Remembering Kirk Douglas – Hollywood Icon and Navy WWII Veteran
(source: Wikipedia) Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch; December 9, 1916 – February 5, 2020) was an American actor, producer, director, philanthropist and author. After an impoverished childhood with immigrant parents and six sisters, he made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck. Douglas soon developed into a leading box-office star throughout the 1950s, known for serious dramas, including westerns and war films. During his career, he appeared in more than 90 films. Douglas was known for his explosive acting style, which he displayed as a criminal defense attorney in Town Without Pity (1961).
Douglas became an international star through positive reception for his leading role as an unscrupulous boxing hero in Champion (1949), which brought him his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. His other early films include Young Man with a Horn (1950), playing opposite Lauren Bacall and Doris Day, Ace in the Hole opposite Jan Sterling (1951), and Detective Story (1951), for which he received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor in a Drama. He received a second Oscar nomination for his dramatic role in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), opposite Lana Turner, and his third nomination for portraying Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), which landed him a second Golden Globe nomination.
In 1955, he established Bryna Productions, which began producing films as varied as Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). In those two films, he collaborated with the then-relatively-unknown director Stanley Kubrick, taking lead roles in both films. Douglas has been praised for helping to break the Hollywood blacklist by having Dalton Trumbo write Spartacus with an official on-screen credit. He produced and starred in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), considered a classic, and Seven Days in May (1964), opposite Burt Lancaster, with whom he made seven films. In 1963, he starred in the Broadway play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a story that he purchased and later gave to his son Michael Douglas, who turned it into an Oscar-winning film.
As an actor and philanthropist, Douglas received three Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As an author, he wrote ten novels and memoirs. He is No. 17 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest male screen legends of classic Hollywood cinema, the highest-ranked living person on the list until his death. After barely surviving a helicopter crash in 1991 and then suffering a stroke in 1996, he focused on renewing his spiritual and religious life. He lived with his second wife (of 65 years), Anne Buydens, a producer, until his death on February 5, 2020, at age 103. A centenarian, he was one of the last surviving stars of the film industry’s Golden Age
His father’s brother, who immigrated earlier, used the surname Demsky, which Douglas’s family adopted in the United States. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the United States Navy during World War II.
Douglas first wanted to be an actor after he recited the poem The Red Robin of Spring while in kindergarten and received applause.
Growing up, Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread to help his family. Later, he delivered newspapers and during his youth he had more than forty jobs before becoming an actor. He found living in a family with six sisters to be stifling: “I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me.” After appearing in plays at Amsterdam High School, from which he was graduated in 1934, he knew he wanted to become a professional actor. Unable to afford the tuition, Douglas talked his way into the dean’s office at St. Lawrence University and showed him a list of his high school honors. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1939. He received a loan which he paid back by working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team and wrestled one summer in a carnival to make money.
Douglas’s acting talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, which gave him a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (later known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career. Bacall wrote that she “had a wild crush on Kirk,” and they dated casually. Another classmate, and a friend of Bacall’s, was aspiring actress Diana Dill, who would later become Douglas’s first wife.
During their time together, Bacall learned Douglas had no money, and that he once spent the night in jail since he had no place to sleep. She once gave him her uncle’s old coat to keep warm: “I thought he must be frozen in the winter . … He was thrilled and grateful.” Sometimes, just to see him, she would drag a friend or her mother to the restaurant where he worked as a busboy and waiter. He told her his dream was to someday bring his family to New York to see him on stage. During that period she fantasized about someday sharing her personal and stage lives with Douglas, but would later be disappointed: “Kirk did not really pursue me. He was friendly and sweet—enjoyed my company—but I was clearly too young for him,” the eight-years-younger Bacall later wrote.
Kirk Douglas’ Military Career:
Douglas joined the United States Navy in 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, 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, and saw those experiences as being especially valuable, as skill in using one’s voice is important for aspiring actors; he regretted that the same avenues are no longer available. His stage break occurred when he took over the role played by Richard Widmark in Kiss and Tell (1943), which then led to other offers.
RIP, Kirk Douglas! Thank you for the memories… and thank you for your service!
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