Kirk’s parents were poor illiterate Jewish immigrants from Gomel (ex SSSR, now Belarus). His name is very difficult to pronounce and he legally never changed it. Since they were so poor, Kirk had to start working as a child (as a milkman, snacks delivery boy etc). He dreamed about being an actor, and eventually attended St. Lawrence University (where he worked as a janitor to pay for his scholarship). He was very talented and it was quickly noticed so he received a scholarship for the famous American Academy of Dramatic Arts (NY). He soon debuted on Broadway, in Spring Again, as a singing telegraph kid.
After the war was over, Kirk Douglas worked in New York on commercials and as a voiceover for radio stations. His big break was a play Kiss and Tell, and soon other roles started to appear. He was in love with the theatre, but soon transferred to the big screen in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (filmed in 1946) with Barbara Stanwyck.
Charles Martin’s My Dear Secretary followed, and soon Douglas starred in Champion, a movie where he played a boxer and established himself as a tough guy (which was a part of his image for a very long period of time). Kirk Douglas was very talented and natural, so he filmed various movies – he was equally good in a comedy, drama, action feature or melodrama (it was a rare talent not many actors had).
During 50’s and 60’s, he was a huge Hollywood star and his movies were instant box office success, always. He also had fabulous co-stars, from Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Virginia Mayo and Jane Wyman, to lovely Lana Turner, Kim Novak, Jean Simmons and Janet Leigh.
Kirk Douglas loved westerns so he had to make a good western movie – that was his wish, and he starred in Along the Great Divide, in 1951. He felt that this genre was good for him, and also played in Lonely are the Brave, to satisfy his wish.
He was nominated for the Academy Award 3 times, and first time was for The Bad and The Beautiful, where he portrayed the manipulative producer. In 1950, he starred in Young man with a Horn, portraying young horn player named Bix Beiderbecke.
Kirk Douglas loved to play military men and officers and detectives, like in Top Secret Affair, The Hook, Seven Days in May, In Harm’s Way, is Paris Burning, The Final Countdown, Catch me a spy and many more.
In 1956, Douglas filmed a movie Lust for Life in which he played Vincent Van Gogh, and won a Golden Globe for this powerful role. Unfortunately, he didn’t receive the Oscar for his strong portrayal.
Perhaps his biggest success came in 1960, and it was an epic spectacle Spartacus, which he also produced. Director was popular and talented legend Stanley Kubrick (who knew Kirk Douglas from his movie Paths of Glory – their first collaboration).
After Spartacus, Kirk Douglas decided to take different roles and prove himself as a serious actor, equally suitable for comedies, dramas and other genres. 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea followed (a comic Jules Verne novel adaptation), and became an instant success and a huge box office hit. Man Without a Star was filmed next (1955) and received good critics, and same goes for the movie For Love or Money (finished in 1963).
Douglas gladly collaborated with Burt Lancaster and they were a great team. They were co-stars in 7 popular movies: I Walk Alone (in 1948), legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral (from 1957), The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Days in May (1964), The Devil’s Disciple, Victory at Entebbe (finished in 1976) and Tough Guys (filmed in 1986). Douglas and Lancaster came to Hollywood at the same time, started their careers at the same time and successfully worked as actors and producers, for decades. They were true friends and always gladly worked/filmed together.
Kirk Douglas always pointed out how an actor needs to be well prepared for each role, how he must learn, practice, invest time in each character and constantly work on self improvement. Coming from a very poor background, he was always determined to make a fair deal with studios, and was very patient and cautious as a producer (regarding his fees and conditions).
Douglas also wanted to work as a director and his debut happened in 1973; despite many production problems he managed to finish Scalawag, a movie in which he also starred.
As previously mentioned, he was nominated for Oscar three times, for his roles in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. He never won a competitive Oscar and was truly disappointed, but was honoured in 1996, for his lifetime achievement, and his 50 years long career.
He also received the AFI Award – Life Achievement Award, and has a star on the popular Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also, there is a street named after him – an avenue in Palm Springs (“Kirk Douglas Way”). Among his awards here are the most important ones: Presidential Medal of Freedom (he received it in 1981), French Legion of Honour (which he won in 1985) and National Medal of the Arts (given to him in 2001).
Kirk Douglas is still unstoppable and continues to work as much as he can. In March 2009, he played in a one man theatrical show named Before I Forget, in California in his theatre in Culver City.
Kirk Douglas was a real heartthrob in Hollywood. He was married twice and his son Michael is also a very famous and critically acclaimed actor, just like his father – a true silver screen icon which made a strong mark and treated us with tens of unforgivable roles.
- Watch Catch Me a Spy with Kirk Douglas on FMO
- Watch My Dear Secretary with Kirk Douglas on FMO
- Watch The Big Trees with Kirk Douglas on FMO
- Watch The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with Kirk Douglas on FMO