Kirk Douglas: He was Spartacus and more

Veteran actor Kirk Douglas, one of the last of Hollywood's golden era, has died at 103.
Veteran actor Kirk Douglas, one of the last of Hollywood's golden era, has died at 103.

Hollywood is mourning veteran actor Kirk Douglas, the dimple-chinned star with the larger-than-life persona, who has passed away at 103.

He was the father of actor Michael Douglas and head of a Hollywood family that included his sons, producers Joel and Peter and grandson Cameron Douglas.

As an actor, he excelled in playing men fighting for their honour (Spartacus, Seven Days In May) and cocky protagonists who were sometimes likeable (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and sometimes hateful (Champion,The Bad And The Beautiful). Oscar-nominated three times, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1996.

His big, macho persona sometimes made people forget his subtle sensitivity in films like Lust for Life, Paths Of Glory and Lonely Are The Brave.

He personified the image of the manly man, a tough guy with flashes of style and humour. Though he wasn't prolific as a producer, he was responsible for intelligent and offbeat fare including two great films directed by Stanley Kubrick, Paths Of Glory and Spartacus.

Off screen, Douglas had a reputation for being demanding during his heyday in the '50s and '60s. But there were other sides to him as well: political activist, charity benefactor, family man, a funny and thoughtful storyteller and an author.

Douglas is credited with helping break the 1950s blacklist when he insisted that Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood 10) be credited for his screenplay on the film Spartacus. He was honoured by the ACLU with a Bill of Rights Award "for having the courage and conviction to break the infamous Hollywood blacklist and forcing the full recognition of one of its victims".

Born Issur Danielovitch (later changed to Demsky) in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9 1916, Douglas was the only son of Russian Jewish immigrants. In his autobiography The Ragman's Son, he described the abject poverty in which he was raised.

With help from loans and scholarships, Douglas attended St. Lawrence U., where, between wrestling matches, he took an interest in dramatics. He worked odd jobs after college - usher, professional wrestler, soda jerk - to pay his way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was at AADA that he met Diana Dill, who became his first wife and the mother of sons Michael and Joel.

After working in summer stock, Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again.

During his WWII stint in the Navy, Douglas was hit with amoebic dysentery and honourably discharged in June 1944.

On the recommendation of classmate Lauren Bacall he was auditioned and signed by producer Hal Wallis at $US500 ($A739) a week. He made his film debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers.

The film that catapulted him to stardom, and forever cast him as a brooding, explosive personality, was 1949's Champion. For his performance as an unscrupulous boxer he gained his first Oscar nomination.

Established as a star, Douglas scored several major acting triumphs over the next few years. Jumping over to MGM, he notched his second Oscar nomination as the monomaniacal producer in Vincente Minnelli's 1952 The Bad And The Beautiful.

He and Diana had divorced in 1951, but while working in Europe Douglas met publicist Anne Buydens, whom he married in 1954. They had two sons, Peter and Eric. That same year, he scored another triumph in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 1955 he founded his own production company, Bryna (named after his mother).

After producing the successful but critically panned The Vikings, Douglas hired Stanley Kubrick for Spartacus. Kubrick distanced himself from the Roman epic, which is nonetheless considered one of the best of its kind.

In 1963 he had returned to the stage in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Dale Wasserman's adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, which he tried valiantly to get made into a film over the next decade. His son, Michael, finally succeeded. But by then Kirk Douglas was too old for the role of McMurphy, which was played by Jack Nicholson.

His roles during the 70s included There Was A Crooked Man and the horror thriller The Fury. (He turned down Patton and a co-starring role in the first Rambo film, First Blood).

After penning Ragman's Son, Douglas wrote several more books, including Dance With The Devil, Let's Face It - 90 Years Of Living, Loving And Learning in 2007 and I Am Spartacus!: Making A Film, Breaking The Blacklist, about the making of Spartacus, in 2012.

In 1991, he was honoured with the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, and by the Writers Guild of America for breaking the blacklist. Early that year, Douglas had a close brush with death after he was injured in a helicopter crash.

He suffered a stroke in 1995 and had to teach himself to speak all over again. He was left with some paralysis in his face. Self-conscious about his now-slurred speech, he avoided public appearances for months and did not appear in another film until 1999's Diamonds.

After his public shyness, Douglas embraced his new role as an unofficial spokesman for stroke victims, penning and appearing in a one-man show, Before I Forget, in 2009.

In July 2012, Douglas and his wife Anne announced $US50 million ($A74 million) in pledges to five nonprofit organisations through the Douglas Foundation, founded by the couple in 1964. They also sponsored more than 240 playgrounds around Southern California.

Douglas and Anne donated millions for the construction of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion at the Motion Picture and Television Fund for residents with Alzheimer's.

Survivors include his wife Anne; three sons - actor-producer Michael and producers Joel and Peter - and at least seven grandchildren. His youngest son, Eric, died in July 2004.

Australian Associated Press