These words of tribute
from the American Academy of
Dramatic Arts sum up the essense of the man. A lifetime of
achievement -- which includes 82 films, nine plays, four books,
and a host of other contributions to his art, his country, and his
fellow men -- speaks for itself.
Born December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, the son
of illiterate Jewish-Russian immigrants, Issur Danielovitch, who
would become Kirk Douglas, was driven to leave behind the
poverty of his home town. He won a wrestling scholarship to
Saint Lawrence University and worked as a janitor to meet
school expenses. A second scholarship, from the Academy of
Dramatic Arts, put him on the road to Broadway. He made his
Broadway debut as a singing Western Union boy in Spring
Again, but interrupted his budding stage career in 1942 to enlist
in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a communications officer
in anti-submarine warfare.
After the war he returned to Broadway as the ghost soldier in
The Wind Is Ninety; his widely praised performance caught the
attention of Hollywood, and he was cast opposite Barbara
Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Three years later, in 1949, his role as one of the screen's early
anti-heroes, the cynical boxer in Stanley Kramer's Champion,
won him both stardom and an Academy Award nomination. He
received his second nomination in 1952 for playing an
opportunistic movie mogul in The Bad and the Beautiful, and
his third in 1956 for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust
for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics' Best
In 1955, Mr. Douglas formed one of Hollywood's first
independent film companies, Bryna, named for his mother, and
managed by his wife, Anne. The Bryna Company produced
many memorable films, including Paths of Glory, The Vikings,
Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, and Seven Days in May.
Shortly after forming Bryna, Mr. Douglas also established the
Douglas Foundation in order to make more significant and
meaningful contributions to civic and charitable causes. The
Douglas Foundation has supported both large organizations
(such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) and small ones (such as
the Access Theater for the Handicapped). In recent years, the
Douglas Foundation has targeted the Los Angeles Mission for
the Homeless, which has opened the Anne Douglas Center for
Women, and the Motion Picture Relief Home's Alzheimer's Unit,
which has been named "Harry's Haven" after Mr. Douglas's
father. The Douglas Foundation is currently restoring the
playgrounds of schools in poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles,
and also building a series of playgrounds in Israel. The
Foundation has also committed $2 million to building a theater
directly opposite the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem with the goal of
helping tourists of all faiths better understand the meaning of
In 1958, Mr. Douglas broke the notorious Hollywood
blacklist when he gave screen credit to blacklisted writer Dalton
Trumbo for the Spartacus screenplay. Mr. Douglas was widely
condemned for his decision at the time. It was not until 30 years
later that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Writers
Guild of America recognized his act as courageous.
In 1963, he bought the dramatic rights to Ken Kesey's book
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and starred in it on
Broadway. For the next 10 years he tried unsuccessfully to make
the play into a motion picture. Finally, in 1975, his son Michael
produced the movie, which collected five Oscars, including best
In 1981, President Carter presented Mr. Douglas with the
Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award in
recognition of the many trips he had made at his own expense,
speaking to audiences all over the world about why democracy
works and what freedom means. In addition to visiting more than
20 countries in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, Mr. Douglas
has also visited the war zones of Beirut, Lebanon, and Red
Cross hospitals and Afghan refugee camps near the Khyber
Pass, delivering the same message.
In 1996, the Academy of Motion Pictures honored Mr.
Douglas with a Special Oscar for "50 years as a creative and
moral force in the motion picture community." In presenting the
award, Steven Spielberg lauded Mr. Douglas for his courage
and his conscience. "Whether he's dealing with a character on
screen, or with the all-too-real effects of a recent stroke,
courage remains Kirk Douglas's personal and professional
hallmark," Mr. Spielberg said, adding, "There is a single thread
drawing all the characters he has played together. It's called
Kirk Douglas's conscience has often found an outlet in his
movies. For example, through the TV movie Amos, which
earned him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, Mr. Douglas
tried to focus public attention on the issue of abuse of the elderly.
His efforts have also included editorials and letters to
newspapers, appearances on national television, and testimony
before Congressman Claude D. Pepper's Select Sub-Committee
In 1992, through the TV movie The Secret, he attacked the
social stigma associated with dyslexia. His performance was
singled out as the year's best by the Los Angeles Times' critics,
and earned him the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia
Kirk Douglas movie projects are often family affairs. Amos
was produced by his son Peter, as were Final Countdown and
Inherit the Wind, which won an Emmy award for best film. Mr.
Douglas has also co-starred with his son Eric in Yellow, a
segment in HBO's Tales of the Crypt series, which earned him
a second Emmy nomination. His son Joel has served as
production manager on the Douglas-directed movie Posse, and
the long-awaited Kirk Douglas-Michael Douglas picture is
currently in development.
His last feature film was Greedy and co-starred Michael J.
Fox. It was released in the spring of 1994 by Universal Studios.
And his latest TV movie, Take Me Home Again, co-starring
Craig T. Nelson, aired in the winter of 1994 on NBC.
Mr. Douglas has been honored by many governments and
organizations, including France, Italy, and Portugal. Among the
top international awards he received was his appointment, in
1990, as Officier de la Legion d'Honneur for distinguished
services to France in arts and letters.
In 1991, the American Film Institute singled him out for its
prestigious Life Achievement Award. In its tribute, the AFI
noted that "no other leading actor has been more ready to tap
the dark desperate side of the soul and thus reveal the
complexity of human nature," and lauded him for his "sense of
depth and defiance." In 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for
the Performing Arts distinguished him with its award "for
contributions to U.S. cultural life."
When not acting, Mr. Douglas occupies his time writing. His
autobiography, The Ragman's Son, published in 1988, received
rave reviews and became an international best-seller. It was on
the New York Times' best-seller list for a total of 34 weeks. He
followed it up with three novels: Dance with the Devil in 1990,
The Gift in 1992, and Last Tango in Brooklyn in 1994. The
novels also became international best-sellers (having been
translated into more than a dozen languages) and have earned
top marks from distinguished reviewers, the New York Times
and the Washington Post foremost among them.
Most recently, Mr. Douglas has completed two books, both
to be published in September of 1997 by Simon and Schuster.
One is a children's book with a Holocaust theme entitled The
Broken Mirror. The other is a sequel to his autobiography
entitled Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning. In it
he focuses on events since his helicopter crash in which two
people died and which left him with an obligation to share with
others his struggle to find and understand the deeper truths of
life. He also discusses the hard work of recovery from his stroke
and his religious awakening in later life, which led to his
becoming an ardent student of the Torah.
Mr. Douglas has been married to his wife, Anne, for 43 years
and is the father of four sons from two marriages: Michael, Joel,
Peter, and Eric. All four sons are active in the entertainment
industry. He divides his time between residences in Beverly Hills
and Palm Springs.