The son of an impoverished immigrant Jewish ragman from Czarist Russia, Kirk Douglas, who has died aged an incredible 103, was once told by interviewer Michael Parkinson that no script writer could invent the story of his eventful life.
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Douglas made a career playing heels with a fierce anti-establishment contempt.
He was the last of a group of titans from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ that included Burt Lancaster, his friend, rival and co-starring partner, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark and William Holden.
His granite, chiselled good looks with his famous chin dimple and square-jaw threatened to typecast him in the Hollywood Studio system.
Instead, he deployed them and the experiences of a childhood spent in abject poverty to probe the dark recesses of human behaviour, building a gallery of tortured, self-centred, unsavoury, yet always charismatic and irresistible characters in ground-breaking classics such as Champion, Ace in the Hole and The Bad and The Beautiful.
But the hard-bitten toughness in which he was to later specialize was not evident in his debut, where he was cast against type playing an alcoholic weakling opposite strong Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
Yet, the role foreshadowed Douglas’ willingness to push the envelope in a regimented Hollywood Studio system which would crack and strain as America entered the 1950s with the Cold War and McCarthyism in tow.
Still a relative unknown, Douglas’ next role saw him devious in the now-legendary film noir Out of the Past (1947), where he played a ruthless, devious gangster opposite Robert Mitchum’s quintessential anti-hero.
Douglas honed his alpha male persona in Champion (1949), where he played an amoral boxer willing to do anything to climb the greasy pole. The film garnered him his first Oscar nomination and heralded his arrival as a major force in Hollywood.
He then lit up the screen in Billy Wilder’s masterful expose of the media carnival, Ace in the Hole (1951) playing an utterly cynical, self-assured reporter who deliberately prolongs the agony of a man trapped in an Inca tomb, all for the sake of the ‘Big Story’.
The film, with its trenchant study of media ethics, mob psychology and small-town seediness, coupled with Wilder’s direction and Douglas’ performance, has grown in stature over the years.
The same year, Douglas etched another of his complex shades of grey, playing a jaded, hard-bitten detective of a violent disposition in director William Wyler’s police drama Detective Story (1951).
Douglas made two of his finest films with director Vincente Minnelli, playing the diabolical film producer in The Bad and The Beautiful (1952) and bringing Dutch Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh to life in writer Irving Stone’s popular biopic, Lust for Life (1956). He won the Best Actor Oscar nominations for both performances.
In Lust for Life, Douglas shared stormy screen space with his friend Anthony Quinn, who played Paul Gauguin.
Next year, he paired with his buddy Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a fictional reprise of the Old West’s most famous gun battle. Douglas stole the show with his flamboyantly edgy portrayal of the alcoholic ‘Doc’ Holliday.
That same year, he starred in one of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Paths of Glory, directed by a young Stanley Kubrick. Douglas proved his versatility in the film with his restrained, humane performance as a French Colonel charged with defending his men falsely accused by his conniving superiors of cowardice.
He was locked in another tense duel in the classic Western suspense film, Last Train from Gunhill (1959), in which he squared-off once more with Anthony Quinn.
In 1960, Douglas created the role he would remain most identified across the globe, Spartacus. The film, which he produced, would also leave his most enduring legacy – that of cutting the Gordian Knot of Hollywood blacklist.
A labour of love, Spartacus, based on leftist writer Howard Fast’s novel, recounts the slave revolt against Roman authority circa 70 BCE and its brutal suppression by Marcus Licinius Crassus.
The film exemplified Douglas’s courageous anti-establishment tendencies, after the actor effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist by crediting writer Dalton Trumbo, a member of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ who fell prey to the infamous Communist witch-hunts that blighted America in the 1950s.
In Spartacus, while Douglas played the titular role, he surrounded himself with a dazzling galaxy of actors, with the result that the most delicious performances in the film came from the British trio of Laurence Olivier (magnificently brutal as Crassus), Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov who walked home with a Supporting Actor Oscar playing the droll slave trader. While being combative, Douglas never compromised on quality and never hesitated to recommend or work with an actor if he thought him or her right for the role.
The late English hellraiser Richard Harris once credited Douglas for having recommended him to director Joshua Logan for the role of King Arthur in Camelot, in spite of the antipathy between himself and Douglas during the filming of the war adventure, The Heroes of Telemark (1965). While Douglas continued to star in major films in the 1960s, they varied in quality and seldom had the pathbreaking spirit of his earlier films.
He joined a strong cast in John Frankenheimer’s exciting, intelligent political thriller Seven Days in May (1964), playing the loyal Colonel who discovers an army coup headed by a charismatic General with Fascistic tendencies, played by Burt Lancaster. Two roles in this period stand as testament to Douglas’ personal qualities: his rebellious, misfit cowboy gallivanting across a modern American landscape of automobiles and helicopters in Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and his stage role as the subversive inmate of the psychiatric ward in author Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The earthy, fiercely individualistic, anti-authoritarian character of Randle P. McMurphy was a role close to Douglas’ heart which he made his own on Broadway. While he desperately wished to reprise the role in the film version, it was Jack Nicholson who ultimately essayed it in the 1975 movie (produced by Douglas’ son, Michael). Like McMurphy, Kirk Douglas with his swaggering, bold manner and fierce sense of independence was the exemplar of the authentic American Rebel.