Kirk Douglas dies at 103: from misery to the top of Hollywood

“My name is Kirk Douglas. You probably know me, if not, Google me. I was a movie star, I am the father of Michael Douglas, the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones and the grandfather of his two grandchildren. “This is how he summed up his life Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants whom film history will remember for a great role: that of Kirk Douglas, Hollywood star. Douglas just died at 103 years old.

Douglas was born Danielovitch, a descendant of Russians in the anti-communist United States, Jew in hard times, poor in the land of opportunities, too short in a Hollywood of great gallants. Douglas broke with these limitations to become, first, a pure cinematographic nerve and, finally, a the last vestige of the golden age of the great studios, of the names that filled screens, seats and covers in equal parts. His virile, sanguine face was the canvas of epics, of boisterous, impulsive, heroic and torn characters. The same gives ‘noir’, than ‘western’. And even ‘peplum’. His clenched jaw and dimple diverted attention from any effeminate robes.

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones kiss Kirk Douglas.

In six decades of career he was a boxer, Viking, cowboy, soldier and slave. It was Spartacus, Van Gogh and Patton. He was an actor, producer and director. Like little. At best, patriarch of lineage and interpretive style, altruistic and archenemy for life of Robert Mitchum. Burt Lancaster was joined by on-screen chemistry. Outside, the relationship was more complex. They agreed in six films, seven if you count the cameos, and they sang together that of ‘It’s great not to be nominated‘at the ’58 Oscars. “I finally got rid of Burt Lancaster. My luck has changed for the better. Now I work with pretty girls, “he said after one of their last jobs together.” I miss him: we argued a lot, and I miss him a lot. Already John Wayne, even though he was a Republican and I was a Democrat, “he confessed when he turned 100 as the last survivor of the tough black and white guys. In the 1950s, the Academy nominated him three times for an Oscar, but had to wait for the honors of old age to hold the statuette, in recognition of “50 years as a moral and creative force within the film community.”

Douglas was born on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, not the Red Light District and the tulips, but a medium-sized city in New York State — it had about 33,000 inhabitants then, twice as much as now — more sheltered from rampant anti-Semitism than on this side of the pond. He was the fourth of seven siblings, the only son of a marriage not poor but very poor, as he recalled in his autobiography ‘The rag’s son‘. “My father, who had been a horse dealer in Russia, bought himself a horse and a small wagon and began working as a rag man, buying old scraps of cloth, pieces of metal, and scrap metal for pennies and dimes. Even In Eagle Street, the poorest part of the city, where all the families struggled to get ahead, being a raghead was the lowest echelon. And I was the son of the ragpicker … “. AND neither the ragman Herschel nor his wife, Bryna, could read.

The questionable truth of Kirk Douglas

Ramon de Fontecha

“We were the poorest family on the street of the poorest families (…). We had seven children and my father was not very good at bringing money home. When I was little, there was never enough food”, told journalist Marc Myers. “When he was hungry, he would steal food: an egg from the neighbor’s chicken or a tomato from a garden. He also stole fruits and vegetables from the stalls. For years, I felt guilty about these peccadilloes. Anti-Semitism was quite common in Amsterdam then. I suppose my charming personality was a form of survival, although it also helped that I liked acting and having won some school awards. And I was a hard worker: I was looking for my own jobs, like selling soft drinks and candy to the factory workers at the end of our street. Amsterdam was one of the most industrial cities in the country: there were dozens of factories, but they did not employ Jews. ”

Kirk Douglas, in ‘Letter to Three Wives’ (1949).

He escaped from misery thanks to a scholarship, and in one generation the Danielovitches went from illiterate to university students. After entered the New York Academy of Dramatic Art, where he hooked up with another Jewish student seven years younger, Betty Joan Perske. If that name doesn’t tell you anything, the name of Lauren Bacall. “I met Betty when I was 17 and I was 24. I was alone in New York, with hardly any money. That winter, Betty saw me shivering under my thin coat. She didn’t say anything to me, but she convinced her uncle to give me one. of her two fat coats, which I wore for three years. That kind of no fuss kindness was what made people fall in love with her. (..) People said she was a tough woman. But it was a piece of bread with a heart of gold“.

Before Hollywood, he went through Broadway and through military service — in full Second World War, he was destined for the Pacific – and it was precisely thanks to Bacall that Douglas, in his late thirties, landed his first film role in ‘The strange love of Martha Ivers‘(1946). By then, the actor was already married and the father of two children – one of them, Michael. “Betty [que ya había participado en un par de producciones, una de ellas con Humphrey Bogart] went to a party honoring the famous producer Hal Wallis, who was traveling to New York the next day. Betty was always a girl who spoke without restrictions. He said, ‘Hal, when you’re in New York, you have to see the play’ The Wind Is Ninety. ‘ My friend Kirk Douglas performs and he has had rave reviews. ‘ And he listened to her – did I mention she was very persuasive? – so before long he was on his way to Hollywood with a role with substance like the husband of Barbara Stanwyck on ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.’ And from there to the top. She soon realized that she could have more control over her career if she didn’t limit herself to acting and founded the production company Bryna, named after her mother.

Kirk Douglas, as Van Gogh in ‘The Madman with Red Hair’ (1956).

Douglas took his career very seriously, and on the red carpet, whenever there are spotlights there are shadows. “Kirk is first star and then father”his son lamented Michael in an interview in 2016. “Bill [Darrid, el segundo marido de Diana Dill, madre de Michael] he married my mother when I was 12 years old. (…) He was an extraordinary guy and he was the greatest male reference of my adolescence. Kirk always referred to him as my surrogate father. “Nor did he adapt easily to the role of faithful husband.” He was a bad boy, “confessed the actor himself. a ‘The Guardian’ in 2016 in an interview for his 100th birthday. “But Anne [Buydens, su segunda mujer] knew how to carry me. “Before they were married in 1954, she threw a party in his honor. invited all the women she knew had slept with her future husband. “I couldn’t believe it when I walked in and saw the guests. She knows them all!”

Aside from his work on the big screen, Douglas will be remembered as a great philanthropist: through the Douglas Foundation has donated more than 50 million of dollars to hospitals, schools, synagogues and his old university. Also because of his strong political convictions, which led him to bypass the Hollywood veto against artists suspected of being communists and to hire the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo —A stink of McCarthyism — for him to write ‘Spartacus’ in 1960 and include his name in the credits. Although, to be honest, the Trumbo family points out that Douglas has been enlarging his role in this story over time and the truth was not exactly as he tells it. Even in his own biography account, Douglas always fought to be the star.

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Kirk Douglas dies at 103: from misery to the top of Hollywood