Kirk Douglas died at age 103, earlier this week in Los Angeles. He was one of the last stars from the bygone era of Hollywood, where the actors on screen were larger than life characters. Douglas was not only a throwback to that time, but continued to appear in film and on stage well into his 90s.
He was known for his dimpled-chin and the menacing, jaw-clenching intensity of many of his characters. He could play the tough guy, the anti-hero and anything in-between. Never afraid to take chances and stretch himself, he could play anyone, but always seemed to put a part of himself in every role.
Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, to illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, NY, he grew up speaking Yiddish at home. But as he wrote in his autobiography, he always wanted to be an actor. “I have always wanted to be an actor, I believe from the first time I recited a poem in kindergarten about the Red Robin of Spring. They applauded. I liked that sound. I still do,” he wrote.
He served in the Navy during World War II on an anti-submarine ship but was invalided out of the service in 1944 for wounds received when a depth charge was accidentally dropped. He married his second wife Anne in 1954 and they were together for 65 years.
Douglas had several excellent performances in military films, included in those was the character of Cmdr. Paul Eddington who was John Wayne’s Chief of Staff in the Otto Preminger film “In Harm’s Way.” While the film itself was mediocre, Douglas’s portrayal of Eddington was clearly the highlight of the film. After his wife cheated on him (and was killed during Pearl Harbor with her Navy lover), Eddington sinks into a dark hole that even his friend Wayne portraying Admiral “Rock” Torrey can’t pull him out. He later rapes the fiancee of Torrey’s son before going on a suicide mission to relay the position of an attacking Japanese fleet.
In “Paths of Glory,” Douglas plays a sympathetic French officer trying to save three of his soldiers from a firing squad. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it was a tremendous performance and a powerful anti-war film. It was banned in France until 1976.
Another excellent film of his as “Seven Days in May.” It shot in 1964 but supposed to take place in 1974 with Douglas’s character U.S. Marine Corps Colonel “Jiggs” Casey finding out about a plot by the Joint Chiefs, led by General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to overthrow the President. Scott was played by Burt Lancaster, one of several films the two made together — another of which was “The Gunfight at O.K. Corral.”
Speaking of the O.K. Corral, Douglas loved westerns and would never turn down a chance to appear in a good one. He said, “No actor I know would turn down a good role in a Western. They may claim they want to do one as a change of pace, or a chance to show their versatility. The truth is that they are just as much drawn to the gun-toting hero as the child who wants his first present to be a ‘hogleg’ and holster and cowboy hat.”
When he was 50, he appeared with John Wayne in “The War Wagon” and the chemistry between the two, who would appear several more times together, was easily identifiable. And Douglas loved his role, watching him leap over railings and onto horse’s saddles was something one would expect of an actor much younger.
But arguably his best work was as the Thracian slave Spartacus in the film of the same title. Of all of Hollywood’s epics, this one remains one of the finest and a personal favorite. Once again, Douglas as the executive producer hired Stanley Kubrick and it was one of the few films where Kubrick didn’t have full artistic control.
One of Douglas’s other decisions was to hire Dalton Trumbo as the writer. He had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten during the Joe McCarthy Communist scare although he’d been steadily working as a writer but under a pen name. Despite protests and picket lines by the American Legion, President-elect John Kennedy crossed the picket lines to see the film, which helped finally put an end to the blacklisting.
Douglas’s portrayal of Spartacus was part jaw-clenching, brutish Gladiator, part sensitive lover of Varinia. Although out of his element, Spartacus proves to be a fine combat leader and a beacon of hope for the slaves who revolt against their Roman masters.
In the outset of the film, a voice-over sets the tone and draws some parallels to what was happening in the United States. Race relations were terrible in 1960. And the death of the Roman empire was partly due to their enslaving peoples from around the world according to the lead-in:
In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world. “Of all things fairest” sang the poet, “First among cities and home of the Gods is Golden Rome.” Yet even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with the disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in shadows for the event to bring it forth. In that same century, in the conquered Greek province of Thrace, an illiterate slave woman added to her master’s wealth by giving birth to a son whom she names Spartacus. A proud rebellious son, who was sold to living death in the mines of Libya, before his thirteenth birthday. There under whip and chain and sun he lived out his youth and his young manhood, dreaming the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die.
And in a fight in the arena, a black slave, Draba, defeats Spartacus but refuses to kill him to satisfy his Roman masters. Instead, he attacks them and is killed in the process. This bit, filmed with Woody Strode as Draba, was not a coincidence but clearly put in to address slavery and race relations.
The writers also took a shot at the entire Hollywood hierarchy at the end of the film, when the surviving Gladiators are rounded up and asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency. However, instead, each slave proclaims himself to be the rebel leader. “I Am Spartacus”, thereby sealing their fate. This scene was meant to recreate the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy witch hunt when they refused to implicate others to save their own livelihoods, and would, therefore, be blacklisted.
One of the best scenes was the climactic battle when Crassus’s (Lawrence Olivier) and Pompey’s two Roman armies have trapped Spartacus and the slaves between them. The 8,500 men of one of those “legions” march in absolute precision as they unfold in their oblong square formation before forming a wedge to break the line of the slave army. Did you ever wonder how Kubrick got 8,000 extras to march so crisply?
Well, the battle scene was filmed in Spain and the Roman Legion was actually 8,000 Spanish soldiers. They were part of 10,500 extras used in the film. It is brilliantly filmed and done without CGI.
To create the illusion of the large crowds that play such an essential role in the film, Kubrick’s crew used three-channel sound equipment to record 76,000 spectators at a Michigan State — Notre Dame college football game shouting “Hail, Crassus!” and “I’m Spartacus!”
In his later life, Douglas and his wife Anne got heavily involved in several charitable projects, including establishing a foundation that built playgrounds for disadvantaged children in both Los Angeles and Israel, making significant gifts to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and providing funds for an Alzheimer’s unit at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills.