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Kirk Douglas, ‘Spartacus’ Star and Legend of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dies at 103

Three-time Oscar nominee was father to Michael Douglas

Kirk Douglas, the prolific actor and producer whose “Spartacus” is credited with helping to end the Hollywood blacklist, patriarch of a successful entertainment dynasty and one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s golden age, died Wednesday. He was 103.

“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his son Michael Douglas said in a statement posted on Instagram. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.

“But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband. Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet,” Michael Douglas continued. “Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”

Douglas was a three-time Oscar nominee for his films “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life,” and he was the recipient of an Honorary Award from the Academy in 1996. He’s also known for starring roles in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film “Paths of Glory,” Jacques Tourner’s “Out of the Past” and Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” among many other films starring opposite Lana Turner, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster.

Ahead of the release of “Spartacus” in 1960, Douglas met with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and gave him an on-screen credit for the Oscar-winning film, helping to end the Hollywood Blacklist that had shunned screenwriters, actors and directors who were accused of having Communist ties or sympathies.

“When [‘Spartacus’] is in the can, not only am I going to tell them that you’ve written it, but we’re putting your name on it… your name, Dalton Trumbo, as the sole writer,” Douglas said to Trumbo as he recalled in his book “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.” “I could feel my heart pounding. Even as I was saying the words, I was still trying to convince myself that this was worth the risk … The blacklist is broken.”

Douglas has called the moment his finest achievement in a long career, though Douglas’s heroic account has been called into question for its accuracy.

In 1963, Douglas acquired the rights to the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and turned it into a Broadway play that he starred in for five months. He then turned over the rights to his son Michael Douglas, who transformed it into the Best Picture winning film starring Jack Nicholson. In an op-ed, he addressed that he felt like a “failure” after not making it on Broadway.

“On the stage, I am flesh and blood, not a shadow on the screen,” Douglas wrote in 2016. “The eye of the movie camera is an evil eye. When you act in front of it, that cyclops keeps taking from you until you feel empty. On the stage, you give something to the audience, more comes back.”

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Douglas grew up along with six sisters in Amsterdam, New York to Jewish emigrants from present-day Belarus. By 1941, he had legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas and enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II. After a medical discharge in 1944, he was discovered by his fellow student Lauren Bacall at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

His first film would be opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Lewis Milestone’s “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” in 1946. The part earned him early raves, though he would turn to more tough guy roles in several biopics and hard-boiled noirs later in his career, including as a selfish boxer in “Champion,” as a manipulative film producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” and as a cynical reporter in “Ace in the Hole.”

Though Douglas did manage to show a lighter side to his persona, starring in Disney’s box office hit “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and in an appearance on “The Jack Benny Program.”

Later in his career, Douglas turned to some producing and directing, directing himself in a pair of Westerns, “Peg Leg, Musket and Sabre” in 1973 and “Posse” in 1975. He’d also turn to several TV movies and series, including a TV movie remake of “Inherit the Wind” in 1988 and a voice appearance on “The Simpsons” in 1996.

In 1996, he suffered a severe stroke that limited his ability to speak, though he was still able to accept his honorary Academy Award in 1996.

“I see my four sons. They are proud of the old man,” Douglas said. “And I am proud too, proud to be a part of Hollywood for 50 years, but this is for my wife Anne, I love you. And tonight I love all of you and thank you for 50 wonderful years.”

He also received lifetime achievement awards from the AFI, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush in 2002 and has an achievement award named for him at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. As a testament to his longevity and renown decades after he stopped working, Douglas sits at #17 on AFI’s list of the greatest male screen legends.

In December 2016, Douglas celebrated his 100th birthday at the Beverly Hilton surrounded by family and friends, including Steven Spielberg, Don Rickles, Jeffrey Katzenberg and more. And in January 2018, Douglas made a rare appearance on stage to a standing ovation with his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta Jones to present an award at the Golden Globes.

“Catherine, you said it all,” Douglas said. “I worked on a speech but I don’t want to say it because I could never follow you.”

He is survived by his three sons Michael, Joel and Peter and his wife of 64 years, producer Anne Buydens. His fourth son Eric died in 2004.