A year that’s seen the loss of some of our most beloved figures will soon—finally—give us a reason to celebrate: on 9 December, the legendary Kirk Douglas turns 100!

Kirk! Not only is he still with us, he still has hits wits about him and is still happy to rattle off a good yarn or two about what it was like to be one of the great stars of the Hollywood Golden Age, a time when movie stardom really meant something.

A New Yorker by birth, he was the youngest of six, born to a family of immigrants from what is now Belarus. Issur Danielovitch he was then, and he grew up in poverty—something that he would return to in his early career as an actor, a profession in which penury is an occupational hazard.

 

 

"He is remarkably hail and hearty for a man approaching his eleventh decade"

 

 

That career, though, was to be derailed by war. Kirk Douglas, as he had then become for professional reasons, served in the navy until he was invalided out in 1944.

He started to tread the boards again—with more success now—and might have remained on Broadway for the rest of his career had he not been contacted by a former classmate (and one-time squeeze) who’d gone west with some success, and suggested he should try the movies.

Betty Perske was her name, although she’d taken to calling herself ‘Lauren Bacall’ by then.

Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas–image via The Hollywood Reporter

Kirk’s first gig in pictures was The Strange Love of Martha Ives but he really established himself with his follow-up. Out of the Past, in which he plays the villain out to cause trouble for Robert Mitchum, is one of the great films noir and it was a style that Kirk was ideally suited for, with his not-quite-handsome face (That chin! That dimple!) and evident intelligence. He could have had a profitable career playing villains.

 

 

"He was known in Hollywood as one of the biggest egomaniacs in town"

 

 

As it was, Kirk had other ideas. In an age when heroes were still expected to be All-American types (or at least look the part), it took serious confidence (or arrogance) for someone like him to push himself as a leading man but that’s just what he did.

It’s hardly a secret that he was known in Hollywood as one of the biggest egomaniacs in town, no mean feat when you think of the competition.

Kirk Douglas, Happy 100th birthday!
Image via CNN

He managed it carefully, using his profile in his early films, where he’d understandably attracted notice, to earn bigger parts. Often, these were in roles that other actors, more concerned about their image (or less sure of their talents) had turned down: the boxer in the downbeat Champion, for instance, or the detective in Detective Story.

Best of all, there’s Ace in the Hole as one of the nastiest characters in any Hollywood film: the journalist who ruthlessly exploits a guy stuck underground just so he can get a scoop. Who else would have played such a role? And who else could have made such a son-of-a-bitch charming?

Because Douglas had charm, great charm. He also had sufficient work ethic to make sure audiences were aware of it: his performance in The Bad and the Beautiful (one of the best Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies) netted him an Oscar nod and his role as a sailor in the great Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea showed he could play more orthodox leading roles.

Guess what? Audiences found that chin and that dimple ‘cute’ now.

But Kirk never quite took the roles ‘cute’ actors were supposed to. He was drawn to the tormented and the disfigured: there can be no actor whose characters lost body parts with the regularity that Kirk’s did—a finger in The Big Sky, an ear in Lust for Life (as Van Gogh), an eye and a hand in The Vikings.

 

 

"The world can only be a better place for knowing that Kirk is out there, shaking a gnarled fist at the Grim Reaper"

 

 

He was braver, then, than most of his peers in how he approached his career. He wasn’t scared to give new talent a try—that’s why he teamed up with a young shaver named Stanley Kubrick since he liked the script for Paths of Glory and he certainly wasn’t scared of the Hollywood blacklist.

When he came to produce Spartacus, he hired Dalton Trumbo, a non-person in Hollywood (officially, at least) since the House UnAmerican Activities Committee branded him a Goddamn Commie (or words to that effect), then insisted he give him full credit for his labours. That took some bottle.

Spartacus was the biggest film of Kirk Douglas’ career and his highpoint as a star. It might have been directed by Stanley Kubrick but Kirk produced it, making him probably the last man ever to tell Stanley Kubrick what to do. It’s the very best of the Ancient World epics Hollywood made. Kubrick has traditionally got much of the credit let’s not forget that he was a director for hire; this was Kirk’s show.

He remained a star until the early 1980s, even if the films become less interesting. Still, The Heroes of Telemark is a superior war film with Kirk on fine form (as a Norwegian, no less!). The Fury, directed by Brian De Palma, benefits from the veteran star’s gravitas and the charming Australian children’s film The Man from Snowy River features one of his very best performances.

Mention should also be made of Saturn 3, a science fiction film written in part by a young Martin Amis. Amis later wrote a book called Money, featuring an egotistical movie star called Lorne Guyland. Any similarity between people living or dead etc…

As Kirk’s star waned, so the younger generation took over: Michael, his son by his first marriage, showed he was a chip off the old block (right down to the famous dimple), with the same talent for picking edgy work—neither Fatal Attraction nor Wall Street were obvious choices—and the same talent for imbuing flawed characters with charm.

Kirk and Michael Douglas, Happy 100th birthday, Kirk!
Like father, like son–Kirk and Michael Douglas

Douglas snr. has acted infrequently since the eighties although he hasn’t enjoyed a quiet retirement: a plane crash in 1991 nearly killed him and he was felled by a stroke five years later. It shows something of the mettle of the man that neither could finish him off: sure, he isn’t what he was—he’s knocking on for 100, for Pete’s sake!—but he is remarkably hail and heart for a man approaching his eleventh decade.

The world can only be a better place for knowing that Kirk is out there, shaking a gnarled fist at the Grim Reaper. The movies have shown our hero to be a tough old bird, one that’s hard to kill. Long that may remain so.

 

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