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Kirk Douglas Bio

Early Life,Career,Personal Life

Early Life

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York to Bryna “Bertha” and Herschel “Harry” Danielovitch .He grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the United States Navy during World War II. Kirk’s childhood was not easy and growing up he had to sell snacks to mill workers to earn enough money to buy food for his family.

In 1993,Kirk graduated from Amsterdam High School. Unable to afford tuition, he talked his way into the deans office at St. Lawrence University and showed him a list of his high school honors,securing himself a place. He graduated with a bachelors degree in 1939.  Douglas’s later  got a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City where he met Betty Joan Perske (later known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career.


Shortly after the United States entered World War II Douglas joined the United States Navy in 1941, where he served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare aboard USS PC-1139. He was medically discharged in 1944 for war injuries sustained from the accidental dropping of a depth charge.

After the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio, theater and commercials. In his radio work, he acted in network soap operas. His stage break occurred when he took over the role played by Richard Widmark in Kiss and Tell (1943).

Lauren Bacall helped him get his first film role by recommending him to producer Hal B. Wallis for his film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946, with Barbara Stanwyck which became his debut screen appearance. He played a young, insecure man, stung with jealousy, whose life was dominated by his ruthless wife, and he hid his feelings with alcohol. 

In 1947, Douglas starred in the film,Out of the Past (UK: Build My Gallows High) with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and in 1949,made his Broadway debut in 1949 in Three Sisters, produced by Katharine Cornell.

Douglas’s image as a tough guy was established in his eighth film, Champion (1949), after producer Stanley Kramer chose him to play Midge Kelly, a selfish boxer. However, in accepting the role, he took a gamble, since he had to turn down an offer to star in a big-budget MGM film, The Great Sinner, which would have earned him three times the income. Champions brought with it greater opportunity and Douglas received his first Academy Award nomination and the film earned six nominations in all. Variety magazine called it “a stark, realistic study of the boxing rackets.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Douglas was a major box-office star, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era in movies such as Young Man with a Horn 1950, Ace in the Hole  by director Billy Wilder’s 1951 which won a best foreign film award at the Venice Film Festival,  The Bad and the Beautiful 1952 that earned him an oscar nomination, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954  which became a major box office hit, Man Without a Star (1955) and Lust for Life which earned him two awards,an Academy Award for the role, with his co-star Anthony Quinn winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a Golden Globe award, just to name a few.

In 1955, Douglas formed his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother.To do so, he had to break contracts with Hal B. Wallis and Warner Bros. He began to produce and star in his own films,  The Indian Fighter in 1955 being the first one. Through Bryna, he produced and starred in the films Paths of Glory (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). 

In 1960, Douglas played the title role in what many consider his career defining appearance as the Thracian slave rebel Spartacus with an all-star cast in Spartacus . He was the executive producer as well, which raised the $12 million production cost and made it one of the most expensive films up to that time. Douglas initially selected Anthony Mann to direct, but replaced him early on with Stanley Kubrick, with whom he previously collaborated in Paths of Glory.

Kirk Douglas in spartucus

Douglas bought the rights to the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from its author, Ken Kesey and  turned it into a play in 1963 in which he starred, and it ran on Broadway for five months.Douglas retained the movie rights, but after a decade of being unable to find a producer, gave the rights to his son, Michael. The film version was produced in 1975 by Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, and starred Jack Nicholson.It won all five major Academy Awards, only the second to achieve that, including one for Nicholson.

Between 1970 and 2008, Douglas made nearly 40 movies and appeared on various television shows. He starred in a western, There Was a Crooked Man (1970), alongside Henry Fonda,In 1973, he directed his first film, Scalawag. That same year, Douglas reunited with director David Winters and appeared in the made-for-TV musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (nominated for three Emmys) alongside Stanley Holloway, and Donald Pleasence,The Final Countdown 1980,The Man from Snowy River 1982 and Tough Guys which marked his final collaboration with Lancaster,completing a partnership of more than 40 years.

In 1996, after suffering a severe stroke which impaired his ability to speak, Douglas still wanted to make movies. He underwent years of voice therapy and made Diamonds in 1999, in which he played an old prizefighter who was recovering from a stroke. It costarred his longtime friend from his early years, Lauren Bacall.

In 2003, Michael and Joel Douglas produced It Runs in the Family, which along with Kirk starred various family members, including Michael, Michael’s son, and his wife from 50 years earlier, Diana Dill, playing his wife. His final feature-film appearance was in the 2004 Michael Goorjian film Illusion, in which he depicts a dying film director forced to watch episodes from the life of a son he had refused to acknowledge.  His last screen role was the TV movie Empire State Building Murders, which was released in 2008.

Douglas appeared at the 2018 Golden Globes at the age of 101 with his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones, a rare public appearance in the final decade of his life. He received a standing ovation and helped to present the award for “Best Screenplay Motion Picture”.

Catherine Zeta Jones and Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes

Personal life

Douglas got married to his first wife Diana Dill on November 2, 1943. They had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas, before divorcing in 1951.

He got afterwards met Anne Buydens and they got married on May 29, 1954. They had two sons, Peter, a producer, and Eric, an actor who died on July 6, 2004, from an overdose. In 2014, they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. In 2017, the couple released a book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood, that revealed intimate letters they shared through the years.


Douglas died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, on February 5, 2020, at age 103 from natural causes

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