Douglas was born Issur Danielovich into an impoverished Russian immigrant family in New York in 1916 and began his cinematic acting career aged 30 in the Lewis Milestone (best known for directing the ground-breaking WWI epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) directed romantic drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). From that point Kirk Douglas quickly established himself as one of the most eclectic and bankable actors in the Hollywood studio system.
Douglas would go on to star in movies regularly until the 1990s by which point, he was entering his eighties. One of Douglas’s final roles was on The Simpsons in 1996 when he voiced Itchy & Scratchy creator Chester J. Lampwick in the episode “The Day The Violence Died”. His final role came in 2008 when he was cast in the French mockumentary The Empire State Building Murders alongside fellow Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney (1920-2014).
There will be countless obituaries to the great man that focus on Douglas as a person, his political and social activism and the way he redefined what masculinity in Hollywood looked like as well as Kirk Douglas the star of some of the most legendary films of Hollywood’s most grand era.
However, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the man who stared in some of my favourite films of all time. So, here are my top two Kirk Douglas performances on the big screen. Both of these films were directed by the great Stanley Kubrick.
First up is Paths of Glory (1957). This WWI epic saw Douglas star as Colonel Dax, an French army commander stationed on the front lines of the Western Front. Directed by Stanley Kubrick this film is a classic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a clear anti-war movie produced at a time when Hollywood was churning out film after film full of hawkish, militaristic patriotism. Paths of Glory depicted war in a more accurate, warts and all manner. In the movie Colonel Dax and his 701st Battalion are ordered to commit a suicidal attack on the enemy lines. They refuse to go through with the attack and are subsequently court martialled. Douglas gives a fantastic performance as the proud, brave commanding officer while defending his comrades during their trial with speeches that would make Siegfried Sassoon proud. This film was among the first to challenge the Hollywood glorification of war and also the stage for Douglas to continue as a natural leader of men in his and Kubrick’s next film.
In 1960 Stanley Kubrick teamed up with the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and released his most expensive and ambitious film to date; the incredible Spartacus. I know every site that has a tribute piece to Douglas will focus on this film, but there is a reason for that. It is a true masterpiece. One of the few historical epics from the Golden Age to stand the test of time and a massive reason for that is the performance of Kirk Douglas in the title role. The film is based on the Roman slave rebellion of real-life gladiator Spartacus in 73 B.C.E. Alongside fantastically written dialogue, grand scale sets, epic music and masterful direction you have Kirk Douglas and his embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit.
Douglas portrays Spartacus not as a god-like heroic figure, but as just a man thrust into becoming a reluctant leader by circumstance. That film’s message of standing up for what is right and doing so with honour had a deep impact on me as a child as I’m sure it did everyone else. At the films conclusion Spartacus and his surviving men are captured by the Roman statesman Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Not knowing what Spartacus looks like Crassus demands that he reveal himself to save the lives of the other slaves. What ensues is one of the greatest scenes in cinema history.
The death of Kirk Douglas signals the end of an era. Douglas was last of the great Hollywood leading men of the 1950s and 60s and his death should and will be lamented by all true fans of a time when cinema was a place of Romans, brave generals and sets without a green screen in sight.
Douglas may be dead, but his movies will continue to entertain and enthral new generations of fans as long as there are kids willing to put aside their phones long enough to sit and experience cinema at its most epic.
Kirk Douglas is survived by his wife of 66 years Anne and his three surviving children Joel, Peter and Michael Douglas. The thoughts of the entire cinema community go out to them at this time.