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Peter Travers on Kirk Douglas: A Champion Among Men

Rolling Stone’s film critic pays tribute to the late, great ‘Spartacus’ actor

Kirk Douglas in a publicity shot from 1962.

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Kirk Douglas always comes out fighting. I use the present tense, because it’s damn near impossible to think of this paragon of golden-age Hollywood stardom any other way.

Yes, his son Michael Douglas formally announced yesterday that his father had died at the Methuselah-level age of 103, but it’s still hard to think this pugnacious defender of the underdog is really gone. Say these three words aloud — “I am Spartacus” — and you’ll conjure up the image of Douglas, a strapping 44 years old at the time, bearing down on the role of a gladiator slave who took on the whole Roman Empire. Douglas risked his hide to get Spartacus made his way, producing the film under the banner of his production company Bryna, firing the original director Anthony Mann and hiring young rebel genius Stanley Kubrick. To give the finger to the red-baiting attacks of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Douglas brought in screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10, to adapt the novel of blacklisted author Howard Fast. And when President JFK himself crossed a picket line in 1960 to see the finished film, Spartacus and Douglas made their own kind of creative and box-office history. “It’s the thing I’m proudest of,” said Douglas.

In truth, Douglas has a long list of things to be proud of, from four sons, his widow Anne, his legendary career that included writing his memoirs and 10 novels, and philanthropic work that helped win him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad for a Ragman’s son, born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to Russian Jewish immigrants in Amsterdam, New York — dad was a serious alcoholic — who raised their seven kids in abject poverty. Learning to push through obstacles gave young Izzy Demsky the steel to make a life for himself. He joined the Navy in 1941 under the name Kirk Douglas; when he left the service due to a medical discharge, he kept the name and began working in New York’s theater scene. His first major film role in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, playing a coward — a type of role he would resist ever playing again.

Douglas used his laser-blue eyes, jutting cleft chin and gritted teeth to develop an acting style that radiated a do-not-fuck-with-me intensity. Those characteristics are all visible in his breakthrough role in 1949’s Champion as the arrogant boxer Midge Kelly. “It’s like any other business,” Kelly says of boxing, “only here the blood shows.” Kelly pushed hard to get to the top — and so did Douglas. “I was a son of a bitch,” the actor admitted in his memoir. “I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it.” Douglas ripped into the role like red meat and became a star and a sex symbol. Watch the scene in which sculptress Lola Albright siddles up to Kelly and purrs: “I suppose you know you have a wonderful body — I’d like to do it in clay.” Champion won Douglas his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It also put him on the map.

Shockingly, Douglas never won a competitive Oscar. He was nominated two more times: for skewering the ego of an unscrupulous Hollywood producer in 1953’s The Bad and the Beautiful; and for memorably etching the fine madness of the ear-slicing artist Vincent Van Gogh in 1957’s Lust for Life. None of these were heroic roles. Unlike such contemporaries as Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen and John Wayne, Douglas reveled in playing the dark side of humanity.

Check him out in 1957’s Paths of Glory, a World War I story of a colonel (Douglas) who defends a group of French soldiers facing court-martial for showing cowardice in battle during what they considered a suicide mission. Working for the first time with Kubrick, Douglas used his Bryna production company (as he would do three years later with Spartacus) to get this anti-war film made without compromise. And the cumulative force of his performance is astonishing.

You can see the pattern in Douglas’ career as an actor, always working behind the scenes as well to make sure filmmakers didn’t lose their guts. It isn’t that he couldn’t act in films for the big-budget hell of it (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Vikings, and the family favorite 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). But the Douglas that sticks in your memories is the one who comes at you hard as nails. There’s his cowboy overwhelmed by modern technology in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), his government agent plagued by telekinesis in Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), his aging lawman on the tail of an escaped prisoner in Eddie Macon’s Run (1983). Even the debilitating 1993 stroke that left Douglas with slurred speech didn’t stop him from starring with his son Michael and grandson Cameron in a dysfunctional comedy-drama loosely based on their own lives (2003’s It Runs in the Family).

Much has been made of the alleged jealousy Kirk felt for Michael. It did cause a bit of a rift when the elder Douglas turned over the film rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a play that Kirk had starred in on Broadway in 1963. Why? Michael proceeded to give his dad’s role to the younger Jack Nicholson who proceeded to win a Best Actor Oscar for it — and as producer of the film, went onstage to collect the Best Picture prize. Ouch. The sting didn’t last long. In 1989, when Michael’s performance in Wall Street won him the Best Actor Oscar that had eluded his father, he profusely thanked Kirk for “helping his son step out his shadow.”

That shadow remains a long one that stands little chance of dimming. The final lines in Champion, the boxing film that gave Kirk his first taste of success, serves as a fitting epitaph for a take-no-prisoners legend who never stopped fighting for his own artistic truth. “He was a champion. He went out like a champion. He was a credit to the fight game till the very end.”