Star-Powered Facts About Kirk Douglas

Before there was Michael Douglas, his father was dominating Old Hollywood with hit film after hit film. Whether you know him from Seven Days in May, Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Lust for Life, or Champion, Kirk Douglas has cemented his place in the history of cinema, as well as being one of those rare people to live for over a century! So what did Kirk Douglas spend over a hundred years doing? What kind of legacy does he have? Continue reading to find out more!

Facts About Kirk Douglas

1. Say What?

Despite being known by such an American-sounding stage name, Douglas’s birth name was actually Issur Danielovitch Demsky! His parents were both Jewish immigrants from Belarus, and Douglas was known as “Izzy” growing up. He only changed his name to Kirk Douglas when he enlisted in the US Navy during the Second World War.

2. All About the Connections

Betty Joan Perske, one of Douglas’s classmates at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, had a serious crush on him, despite the fact that he was eight years older than her. Douglas was more interested in Diana Dill, Perske’s classmate. Despite the possible awkwardness, Perske and Douglas would reunite and become friends again after the Second World War (Douglas had married Dill in the meantime). By that point, Perske was better known by her stage name: Lauren Bacall.

3. Give Him a Try

Douglas’s friendship with Lauren Bacall resulted in the actor getting his first film role. In the mid-1940s, film producer Hal B. Wallis was on the lookout for an up-and-coming actor to appear in his film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. On Bacall’s recommendation, Wallis cast Douglas in the role of a jealous, henpecked husband riddled with insecurities and alcoholism.

4. Don’t Mess with Me!

After this debut screen role, Douglas never portrayed such a subservient figure again during his career. He would become known for playing dominating alpha males, whether they were noble (Paths of Glory), cruel (I Walk Alone), or both (Spartacus) in their disposition.

5. No, Not That Amsterdam!

Douglas was born on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York. He was the only boy in a family that included seven children!

6. Close Call!

In 1958, producer Mike Todd, also known as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, owned a private plane which tragically crashed during a flight. The crash killed everyone on board. Incredibly, Douglas was meant to be on that plane as well until his wife talked him out of it. Small wonder that he always credited his wife for his incredible longevity!

7. We Interrupt Your Career…

Going back to that WWII thing, Douglas had only just begun working in the world of theater when the US entered the War in 1941. That same year, Douglas enlisted in the US Navy, studying to become a naval ensign and then being sent to an anti-submarine unit.

8. Onscreen Pals?

Between 1947 and 1986, Douglas would make seven films with fellow film star Burt Lancaster. It was always believed that the two men were close friends, as Douglas famously insisted that Lancaster be cast in the film Seven Days in May. However, the claims were greatly exaggerated, partly by Douglas himself, who knew a good PR story when he heard one. Allegedly, their friendship was far more of a rivalry between two leading men seeking similar roles.

9. Gift of Hindsight

As a film star, Douglas turned down his fair share of roles, but he ended up seriously regretting turning down two specific opportunities. William Holden and Lee Marvin would both win Academy Awards for their performances in Stalag 17 and Cat Ballou, respectively. Douglas would later express his regret over those missed awards in his book Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning.

10. Let’s Try Once More

Although Douglas was raised Jewish and celebrated a Bar Mitzvah at 13, he personally felt that he drifted too far from his family’s religion over the course of his life. As a result, he had a second Bar Mitzvah when he was 83 to represent his spiritual refocusing.

11. Too Old?!

It turns out that Jack Nicholson owes one of his biggest film roles to Douglas, whether Douglas likes it or not. After reading the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas bought the rights and turned it into a play in 1963. Starring as the lead character, Douglas’s play ran for six months, but it still wasn’t successful enough for him to get a movie adaptation made. Eventually, the aging Douglas allowed his son, Michael, to try and produce the movie instead. Much to Douglas’s delight, the film went into production within a year of Michael working his magic, though Douglas was allegedly still hoping to play the lead until he found out Nicholson had been cast!

12. The Philanthropist

Since the early 1990s, Douglas and his wife Anne have donated tens of millions of dollars to an Alzheimer’s treatment facility called Harry’s Haven in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles.

13. Celebrated Civilian

Douglas was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in American society. He was awarded the medal by US President Jimmy Carter on January 17, 1981.

14. Developing my Street Cred

Douglas’s first major role as an actor was in Champion, his eighth film. At the time, Douglas had turned down a far more lucrative offer, convinced that Champion was the more challenging opportunity and it would do more to show off his talents. In that, he was proved correct. While he didn’t make much money off the movie, Douglas did receive his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the amoral boxer Midge Kelly.

15. Hello, Theater!

Prior to his becoming a film actor, Douglas was convinced that he would primarily be a theater actor. Even when his film career took off, he never left the stage fully behind. Douglas’s first appearance on Broadway occurred in 1949 when he acted in the Anton Chekhov play Three Sisters.

16. Hard Times

According to Douglas, his father had been a horse trader when he lived in eastern Europe and became a ragman when he moved to the US. For those of you looking confused, a ragman would find junk and old cloth, reselling it for whatever money that could be made. As a result, the ragman was often seen as the lowest of the low when Douglas was growing up, which only added insult to the injury of poverty.

17. Long-Lasting Love

By the early 1950s, Douglas was divorced from his first wife, and he had become acquainted with Anne Buydens. Born in Germany, Buydens emigrated to Paris while using her multilingual talents to translate film dialogue for subtitles. She married Douglas in 1954 and became an American citizen in 1959. As of March 2019, Douglas and Buydens are still married!

18. Mazel Tov!

Speaking of Douglas’s marriage, he and Anne Douglas (nee Buydens) renewed their wedding vows in 2004 as a special event for their 50th anniversary. The vows were spoken before an audience of 300 friends and family members, including Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis, Douglas’s co-stars and lifelong friends. That same year, Anne converted to Judaism, Douglas’s faith.

19. That’s Dedication!

In 1957, Douglas portrayed legendary gunman Doc Holliday in the Western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. One thing Douglas had to consider was the fact that Holliday suffered from tuberculosis, leading to frequent coughing fits. Douglas was so concerned about keeping his coughs in line with the continuity of the film during post-production that he planned out exactly when he would cough throughout the entire performance!

20. On-The-Nose Title

One of Douglas’s youthful dreams was to play a Viking. Douglas got to live that dream when he played one of the lead roles in a 1958 film called, you guessed it, The Vikings.

21. The Producer

Douglas was one of the very first actors in Hollywood to establish a production company of his own while still working as an actor. Named after his mother, Bryna Productions would be credited for most of Douglas’s biggest films. Their last producing credit was for the film Tough Guys in 1986.

22. On Second Thought…

Originally, Douglas’s historical epic Spartacus was to be directed by Anthony Mann, but the two men got into such strong disagreements with each other that Douglas had him replaced by Stanley Kubrick, with whom Douglas had made Paths of Glory (more on that later). Unfortunately, Kubrick and Douglas clashed even worse during the production, to the point where Douglas regretted ever letting go of Mann!

23. That Wasn’t Real, Son!

One of Douglas’s more critically acclaimed movies was Lust for Life, in which he played the tortured Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Naturally, the film goes over the infamous moment in Van Gogh’s life when he cut off his own ear. Reportedly, a very young Michael Douglas fled the cinema in terror when he saw that scene because he was convinced that his father had actually mutilated himself!

24. There’s Kirk!

If you want to visit Douglas’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you can find it at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.

25. Trend-Setter

In 1954, Douglas starred in the sword-and-sandal film Ulysses, based on the Ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. Not only was Ulysses a hit when it was released, but the film would also inspire another film about Greek mythology: Hercules. This, in turn, led to a movement in Italy where several more sword-and-sandal films would be made, presumably where they continued the Ancient Roman technique of plundering someone else’s mythology for their own stories!

26. Jolly Giant?

Like many film stars, Douglas wasn’t as tall as audiences were led to believe. Standing at 5’9″, Douglas would regularly wear lifts on set in order to appear two or three inches taller than usual. As a result, his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster once pranked him by confiscating and hiding the lifts. We can only assume how much Douglas would have loved to star in a movie opposite Tom Cruise!

27. All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Douglas played a pivotal role in getting the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on his film Spartacus, thereby providing hope to anyone blacklisted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee during the Red Scare. While Douglas was undoubtedly involved in getting Trumbo work on the film, Trumbo’s children (as well as the children of Spartacus novelist Howard Fast) have since disputed the amount of credit awarded to Douglas over the years.

28. And…Action!

Aside from producing and acting, Douglas also directed two films during the early 1970s. Both of them (Posse and Scalawag) were in the Western genre. Interestingly, Scalawag was a retelling of the classic pirate tale Treasure Island in the western setting. Frankly, if Disney could turn it into a sci-fi adventure years later, we can give Douglas’s idea a chance!

29. The Apples Never Fell Far

Douglas has four sons, two by each of his wives. All four of them (Michael, Joel, Peter, and Eric) went into the film industry, either as actors, producers, or in Michael’s case, both.

30. Nearly Half?

By the 1950s, Douglas had truly cemented himself as one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, assisted by his producing career. When he worked on Paths of Glory, Douglas was paid $300,000 in 1950s money. Keep in mind that the film’s entire budget was less than $1 million!

31. You Stuck Around Long Enough! Cheers!

Douglas was nominated for three Best Actor Oscars during his lifetime. They were for his films Lust for Life, Champion, and The Bad and the Beautiful. While he never won any Oscars, Douglas was presented with an Honorary Oscar in 1996, after five decades in the film industry.

32. Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

In 1954, Douglas was paid $175,000 (around $1.6 million in today’s money) to star in Disney’s adventure film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. At the time, this was the highest salary that Disney had ever paid to an actor.

33. Let’s Do It!

Of all the films that Douglas acted in during his active years in Hollywood, he is most proud of Paths of Glory, an anti-war movie about French forces during WWI. When Stanley Kubrick approached Douglas with the script, Douglas was instantly hooked. He reportedly declared to Kubrick that it was a necessary film to make, even though he doubted it would “ever make a nickel.”

34. Behold the Prophet

Douglas was sadly proven correct about Paths of Glory’s box office results; it was a financial failure at the time. However, Douglas was also true about the film’s staying power. It was praised by none other than Winston Churchill as a very well-researched and accurate depiction of the First World War, and it remains one of Kubrick’s most celebrated films.

35. Kill Him!

Fans of the Rambo series might be interested to know that Douglas was originally cast as Colonel Samuel Trautman, the commanding officer and mentor to John Rambo. Douglas’s involvement with the film First Blood came to an abrupt halt when Douglas demanded crucial changes to the story. The biggest of these changes was having Rambo die at the end of the film, as it was more in keeping with the messages of the film and the novel’s original ending. As this would have deprived us of any sequels (which you may or may not be okay with), the producers and Sylvester Stallone objected to such a dark ending. Douglas left the production and his role was recast.

36. Is This a Glorified Christmas Album?

In 2003, Douglas starred in a film titled It Runs in the Family. The film starred himself, his son Michael, his grandson Cameron, his ex-wife Diana Dill, and follows an eccentric family dealing with their own issues and each other. Despite all the meta thrown into the mix, It Runs in the Family proved to be a critical and commercial failure.

37. I Also Want a Bicycle Pump to Swell Up My Ego More!

Douglas was highly concerned about appearing as macho as possible in his movies. Usually, this involved his ability to score two women at once and being a highly competent brawler. At least three of his films (The Vikings, The War Wagon, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea) had to be rewritten to accommodate these demands.

38. That’s All??

We’ve all heard about celebrities getting paid ludicrous amounts to appear in commercials, but even then, Douglas managed to one-up the stories. Back in 1980, Douglas was paid $50,000 by a Japanese company to take part in one of their advertisements. What was he paid all that money to do? He said the word “coffee.”

39. Fair’s Fair, Now Let Me Kill Him!

According to Howard Fast, who wrote the novel upon which Spartacus was based, Douglas insisted on the dramatic scene where Spartacus is forced to kill his close friend Antoninus to spare him from being crucified. However, this wasn’t because Douglas thought the scene would work—it was because Antoninus’ actor, Tony Curtis, had “killed” Douglas in their previous film The Vikings. As a result, Douglas wanted to even the score between them, much to Fast’s rage at such a petty reason being used to change his work.

40. You So Poor…

Douglas had plenty of experience living in poverty. His studies at the Academy were only possible thanks to a scholarship that he’d earned, and even then, he was struggling to make ends meet. He once confided in his school-friend Lauren Bacall that he was so broke at one point that he once spent a night in prison because it meant that he would have a bed to sleep on!

41. Proud of You, Boy!

As a youth, Douglas was primarily raised by his mother and sisters, while maintaining a very distant relationship with his father. In fact, Douglas’s father allegedly never acknowledged his son’s success in Hollywood, which his second wife, Anne Buydens, would remark had a terrible effect on Douglas. Luckily, Douglas would make sure that his own children knew how proud their father was of them.

42. Near Miss

On February 23, 1991, Douglas was in a helicopter over Santa Paula Airport in California when it collided with a small plane. Two people in the helicopter were killed in the ensuing crash, while Douglas himself barely survived. The aging actor was left with a back injury which has left him debilitated ever since.

43. Not Cool, John

Although Douglas’s performance as the sensitive and emotionally turbulent Vincent Van Gogh was mostly praised by critics, one person who hated it was none other than western legend John Wayne. Upon seeing Lust for Life, Wayne reportedly confronted Douglas, accusing him of betraying the classic macho leading man persona to play what the infamously bigoted Wayne called “weak queers.” Douglas countered that Wayne was taking the movies and his own cowboy image way too seriously, whereupon Wayne simply stared at Douglas, as though slapped in the face. Maybe he was sundowning?

44. Dark Past

In 2018, the 101-year-old Kirk Douglas appeared on stage at the Golden Globe Awards. He recieved a standing ovation and then a video tribute was shown. This raised more than a few eyebrows however; 2018 was the first Golden Globes since the rise of the #Metoo movement. More than a few people noted that during a night that was focused on revealing the rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood, it was strange to honor Douglas, who has long been accused of beating and assaulting actress Natalie Wood when she was just 16 years old.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

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