Kirk Douglas: The swashbuckling hero of Spartacus | Sunday Observer
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Kirk Douglas: The swashbuckling hero of Spartacus

On his 100th birthday in 2016, Kirk Douglas asked one question. ‘Where is Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck?’ Indeed, Kirk lived on while his contemporary swashbuckling actors had long since gone to the Great Beyond. Kirk passed away on Wednesday, having lived to 103, which he celebrated on December 9, 2019. Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas is one of his four sons.

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 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.

Kirk, easily the last great icon from the Golden Age of Hollywood, is best known for his titular role in the historical adventure “Spartacus”, a role that would be synonymous with his real name for decades to come.

Although historians doubt some of the depictions of the movie, movies such as Spartacus and Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor) defined the era of big budget historical movies and drove millions of fans to theatres. Today, you can see his heroics in Spartacus in a spectacular blu-ray from Universal Studios or you can stream it online on Netflix.

Douglas was a three-time Oscar nominee for his films ‘Champion,’ (about a boxer), ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (as a film producer) and ‘Lust for Life,’ (in which he portrayed Vincent Van Gogh). He was the recipient of an Honorary Award from the Academy in 1996.

He also received a lifetime achievement awards from the AFI (he is number 17 on the AFI list of male screen legends), 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.

He is also known for starring roles in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film ‘Paths of Glory,’ (The Criterion Collection has a great a blu ray), Jacques Tourner’s ‘Out of the Past’ and Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole,’ in which he played the role of a journalist (watch the Criterion blu ray) among many other films. He also starred in Disney’s box office hit ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (Disney has a great blu ray of the film).

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.

Kirk is also known for his work on dramatizing the novel ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ . He starred in the drama for just five months and turned the project over to his son Michael, who made it into the Best Picture winning film starring Jack Nicholson (check out the blu ray from Warner Brothers).

But Kirk was disappointed that his stage career did not take off. ‘On the stage, I am flesh and blood, not a shadow on the screen. 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,” he told an interviewer in 2016.

Kirk also 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 did a couple of TV movies and series, including a TV movie remake of ‘Inherit the Wind’ in 1988 and a voice appearance on ‘The Simpsons’ in 1996.

His last public appearance was in 2018, when he came on stage with his daughter-in-law and actress Catherine Zeta Jones to present an award at the Golden Globe awards.

He is survived by his three sons Michael, Joel and Peter and his wife of 64 years, Anne Buydens. His fourth son Eric died in 2004. Kirk will live on in the hearts of movie fans everywhere.

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