Vintage Hunk: Kirk Douglas

By: Mike McCrann

These days Kirk Douglas is known as a great Hollywood survivor (stroke, plane crash, loss of a son) and for being the father of Michael Douglas, but back in 1950s and 1960s he was one of the most virile and popular leading man in American films.

Here's a look at his magnificent life.

Kirk_douglas5 Born Issur Danielovitch to Jewish immigrants from Belarus, Douglas had a poverty-stricken childhood and a rough relationship with his father. He revealed this and other secrets in his critically-acclaimed autobiography, The Ragman's Son. However, relief came when Douglas entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City where he became friendly with fellow student Betty Joan Perske, who was later known to American moviegoers as Lauren Bacall.

Bacall helped Douglas get his Hollywood break when she convinced producer Hal Wallis he would be wonderful in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers opposite Barbara Stanwyck. Surprisingly, this first role cast Douglas as a weak, submissive alcoholic. His next few roles, including the wonderful A Letter to Three Wives cast him as a funny, if non-threatening, leading man.

All that changed with his 8th film, Champion, in which he played a selfish boxer. This hard-hitting film finally made Douglas a star and earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. From then on he rarely played anything but virile, forceful men.

With his good friend and rival Burt Lancaster (called the "terrible twins" by columnist Sheilah Graham Westbrook), Douglas had a fantastic career in the '50s. He received Best Actor Academy Award nominations for the great Hollywood insider film The Bad and the Beautiful, and for his incredible performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Douglas was brilliant in this film and so resembled the real Van Gogh that the part earned him the New York Film Critics Award and the Golden Globe. Douglas not winning the Academy Award (it went to Yul Brynner for The King and I) is one of the great travesties in Academy history.



Kirk_douglas3 Douglas reached the summit of his career with Spartacus in 1960. He was the executive producer and responsible for not only hiring Stanley Kubrick to direct but allowing former black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo's name to appear in the credits for writing this outstanding screenplay.

Douglas was known for being a strong Hollywood liberal and has remained so to this day. He was married twice, had two sons (including Michael) by his first wife and two sons by his second (and current) wife Anne. The youngest of these sons died of a drug overdose in 2004. Douglas survived other tragedies as well: a helicopter crash in which two others died, plus a debilitating stroke that has partially impaired his speech. But at 93 he remains one of the great old lions of Hollywood who is one of the last links to the golden days.

On a personal note, when I had Mr. Douglas sign his book years ago, I told him my favorite line of his was from The Bad and The Beautiful where he speaks of his character's father. In the movie, he says, "He wasn't a heel, he was THE heel!" And with that, Douglas signed in my book from, "The Heel."

It is one of my favorite celebrity memories.