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. 

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.

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.”