stroke — and is now turning 103.

Wait, he's still alive? That's often the first reaction when Douglas' name comes up. Yes, he certainly is. Which is in itself a miracle, considering the many accidents he's survived over the years on set, as well as a helicopter crash and a stroke.

Kirk Douglas was born on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, an industrial city in the US state of New York. Named Issur Danielovitch, he grew up in a Jewish-Russian family. His parents immigrated to the US from Belarus. His father earned very little as a rag collector, while his mother cooked and looked after the family. Early on, Kirk had to keep himself above water with side jobs and contribute to the family income.

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas was born on December 9, 1916

The story of Kirk Douglas, which would become his stage name, is a rags to riches tale that epitomizes the American dream.

The young Kirk Douglas was extremely ambitious. His mother had told him that, as a Jew, he'd have to be twice as good as others to achieve his goals. Thanks to a scholarship, he was able to attend college, but dropped out of his law studies to pursue acting.

Over the next two years, he worked hard at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, and his efforts paid off: He snagged his first role on Broadway. But he wouldn't spend much time on stage before moving to film — thanks to a coincidence.

That coincidence was his friend and fellow acting student Lauren Bacall. Douglas later wrote that she was "extremely attractive, blond, blue-eyed, with dimples on her chin — and very talented on top of that."

Alongside Humphrey Bogart, the young actress had been busy making a name for herself with the Hollywood bosses. Bacall used her influence and got Douglas a role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946.

However, it became the first big disappointment in the young actor's career. He didn't get the lead, but was cast as the weak husband of Barbara Stanwyck, who was already a big star at the time. Nevertheless, Douglas had had personal experience with alcoholics, thanks to his father, and he played Walter O'Neil with brilliance and intensity. It was a good start to what would become a legendary career.

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, 1957

"Paths of Glory" (1957) was one of Douglas' more political films

Breakthrough as a boxer

The young actor garnered positive reviews from the critics. Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis, always on the lookout for new talent, offered him a seven-year contract. But Douglas turned it down, not wanting to become the producer's "slave." In 1947, he nevertheless worked together with Wallis on the gangster drama I Walk Alone, together with Burt Lancaster — who would later become his only friend in Hollywood.

But Douglas, full of ambition and restlessness, kept holding up the filming with constant discussions. "That was the beginning of my reputation for being difficult," he wrote in his autobiography.

Kirk Douglas had a mind of his own. In 1948, he turned down a lucrative offer to appear in Robert Siodmak's Dostoyevsky adaptation of The Gambler with stars like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck in the leads. Instead, he worked with the relatively unknown director Stanley Kramer on Champion (1949). The role of the unscrupulous professional boxer who is merciless to both himself and others became Douglas' breakthrough as an actor.

His poor background motivated Douglas to work hard. He enjoyed playing men who struggle to get by, but assert themselves and resort to any means to achieve success.

Not Oscar for Best Actor

The filming of painter Vincent van Gogh's biography in Lust for Life (1956) put Douglas' acting talent to the test — and brought him his first Oscar nomination. That was one of the most painful films he'd ever made, he would later say. Yul Brynner would snag the Oscar in his place that year, however.

To this day, Douglas has never received an Academy Award for a role — but he did get one for his life's work in 1996.

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

Douglas starred in and produced "Spartacus"

Despite his success, Hollywood didn't really like him. He was headstrong, stubborn and didn't follow the rules. In 1958, he founded his own production company, Bryna Productions. But he lacked the patience and tact to be a good producer.

His marriage to American actress Diana Dill had long gone down the drain, and the next woman in his life was a German: Anne Buyden. The two are still married. "I was lucky enough to find my soul mate 63 years ago, and I believe our wonderful marriage and our nightly 'golden hour' chats have helped me survive all things," he wrote in celebrity magazine Closer Weekly.

Rebel and pioneer

His spectrum as an actor is enormous. Kirk Douglas has made political films like Paths of Glory (1957) — a critical anti-war drama about the World War I battles that weren't allowed to be shown in France for decades. But he's also starred in popular blockbusters like "The Vikings" (1958) and "Spartacus" (1960). He produced the latter and caused a scandal in Hollywood by getting Dalton Trumbo, who'd been ostracized in the anti-communist McCarthy era, to write the screenplay.

In 1980 Kirk Douglas started withdrawing from the film world and began writing books. In addition to his memoirs (The Ragman's Son), he also penned novels and autobiographical books that have sold well. Together with his wife, he has traveled a lot and been active as a UN ambassador. He's enjoyed his popularity and is warmly received wherever he goes.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Seven Days in May

Douglas (right) starred with Burt Lancaster in "Seven Days in May" (1964)

In 1995, a stroke nearly cut Douglas' life short. Only after years of therapy was he able to speak again. It would be a traumatic experience for every actor, but Kirk Douglas didn't let it get him down. At least publicly, he took it with humor and appeared on talk shows to discuss his stroke experience. 

Return to his Jewish faith

It was during this time that Douglas found his way back to his Jewish faith. He has donated a great deal of money to charitable projects in the US and Israel. He and his wife have built playgrounds in underprivileged neighborhoods and founded an interfaith pre-school and an Alzheimer's clinic.

Douglas says he prays every day for his grandchildren, who still have their whole lives ahead of them. He's also said that he doesn't have a problem with his age because our world is a "catastrophe" and the older he gets, the closer he gets to God.

As the white-haired Hollywood star — the proud head of the Douglas clan — celebrates his 103th birthday on December 9, 2019, one question remains: What kind of cake can hold 103 candles?

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