The Champ

The actor, producer and box-office star Kirk Douglas, who has died aged 103, was the first of a new breed, taking control of his own pictures as producer and crafting his body in the gym. Michael Darvell gives us the low-down.  

One of the last, if not the last, of the great Hollywood legends, the American actor and producer Kirk Douglas has died of natural causes at the age of 103. Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in 1916 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, young Kirk became a professional wrestler at university but then took to acting as a career after studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Kirk Douglas

He first appeared on Broadway and then went into the US Navy during World War II. Lauren Bacall got him an audition with producer Hal B. Wallis who, in 1946, gave him his first screen part in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. His success in this film led to roles in Mourning Becomes Electra with Rosalind Russell and Katina Paxinou, Jacques Tourneur’s brilliant film noir Out of the Past (aka Build My Gallows High), then I Walk Alone with  Burt Lancaster, The Walls of Jericho with Cornel Wilde and My Dear Secretary with Laraine Day. From 1949 following these titles Douglas then entered the halls of fame with a succession of Hollywood films at their classic best: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, Mark Robson’s Champion (for which he landed his first Oscar nomination), Michael Curtiz’s Young Man of Music (aka Young Man With a Horn), Irving Rapper’s version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Jane Wyman, Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), and William Wyler’s Detective Story.

His Hollywood career continued with his working for more top directors, including Howard Hawks on The Big Sky, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life (as Vincent Van Gogh), both of which secured him further Oscar nominations, Gottfried Reinhardt’s segment of The Story of Three Loves, Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler, Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings, King Vidor’s Man Without a Star, and John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train From Gun Hill.  

He then created his own film company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother. His first picture as a producer and star was Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, one of the best war films ever made, and then even more famously, Spartacus. He never stopped working during the 1960s in such movies as Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset, David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave, Two Weeks in Another Town, Minnelli’s sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful, and John Huston’s puzzling murder mystery The List of Adrian Messenger with Douglas playing three roles. More fine films followed – Seven Days in May, In Harm’s Way, The Heroes of Telemark, The Way West, The War Wagon, and Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement, among many others.

Kirk Douglas

Perhaps his projects became less interesting from the 1970s onwards, but Douglas still kept working in many genre pictures usually involving action of some kind along with the occasional venture into television. One of his last films was It Runs in the Family, Fred Schepisi’s 2003 comedy with Kirk and his son Michael. He also worked as a producer on some of his own films and those of others in which he didn’t necessarily appear. In the early 1970s he directed himself in two films, Scalawag and Posse. Douglas was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1996 “for fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community”, adding to his Oscar-nominations for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. The American Film Institute awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. Kirk Douglas was married twice, first to the actress Diana Dill with whom he has two sons, the actor Michael and producer Joel. They divorced in 1951 and Kirk later married the producer Anne Buydens, with whom he has two sons, the producer Peter and the actor Eric who died in 2004. The legend ends here...


Kirk Douglas: born 9 December 1916; died 5 February 2020. R.I.P.