“I’ve made a career, in a sense, of playing sons of bitches,” Kirk Douglas once said, reflecting on a career that encompassed seven decades in Hollywood inhabiting every kind of antihero imaginable. Douglas, who died yesterday at the age of 103, was remembered in his later years as a grand old man of the movie industry, the father of the celebrated actor Michael Douglas and an occasional wry presenter at the Academy Awards. But in his prime, Douglas was the rare marquee idol as defined by his onscreen ferocity as by his looks and charm, a star who emerged in the 1950s but could have belonged to the bolder, more independent New Hollywood of later years.
In films such as Paths of Glory, Lust for Life, Spartacus, and The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas played steely soldiers, tortured artists, and Hollywood executives with the same flinty passion, imbuing a sense of danger in even simple bits of rat-a-tat conversation. Perhaps his finest performance was in Billy Wilder’s 1951 satire, Ace in the Hole, in which Douglas played a cutthroat reporter banished to a small-market paper in Albuquerque, who barked lines such as, “I can handle big news and little news, and if there’s no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.” As his character’s love interest, Lorraine (played by Jan Sterling), memorably put it: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you—you’re 20 minutes.”
Douglas was essentially the last of Hollywood’s Golden Age legends, a remnant of an era when studios still wielded near-total control of the industry but major stars could pick projects and work with filmmakers who broke the mold. Like his peers Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, and Marlon Brando, Douglas was drawn toward darker and less commercially sound projects, and over the years he collaborated with the period’s greatest directors—Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Vincente Minnelli, John Frankenheimer, Elia Kazan, and John Sturges.
Douglas was often credited with helping to end the Hollywood blacklisting of writers accused of communist sympathies, by hiring the exiled screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus and then insisting that he be properly credited for his work. The actor called it “the thing I’m most proud of,” though others involved in the film’s production said he had overstated his role in the affair. Controversy also surrounded Douglas in his later years, when the actor was dogged by anonymous rumors of past sexual assault that bubbled up online when he accepted an honorary Golden Globe in 2018, though no substantial reporting has emerged on those issues (partly due to the decades-old nature of the claims).
The actor’s stature in his later years belied his modest beginnings. The son of Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire (present-day Belarus), Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 and was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in Amsterdam, New York. His father was a junk trader, and he and his six sisters lived in relative poverty; after taking out loans to attend college, he was given a scholarship to New York’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met the aspiring actor Lauren Bacall (a longtime friend) and his first wife, Diana Dill. After serving in the Navy during the Second World War, he landed a film role in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers on the recommendation of Bacall.
From there, Douglas established a tough-guy image, giving a standout supporting performance in the noir masterpiece Out of the Past and becoming a breakout lead in the 1949 boxing movie Champion. For the latter, he got the first of three Oscar nominations (he never won a competitive trophy, receiving an honorary award in 1996), and became an instant box-office star. Along with Ace in the Hole, his ’50s output included the biting Hollywood satire The Bad and the Beautiful; the Disney adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; the Vincent van Gogh biopic Lust for Life; and Paths of Glory, a searing anti-war masterpiece from Kubrick (who was then only beginning his run as cinema’s most celebrated auteur).
Douglas insisted on hiring Kubrick for Spartacus (dismissing his initial choice, Anthony Mann), a swords-and-sandals epic filled with trenchant criticism of slavery and political corruption. In many of his best-known works, Douglas played stoic and resolute men, uninterested in laying on syrupy charm; it’s likely why he never won an Academy Award and was entirely ignored for some of his best work (including the Kubrick films and his personal favorite, the shaggy 1962 Western Lonely Are the Brave). Minnelli, a more classical Hollywood director who specialized in bold and bright musicals, was able to tap into Douglas’s intense romantic magnetism, turning The Bad and the Beautiful’s callous Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields into an irresistible lothario.
By the late ’60s, the old-fashioned studio system entered its twilight and New Hollywood debuted with electrifying projects such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Though Douglas had onscreen appeal in spades, he struggled to find hits. 1969’s The Arrangement, a drama written and directed by Kazan, was a flop, and Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (in which Douglas played an Italian mafioso) is often cited as an example of Hollywood’s old-fashioned fustiness in the crime genre, which was upended by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972. Though Douglas did some great work in his later years—particularly in Brian De Palma’s The Fury—he became better known as a symbol of a Hollywood dynasty, with his son Michael rising as an enduring star for a hipper era.
But Douglas’s best films from decades prior were risks of their own, the kinds of daring projects that eventually shaped Hollywood’s more transgressive future. With his pointed chin, piercing glare, and reputation for fearless performances, Douglas helped define the crueler side of a country that was painting a sunny picture of itself in the postwar era. “I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “I don’t find virtue photogenic.”