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Kirk Douglas Appreciation: Hollywood Star Set His Own Course

The legendary actor also made film history behind the camera as an independent producer

Martin Amis’ 1984 novel “Money,” inspired by his painful experiences as the screenwriter of the disastrous 1980 sci-fi movie “Saturn 3,” includes a character based on “Saturn 3” star Kirk Douglas: “Lorne Guyland,” an aging but still virile screen legend, “had, in his time, on stage or screen, interpreted the roles of Genghis Khan, Al Capone, Marco Polo, Huckleberry Finn, Charlemagne, Paul Revere, Erasmus, Wyatt Earp, Voltaire, Sky Masterson, Einstein, Jack Kennedy, Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, Oliver Cromwell, Amerigo Vespucci, Zorro, Darwin, Sitting Bull, Freud, Napoleon, Spider-Man, Macbeth, Melville, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Methuselah, Mozart, Merlin, Marx, Mars, Moses and Jesus Christ.”

And while “Money” is not, on the whole, particularly kind to Kirk Douglas, this list does reflect the breadth and scope of a screen career that started in 1946 and culminated in the early 21st century.

On screen, Douglas was the epitome of the square-jawed leading man, whether he was playing a Roman slave, a Western sheriff, a conniving journalist or a conscience-plagued World War I officer. Off screen — like his friend and frequent co-star Burt Lancaster — he was one of the first actors to double as an independent producer, taking more control over projects (many of which he starred in) in an era when the studio system was in its decline.

The former Izzy Demsky, né Issur Danielovitch, was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants; he purportedly got the acting bug while attending kindergarten in Amsterdam, New York. He worked any number of odd jobs to put himself through high school and college, and officially changed his name to “Kirk Douglas” before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1941. After getting a medical discharge in 1944, he pursued an acting career in New York City, working on the stage and on radio and attending classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Two of his classmates at AADA would change his life forever: Diana Dill, who became Douglas’ first wife (and mother of his two oldest sons, producer Joel Douglas and star-in-his-own-right Michael Douglas), and Lauren Bacall, who recommended Douglas to producer Hal B. Wallis, who cast the young actor in his screen debut, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” One year later, Douglas memorably played a nefarious businessman who occupied one side of a love triangle with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” (1947), cited by many as one of the great, archetypal examples of film noir.

Douglas’ major breakthrough took place two years later in “Champion,” for which he received his first Academy Award nomination as a ruthlessly ambitious boxer. The actor would eventually receive two more Oscar nods — for “The Bad and the Beautiful,” one of the best Hollywood movies about Hollywood, and “Lust for Life,” in which he portrayed Vincent Van Gogh — as well as an honorary Academy Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropic work.

In 1955, Douglas founded Bryna Productions (named after his mother), which gave him the clout to shepherd his own projects. One of the company’s earliest was 1957’s “Paths of Glory,” from a then up-and-coming young filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick. It’s one of several Douglas films from this period — alongside Billy Wilder’s brilliantly dark “Ace in the Hole” (a.k.a. “The Big Carnival,” 1951) and the Dalton Trumbo-scripted “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) — that were too intense and incisive to become box-office hits but later entered the canon of great American movies.

Douglas’ second collaboration with Kubrick, “Spartacus” (1960), was notable for, among other aspects, giving an onscreen credit to Trumbo, who had spent much of the previous decade writing under pseudonyms after being blacklisted by Hollywood in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s red-scare witch hunt. “I’ve made over 85 pictures,” Douglas would later say, “but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist.” (Otto Preminger also gave Trumbo a credit on “Exodus” that same year.)

And while Douglas was known for the intensity he brought to films like “Seven Days in May” (1964) or “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), he was an eclectic enough performer to make an impression with a variety of characters, including the dashing, concertina-playing sailor in Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) and an unhappy architect who has an affair with neighbor Kim Novak in the sudsy “Strangers When We Meet” (1960).

As an actor, Douglas had a singular style of declamation; in moments of great intensity, he would stress words in such a way that you could almost sense the air he was storing in his diaphragm just to push out for this occasion. For decades, he became something of an easy go-to for stand-up comedians doing celebrity impersonations, which he spoofed while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, doing a commercial for an album called “Kirk’s Greatest Kirks,” in which Douglas performed the Rich Little impersonation and the Frank Gorshin impersonation and so on.

Douglas continued to make film appearances regularly throughout the ’80s and ’90s (in “The Man From Snowy River,” “Tough Guys” and “Greedy,” to name just a few), delivering his final film and TV work in the 2000s while dealing with escalating health issues. But his periodic appearances on award shows allowed him to take a victory lap as one of the last surviving legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the theaters, hospital wings and scholarships bearing his name from coast to coast will keep that legend alive, alongside his impressive filmography.