Entertainment

Kirk Douglas turns 100: Hollywood legend celebrates a milestone

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

Actor Kirk Douglas, one of Hollywood’s few bona fide living legends, turns 100 years old today.

That is impressive enough — along with his remarkable contributions to American film history— but Douglas also joins a fairly long list of Hollywood actors who became centenarians and sometimes worked into their 90s.

Also on that list is Olivia de Havilland, who is still with us at 100 and living in Paris. Surviving at 102 is Norman Lloyd, who appeared in Trainwreck in 2015. Those who have passed away after hitting 100 include Luise Rainer, Gloria Stuart, Bob Hope, George Burns, Anne Sheridan and many others. Flamboyant actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor is currently 99 and will turn 100 in February.

Douglas, father of actor-producer Michael Douglas, reached his Hollywood superstardom in the 1950s and ‘60s. His personal power and resiliency allowed him to break studio contracts, set up an independent film production company and help end the odious Hollywood blacklist that had ruined so many careers.

Significantly, Douglas risked his own career — but persevered and triumphed — when he hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt the novel Spartacus to the screen. With emerging master Stanley Kubrick as director, Spartacus (1960) showcased Douglas in the title role and became a siren song for human rights activism in the 1960s. Trumbo got an official on-screen credit and the walls of blacklist dungeon started to crumble.

Douglas was born as Issur Danielovitch in extreme poverty in Amsterdam, New York, on Dec. 9, 1916. As the son of Jewish immigrants who fled the old Russian empire, Douglas described his hardscrabble childhood in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son.

His life changed, obviously for the better, when he managed to get a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. One classmate and close friend was Lauren Bacall, who has confessed to having a wild teen crush on Douglas but could not persuade him to reciprocate. Douglas and Bacall did co-star memorably in the smokin’ musical biopic, Young Man with a Horn (1950).

Meanwhile, Douglas married another classmate, Diana Dill, who became his first wife and mother of Michael Douglas. They divorced in 1951. Douglas remains with his second wife, Anne Buydens, whom he married in 1954.

Douglas succeeded first on the American stage, then in Hollywood films after serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII. Bacall helped him land his debut role in film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). But it was Douglas’ obvious talent, his intense energy and a lifelong stubborn streak that pushed him to stardom.

Between 1949 and 1956, Douglas was Oscar-nominated as best actor three times for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956). Forty years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarded him with an honorary Oscar for his then 50 years of contributions as “a creative and moral force” in Hollywood.

When I first met Douglas in 1999, he had already suffered his stroke, a devastating blow that initially cost him his speaking voice. Douglas’ stubborn nature — something that had occasionally grated on working colleagues — proved to be a godsend. Through hard work with a therapist, Douglas learned to speak again, albeit with some impediments. His own “lust for life” was just as intense in this era as it was for the character he played to such acclaim in the 1956 film: Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh.

Re-finding his voice even allowed him to continue to work, including in the 1999 film Diamonds and a Douglas clan effort called It Runs in the Family. Among his co-stars was son Michael and Diana Dill. Douglas last acting role was in 2008, for the TV movie Empire State Building Murders.

The later work barely hinted at his peak performance years when his brash nature, manly sexuality and quick wit made him the leading man of westerns, crime stories, dramas and selected comedies. Douglas also had a good sense with material in his prime years, buying the film rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When he could not get the film made, he passed the rights on to his son Michael, who served as producer and turned it into an Oscar triumph.

Even at arm’s length, Kirk Douglas fashioned his unique legacy. Happy birthday, Mr. Douglas!

Kirk Douglas’ 10 best roles:

Every great actor generates an essential-viewing list. Here is Kirk Douglas’ list, in chronological order of release:

Champion (1949): Douglas learned real toughness playing a boxer willing to step on friends and foes alike to get ahead.

Young Man with a Horn (1950): Inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, Douglas plays a musician battling demons.

Ace in the Hole (1951): With journalism in crisis now, it is intriguing to look back at this excoriating chronicle of a ruthless reporter.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952): Douglas co-starred with Lana Turner in that rarity — a Hollywood film about filmmaking that still stands up.

Lust for Life (1956): With a wild look in his eye and a perfect physical transformation, Douglas plays Dutch master Vincent van Gogh.

Paths of Glory (1957): Douglas engineers this production set in WWI, hiring Stanley Kubrick to direct. They create an anti-war masterpiece.

Spartacus (1960): Another Douglas production with Kubrick. Douglas broke the blacklist and created a humanist sword-and-sandals epic.

Lonely are the Brave (1962): Douglas took the road less travelled when portraying “heroes” — even in a western.

The Arrangement (1969): With his stardom waning, Douglas still dared to experiment, working with Elia Kazan on an intensely interior drama about a suicidal man facing his life issues.

It Runs in the Family (2003): No one, not even a member of the Douglas clan, would claim greatness for this one. But it is fascinating to see the family literally get together for a drama about a dysfunctional family — with the elder Douglas acting through his stroke.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

BKirkland@postmedia.com