KIRK DOUGLAS


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Kirk Douglas was born in New York on December 9, 1916. He was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, to Russian Jews who had emigrated to New York, and he changed his name and began acting and later became a superstar. After some minor Broadway roles, he served in the Navy in WWII, and after the war, his first film was a leading role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946. He followed that up with an important role in Out of the Past, the classic film noir, and then I Walk Alone, where he again had a supporting role, this time with Burt Lancaster, with whom he would appear many times. Champion (nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for this film) in 1949 made him a major star, and for the next years he played lots of lead roles in important movies, often playing someone mentally unstable, as he had in Champion. In 1952 he made The Bad and The Beautiful (nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for this film), Lust For Life (nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for this film) in 1956, and in 1957 he used his star power to see that Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory was made (he was the producer and star, and it likely would never been made but for Douglas, and it is to mind in the three or four finest movies ever made). He is well remembered for his starring role in Kubrick's Spartacus, as well as in Lonely are the Brave, and many others. As he grew older he took major supporting roles, opposite such stars as Lancaster (they made 7 movies together) and John Wayne. In 1963 he bought the rights to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and he starred as McMurphy in a Broadway production. But he was heartbroken when he could not get a major studio to make a film version with him in the lead, and he gave the rights to his son Michael, who was finally able to get it filmed in 1975 (and while Nicholson was perfect, one can't help but wonder how the elder Douglas would have been!). Douglas is pretty indestructible! He survived a helicopter crash and a major stroke, and I saw him at a retrospective a couple of years ago, and he looked better than ever. But I was struck when I read his fine autobiography "The Ragman's Son" just how haunted he was, and how he never escaped his difficult childhood. All through my growing up I heard that Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were best friends. Apparently this was not at all true, and they mostly only had a professional relationship, and even that was strained. Lancaster was quoted as saying "Kirk would be the first to admit that he's difficult to work with - and I would be the second"! Few actors have ever given us nearly as many wonderful performances as Kirk Douglas (and his film selection was second to none), and yet he never won an acting Academy Award, a sad commentary on the method by which the Oscars are chosen. He is currently 103, and one of the very last of the great living Hollywood stars, truly a "living legend"!
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