Kirk Douglas can make you nervous. From the cleft in his chin, to the fire in his eyes, to the anguish in his voice — there’s something unrelentingly intense about him. No surprise he’s played some of the greatest neurotic Napoleans on screen, from cut-throat movie producer Jonathan Shields in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) to doomed painter Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). How much of Douglas’s intensity is acting is anyone’s guess. Certainly his upbringing as the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants lent a sense of urgency to his desire to make it in Hollywood. And that urgency continues to this day as he continues to act, even after suffering a serious stroke.
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich Demsky on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York. The family was large and his father struggled to make ends meet working as a traveling junk dealer. From an early age, young Issur was determined to live the American dream, and he worked his way through St. Lawrence University by waiting tables and working as a janitor. He was also a star wrestler and took care to maintain his physique, which served him well when he decided to pursue acting. Moving to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas and was acting on Broadway by 1941. When World War II broke out Douglas served in the Navy, but he was back on Broadway by 1945.
Impatient and already behind schedule in his career plans because of military service, Douglas moved out to Hollywood to try his hand in pictures. He immediately found work in pictures like “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) and “Out of the Past” (1947). He won raves and an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the crooked boxer in “Champion” (1949), which put his delirious intensity and muscular physique to good use. As his career was taking off his marriage, to Diana Dill, was unraveling. They divorced in 1951, although their union did produce the producer and actor Michael Douglas.
The 1950’s saw Douglas rise to the top of Hollywood stardom. Besides “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life,” he appeared in top films like “Along the Great Divide” (1951), “Paths of Glory” (1957), and “Spartacus” (1960), the last one notable in that Douglas also served as producer. Always combative, he formed his own production company to have more control over his career and held the option to Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which was eventually produced by son Michael with Jack Nicholson in the lead.
While Douglas’s drive has served him well in the treacherous world of Hollywood, he has also funneled it towards numerous charities and political causes. In 1981, he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon a private citizen. In later years , he became an accomplished author, winning praise for both his autobiography and his novels “Dance With the Devil” (1990) and “The Secret” (1992).