Rags To Riches: The Life Of Kirk Douglas

Born into an impoverished family of Russian immigrants in 1916, Kirk Douglas worked his way to the top in Hollywood, becoming one of the leading box-office stars of the 1950s. Appearing in more than 90 films, he is best known for his work in serious dramas, including Westerns and war films, although he could play a broad scope of characters. Passing away at the age of 103 on February 5, 2020, Douglas was one of the last surviving stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Take a deeper look into the man in front of the camera and learn how he came from nothing only to become a legendary star.

He Changed His Name

Douglas in uniform
FPG/Getty Images
FPG/Getty Images

Although almost everyone has heard the iconic name Kirk Douglas, whether they have seen any of his films or not, that’s not his actual name. His parents were impoverished Jewish immigrants from Belarus, and Douglas’ name at birth was Danielovitch Demsky, although he went by “Izzy” when growing up.

He only changed his name to the more American-sounding Kirk Douglas when he enlisted in the United States Navy shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.

He Had Financial Struggles On His Way To The Top

Douglas against a brick wall
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, Douglas was no stranger to poverty. Even as a child he had to help work to support his family while his father scraped together money by selling old junk for whatever he could get.

Even as a young man, Douglas struggled, only being able to attend school on a scholarship. He once confided to his life-long friend Lauren Bacall that he was so poor at one time he spent the night in jail because he knew that he would get a meal and a place to sleep.

Landing His First Film With The Help Of A Friend

Douglas and Bacall
ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild via Getty Images

While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, one of Douglas’ classmates, Betty Joan Perske, had a major crush on him, despite being eight years his junior. Even though Douglas would marry Diana Dill, one of their classmates, he and Perske reunited as friends after World War II.

At this point, Perske was now known by her stage name, Lauren Bacall. She then helped him get his first film role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, as an insecure alcoholic.

He Helped Turn One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Into A Movie

Douglas in a play
John Springer Collection/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

After reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas bought the rights and turned it into a play in 1969, starring as the lead character Randle Patrick McMurphy. The play ran for six months but wasn’t successful enough to score a movie deal.

In later years, Douglas allowed his son Michael to turn it into a film, and the movie was underway within a year. Unfortunately, Douglas was too old to reprise his role and it went to Jack Nicholson instead, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor.

An Argument With His Wife Saved His Life

Douglas and his wife
Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images

In 1958, producer Michael Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, invited Douglas to fly to New York on his private plane to meet Harry Truman. Although Douglas was excited to go, his wife Anne Buydens felt that something wasn’t right and asked him not to go. After an argument, Douglas begrudgingly agreed to drive to New York instead.

On their drive, the two weren’t talking to one another and turned on the radio. That’s when they heard that the plane had crashed and everyone on board had been killed. Douglas would later admit that this was one of many times that his wife had saved his life.

Not The Friendship People Thought

Douglas and Lancaster
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Between the years 1947 and 1986, Kirk Douglas would make seven movies with fellow movie star Burt Lancaster. Seeing the men with their chemistry in front of the camera, it was assumed by fans that the two were good friends who enjoyed working together whenever possible.

As it turns out, their friendship was greatly exaggerated, mostly by Douglas himself, who knew that it would look good if the two appeared to be buddies. Supposedly, although they didn’t hate each other, the two had more of a rivalry as they were both leading men competing for roles.

He Was Almost In Rambo

Kirk Douglas in a flannel
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

Initially, Kirk Douglas was cast to be in Rambo as Colonel Samuel Trautman, the commanding officer and mentor to John Rambo. Nevertheless, things didn’t pan out and Douglas was removed from the film after trying to make drastic changes to the story.

One of the biggest changes was that he insisted that John Rambo died at the end, to keep in line with the storyline of the novel. Producers and Sylvester Stallone thought this was too dark of an ending, and there would have never been any sequels otherwise.

He Was Concerned With His On-Screen Image

Douglas and Jan Sterling
Paramount/Getty Images
Paramount/Getty Images

In his films, Douglas was highly concerned with his image on-screen, always wanting to be portrayed as manly as possible. Some of his requirements usually included being involved with two women at once and being a skilled fighter.

At least three of his films, including The War Wagon, 200 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Vikings, all required editing the script to fit his needs. Furthermore, standing at just 5 foot 9 inches, Douglas was known to wear lifts on set, making him appear inches taller.

Turning Down The Wrong Roles

Douglas with arms crossed
Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images
Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Being one of the most prominent actors of his time, Douglas turned down countless roles throughout his career, although he would grow to regret a few of them in the future. Two films that he expressed sadness in turning down were Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou and Sgt. J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17.

Although Douglas may have walked away from these characters, it worked out for the two actors that took them on, as Lee Marvin and William Holden both won Oscars for their performances.

The Film He Was Most Proud Of

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory
United Artists
United Artists

Over his career, Douglas starred in countless films, yet out of all of them, he cited Paths of Glory as the one that he was most proud of. The film is an anti-war movie following French forces during World War I.

When director Stanley Kubrick approached Douglas with the script, he was all in on the film, believing it needed to be made even though he doubted it would make very much money. Douglas turned out to be right and the film did not do well at the box office. However, it was praised by Winston Churchill and is considered one of Kubrick’s best works.

A Stolen Star

Douglas Hollywood Walk of Fame
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In 2000, Douglas became one of four Hollywood icons to have their Hollywood Walk of Fame stars stolen from right out of the pavement. The others include James Stewart, Gene Autry, and Gregory Peck.

According to reports on the theft, both Douglas’ and Stewart’s stars “were recovered from the home of a construction worker who had been tasked with securing them.” Luckily, they were both found and no further incidents have happened to Douglas’ star since.

Money In The Bank

Douglas in front of pink backdrop
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Although he was poor for the majority of his life, by the 1950s, Kirk Douglas was easily one of the highest-paid actors in all of Hollywood. For instance, when he worked on Paths of Glory, he was paid $300,000 before inflation when the production budget for the whole film was under $1 million.

He wasn’t just wanted in films either, and in 1980, he was paid $50,000 by a Japanese company to just say the word “coffee” in a TV commercial. Furthermore, in 1954, Disney also paid him the highest salary they have ever paid anyone to have him in 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea.

He Never Won An Oscar

Douglas with Oscar
TIM CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
TIM CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Despite being one of the most well-known actors in the history of Hollywood, surprisingly, Douglas was never lucky enough to take home an Oscar for his work. However, he was nominated for Best Actor on three separate occasions for his performances in Lust For Life, Champion, and The Bad and the Beautiful.

In 1996, he was presented with an Honorary Oscar after having spent five decades in the film industry. Nonetheless, Douglas never needed an award to prove his talent.

A Secret Swept Under The Rug

Douglas at the Golden Globes
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

At the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, the 101-year-old Kirk Douglas took to the stage. He received a standing ovation and a tribute video was played. However, this ruffled a few feathers.

The 2018 Golden Globes happened in the wake of the #MeToo movement, where there was a lot of focus on the seemingly endless sexual abuse occurring in Hollywood. What made things uncomfortable regarding Douglas was that he had once been accused of beating and assaulting actress Natalie Wood when she was just 16 years old.

A Near-Death Experience Led To A Spiritual Awakening

Douglas at home
Paul Harris/Getty Images
Paul Harris/Getty Images

In February 1991, Douglas was in a helicopter when it collided with a small plane above Santa Paula Airport. Douglas was injured, as well as two other passengers, with the two people in the plane being killed.

The near-death experience resulted in Douglas searching for deeper meaning in his life. This led him to embrace the religion of Judaism in which he had been raised. He documented his spiritual journey in his book Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning in 1997.

He Angered John Wayne For Acting In Lust For Life

Wayne and Douglas
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

At one point, Douglas went out on a limb and took on the role of the mentally unstable Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life. While he was hailed by many for his portrayal of the artist, Western star John Wayne was not impressed.

After seeing the film, Wayne accused Douglas of turning his back on playing the macho man leading roles that they were both known for. Douglas fired back that Wayne was taking his cowboy image far too seriously, which Wayne took offense to.

His Father Never Acknowledged His Success

Douglas with his sons
Arnold M. Johnson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Arnold M. Johnson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a boy and during his formative years, Douglas was primarily raised by his mother and sisters. This resulted in a distant relationship with his father, which continued throughout the rest of his life. Even after becoming a Hollywood icon, his father never acknowledged his son’s success.

His second wife, Anne Buydens, would go on to comment, “I think part of Kirk’s life has been a monstrous effort to prove himself and gain recognition in the eyes of his father … Not even four years of psychoanalysis could alter the drives that began as a desire to prove himself.” Douglas harnessed this to always support his own sons.

Getting Even With Another Actor

Douglas and Curtis
Universal International
Universal International

When filming Spartacus, the author of the novel, Howard Fast, claims that Douglas insisted on the scene when Spartacus is forced to kill his friend Antonius to prevent him from being crucified.

However, Douglas didn’t just want this scene because he thought it would be impactful, but because the actor who played Antonius, Tony Curtis, had killed Douglas’ character in the movie The Vikings. Douglas wanted to settle the score, although he angered Fast in the process, who thought it was a senseless reason to change his story.

He Liked To Give Back

Kirk Douglas on a slide
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Douglas and his wife were involved with a variety of non-profits, donating most of their $80 million net worth throughout their lives. Douglas gave several donations to his former high school and college as well as other schools and medical facilities across Southern California, and also rebuilt all 400 playgrounds in the Los Angeles School District that were in desperate need of renovation.

Furthermore, since the 1990s, Douglas and his wife donated over $40 million to Harry’s Haven, an Alzheimer’s treatment facility. For his 99th birthday, they gave another $15 million to expand the facility.

At One Point, He Was The World’s Oldest Celebrity Blogger

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus
Universal Pictures/Getty Images
Universal Pictures/Getty Images

Born in 1916, Kirk Douglas witnessed the world drastically change from a time when movies were silent to the rise of social media. In March 2007, Douglas joined Facebook in order to promote his book Let’s Face It, thus becoming the oldest celebrity blogger.

On using Myspace, in 2008, he commented “I take it seriously. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t have to do it, I don’t make money. It’s something that gives me personal satisfaction.” After the decline of Myspace, he then began writing for The Huffington Post in 2012, with his last post being titled “The Road Ahead.”

United Artists Tried To Make Spartacus First

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Universal
Universal

Two years before Universal released Spartacus, rival studio United Artists tried to make their own version starring Yul Brynner. The film would have been called Spartacus and The Gladiators. The studio was so confident their movie would get made, executives even took out a full-page ad in Variety to announce it.

Kirk Douglas’ production company owned the rights to the novel the movie was being adapted from, though. He, along with backing from Universal Studios, blocked UA from making their version.

Time Was Not On Kirk Douglas’ Side

spartacus_92d59c21-26800
Universal
Universal

Kirk Douglas may have blocked United Artists from making Spartacus and The Gladiators, but that didn’t put him at ease. Universal gave him four months to come up with his own version, or they would pull their offer to back him financially.

To get things going, Douglas hired Howard Fast to adapt his novel into a screenplay. The script was a disaster, leading Douglas to hire one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood to help him out.

Dalton Trumbo Saved The Day… Kind Of

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AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Under the alias “Sam Jackson,” blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was hired to fix the script for Spartacus. Just a few years prior, using a different alias, Trumbo had won an Oscar for writing The Brave One.

Howard Fast detailed a different version of events though, claiming that Trumbo’s script was filled with holes, “They had started shooting the movie from Dalton Trumbo’s script and they had about an hour and forty minutes of disconnected and chaotic film.” Fast then worked with the film’s director to write up to 27 new scenes to make the story cohesive.

Stanley Kubrick Was Hired Two Weeks Into Filming

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Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Spartacus went through several potential directors before Kirk Douglas hired Stanley Kubrick. His first choice to direct was David Lean, who turned down the opportunity. Laurence Olivier was then offered the job but said “no” believing that acting and directing would be too much to handle.

Anthony Mann was finally hired, but two weeks into filming it became clear he couldn’t handle the massive scope of the movie. In 1957, Douglas had worked with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory and offered him $150,000 to replace Mann after he was fired.

Jean Simmons Was Hired After Kubrick

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Universal
Universal

After Kubrick came on board to direct Spartacus, actress Sabine Bethmann, who was cast as Varinia, was paid $3,000 to leave the production and go back home. Howard Fast wanted to replace her with Ingrid Bergman, but Kirk Douglas had other plans.

Douglas called up Jean Simmons, who recalled, “Kirk told me to get my [expletive] on out to Los Angeles… I did. Pronto.” With a new director and new leading lady in place, things should have settled down on set, but did not.

Peter Ustinov Met Kirk Douglas In Character

GettyImages-141565103-87423
Mondadori via Getty Images
Mondadori via Getty Images

Before filming their first scene together, Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov had never met. Douglas, who was chained to a rock in the scene and looked as grungy as he could, was unrecognizable.

Ustinov would go on the win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work on the movie. It was the second time he had been nominated and the time he won. Four years later he would win a second Oscar for Topkapi.

Actors Fought On Set

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Mondadori via Getty Images
Mondadori via Getty Images

In an interview years after Spartacus came out, Peter Ustinov revealed that Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton did not play nice with each other on set:

“For some reason—like animals—they just didn’t like each other. When you get two dogs that growl at each other, you don’t really ask why, you just accept it.” Ustinov also revealed he would often have to be the middle man between the two in order to keep some semblance of peace on the set.

Kubrick Made His Cinematographer Take A Seat

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Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Throughout Stanley Kubick’s career, he gained a reputation for being incredibly detailed. This need to control every aspect rubbed Russell Metty, his cinematographer on Spartacus the wrong way. Tension rose so high between the two that Kubrick told Metty to “sit down.”

While Metty wasn’t happy initially, Spartacus won him an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, the first of his career. Metty’s career would last another 17 years and would see him work on high impact television shows including Columbo and Rich Man, Poor Man.

Real Spartans Were Used For The Film’s Shouting

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Hy Peskin/Getty Images
Hy Peskin/Getty Images

On October 17, 1959, the Michigan Wolverines college football team played Notre Dame in front of 76,000 fans. The crowd noise was used for the shouting scenes in the film. During the game, the Spartan fans were asked to scream several phrases including, “I am Spartacus” and “On to Rome.”

Michigan beat Notre Dame 19-0 on that day, about which Kirk Douglas remarked in his autobiography, “It’s only natural for Spartacus to go to the Spartans for help.”

Filming Had To Halt After An Injury On Set

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Filming for Spartacus proved to be filled with more issues than just actors disagreeing. Production was delayed by ten days when Kirk Douglas got the flu. Later, filming was stopped for another five weeks when Tony Curtis split his Achilles tendon.

Then, tragically, Eric Orbom, the art director for the movie, suffered a heart attack and passed away. He would win a posthumous Oscar for his work on the film before his untimely death.

Kirk Douglas Was Pranked On The Set

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Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

For as much drama as there was on set, there also needed to be humor. One prank, in particular, targeted Kirk Douglas while he was hanging from a cross in character as Spartacus.

Actress Jean Simmons said, “I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross… When he was safely installed, the assistant director called lunch and left him up there. You have to have a sense of humor in this industry.”

One Scene Was Censored

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Universal
Universal

In 1991, Spartacus was restored and added back in a scene involving snails and oysters that were originally censored by the New York Legion of Decency. In the scene, Laurence Olivier’s characters attempts to seduce Tony Curtis’ character in a Roman bathhouse.

Surprisingly, the censorship committee wasn’t opposed to the seduction attempt, they objected to the snails and oysters. The legion even suggested replacing the animals with “artichokes and truffles.” The studio also objected to the scene, though, resulting in it being removed from the original cut.

The Censored Scene Was Only Shot One Time

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Universal/Getty Images
Universal/Getty Images

Tony Curtis knew the snail and oyster scene was doomed from the get-go when they were only allowed one take, “We knew there was trouble right there. Stanley [Kubrick] and I were perhaps a little more progressive in our thinking than Kirk [Douglas] and all those other guys who were making the movie.”

Restoring the scene in 1991 proved just as difficult as trying to get originally approved, just not for the reasons you might think.

New Actors Were Brought In To Restore The Scene

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Keith Hamshere/Getty Images
Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

The original, 197-minute cut of Spartacus was restored in 1991 and included the famously controversial snails and oysters scene. The only problem was the scene, because it was only shot once, needed to be entirely re-dubbed and Laurence Olivier was dead.

To solve the problem, Olivier’s widow recommended having Anthony Hopkins voice the character. To make sure he got it right, Stanley Kubrick even sent Hopkins detailed instructions for the role.

The Production Was Massive

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Universal
Universal

Spartacus was one of the most expensive movies Hollywood had ever made at the time with a production budget of $12 million. That price was even more than Universal Studios was worth as a company!

Not only was it an expensive shoot, but it was also a long one. It took a total of 167 days to wrap filming on Spartacus with over 10,000 people involved in the production process. The battle scenes were some of the largest ever filmed as well, involving over 50,000 extras.

The Film Ended The Blacklist

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In the 1940s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began blacklisting screenwriters who refused to testify about Communist relationships. This made the hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus fairly controversial.

To help settle the controversy, Kubrick offered to have his name used instead. Kirk Douglas refused and chose to use Trumbo’s real name. The American Legion protested the film until John Kennedy said he enjoyed the movie, ending the blacklist for good. Speaking about the movie’s impact, Douglas said, “the most important by-product of Spartacus is that we broke the blacklist.”

Kubrick Didn’t Get Final Say On Spartacus

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Keith Hamshere/Getty Images
Keith Hamshere/Getty Images

Stanley Kubrick was 30-years-old when he was hired to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus. As part of his negotiations, he was not given as much control as he normally would get. This led to the director later disowning the film, despite its commercial and critical success:

“Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which I feel was not enhanced by that fact… if you’re not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was.”

Kirk Douglas Regretted Firing Anthony Mann

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Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After his fall-out with original director Anthony Mann, Kirk Douglas brought in Stanley Kubrick to direct Spartacus. Unfortunately, he reportedly had just as bad a time with Kubrick as he had with Mann.

Later, when Douglas was signed onto star in The Heroes of Telemark, his only condition was that Mann is brought on as the director. The movie was released in 1965 and followed Norwegian resistance soldiers during World War II.

Ben-Hur Inspired Douglas To Make Spartacus

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Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

When Ben-Hur was being made by William Wyler, Kirk Douglas desperately wanted to be cast in the movie as the lead. Wyler chose Charlton Heston over Douglas, who was instead offered the role of Messala.

Not wanting to play second fiddle, Douglas turned down the role and instead began developing Spartacus. Years after the movie came out, Douglas admitted the truth about why he made his gladiator film, “That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the ‘I’ll show them’ sort of thing.”

Kirk Douglas Tricked His Co-Stars Into Signing On

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Universal
Universal

Kirk Douglas had big aspirations when he began developing Spartacus. To make the movie as large a spectacle as possible, he shot for the moon when it came to casting. This meant he had to get a little tricky to convince A-list actors to take smaller supporting roles.

To do this, Douglas gave each actor different versions of the script that emphasized the characters they were meant to play. The trick worked, although it also led to major egos clashing on the set.