Marking Time: Kirk Douglas at 99

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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Kirk Douglas in the Bad and The beautiful trailer

One of the few living actors from a golden age of cinema, Kirk Douglas is 99 years old today. In a literal rags-to-riches story that could be a film script in its own right, he was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in New York, to an immigrant Jewish family from Belarus. Douglas’ 1988 autobiography is called ‘The Ragman’s Son’; his father made a living ‘buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes’.

Young Issur took part in some school plays and a formidable ambition was ignited. After talking his way into university, he gained a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He began to work as an actor professionally, using the name Kirk Douglas, but in 1941 America entered the Second World War and he enlisted, serving in the Navy until 1944 when he was given a medical discharge. In the meantime, he had married his acting school sweetheart, Diana Dill. Their sons Michael and Joel were born in 1944 and 1947 respectively. Such a long break in a career that had hardly started, along with burgeoning domesticity, might have led other men to give up notions of stardom, but Kirk Douglas made his film debut just two years later. He appeared in The Strange Love Story of Martha Ivers with Barbara Stanwyck. The role came about on the recommendation of his former classmate at the AADA, one Betty Joan Perske – by then an actress using the name Lauren Bacall. The following year, Douglas made the first of many films with Burt Lancaster, I Walk Alone, and by the end of the decade his career was established.


Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall - promotional photo | Photofest

Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall – promotional photo | Photofest

Through the 1950s, Kirk Douglas established himself as a major leading actor in Hollywood. By 1955 he broke away from his studio contracts and formed his own company, Bryna Productions – named for his mother. This meant that he could opt to make and star in movies of his own choosing. He showed excellent, if sometimes controversial or ahead-of-his-time , instincts in this regard. The 1957 Paths of Glory (an early Stanley Kubrick film) was not a box-office success but subsequently has been recognized as an excellent anti-war film. In 1960 he starred in and produced Spartacus, a spectacular and iconic film about a Roman gladiator, also directed by Kubrick. Kirk Douglas insisted that the Spartacus screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, be credited under his real name, thus helping to break a blacklist against him. Trumbo had been imprisoned for eleven months in 1950 for refusing to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities during their anti-Communist investigations, and had been blacklisted by Hollywood thereafter.

Spartacus poster

In 1951 Kirk and Diana had divorced, and in 1954 he married Anne Buydens, who had fled from Nazi Germany. They soon had two sons, Peter and Eric. Tragically Eric died of a drug overdose in 2004. Douglas continued to be a prolific actor throughout the 1960s and 70s, but the latter part of his long life has been less of a fairytale than his middle years. His personal tenacity and close family have enabled him to rage against age, ill-health and misfortune. Surviving a helicopter crash in 1991 led to a rekindling of his Jewish faith. A stroke in 1996 seemed likely to deprive him of his voice, but he was able to give a speech accepting an honorary Oscar just two months later, and took voice coaching to enable a return to film in 1999’s Diamonds, with his friend Lauren Bacall.

As Kirk’s career skyrocketed over the decades, he and his wife Anne Douglas became exemplary examples of the word charity and giving selflessly to others less fortunate. Kirk and Anne Douglas are profoundly dedicated to philanthropy.  In 1964, Kirk looked at the all the paintings he and Anne had obtained after nearly 40 years of marriage and decided it was of no use to them to have so much money hanging on their walls.  They chose to sell them all. The proceeds from the auction facilitated the means to help support numerous significant projects: The Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women; Harry’s Haven, named after Kirk’s father, at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Alzheimer’s Unit; and the building of 350 playgrounds for children in the Los Angeles School District. That was only the beginning of Kirk and Anne’s road to helping others. In the summer of 2015 after 61 years of marriage, the couple is planning to give away 80 million dollars that has been growing in a trust set up by Anne Douglas 50 years ago. When asked why he wanted to give so much away Kirk stated simply, “Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat, but very often there would be a knock at the door and it would be a hobo wanting food, and my mother always gave them something. My mother said to me, ‘You must take care of other people.’ That stayed with me.”

“In celebration of legendary actor Kirk Douglas’ 99th birthday, MPTF (Motion Picture & Television Fund) announced plans to build a $35 million state-of-the-art care facility, to be named the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion (KDCP), on its Woodland Hills campus. In making the announcement, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chairman of the MPTF Foundation, commented: “We are grateful to Kirk and Anne for making this leadership gift of $15 million.  It will kick the design and planning of this incredible new facility into high gear.” Source- MPTF (Motion Picture & Television Fund)

A living link to the days when film stars seemed little lower than angels, The Chronopages wishes Kirk Douglas a very happy 99th birthday.

In a career that has produced over 80 films, we recommend: