Douglas's muscular physique and intense temperament made him the ideal choice to play Vikings, Roman Gladiators and boxers. But he wasn't born a hero; Kirk Douglas grew up as Issur Danielovitch, the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. As a wrestler, he chiseled his body. Shipping off with the Navy for WW II, the twenty-year-old Danielovitch developed a fiery intensity beneath his furrowed brow.
Returning from the war, Douglas' hard-boiled attitude was a natural fit for film noir. He played Barbara Stanwyck's pathetic husband in The Strange Love of Martha Iver (1946) and a double-crossed gangster in Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum. By the end of the decade, Douglas found his niche, playing the driven Champion (1949), a boxer struggling round after round in the ring against all odds and corrupt agents.
From the boxing ring to the swinging night club, in Young Man with a Horn (1950) Douglas played Rick Martin, based on the real-life jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. A struggling trumpet player, Martin falls for femme fatale Amy North (Lauren Bacall) and begins sliding into a haze of alcohol abuse. In real life Beiderbecke drank himself into an early grave before he was 30, but Warner Bros. gave Rick a happier fate. Similar to addiction movies of that time, such as The Lost Weekend (1945), Young Man with a Horn gave Douglas the perfect stage to demonstrate grueling pathos.
Douglas is not remembered for playing struggling addicts; his legacy on film is as an outdoor adventurer, a dimple-chinned hero. In Howard Hawks' The Big Sky (1950), Douglas played a coonskin-capped American pioneer. In typical Hawks fashion, the heroes are trapped in an outpost surrounded by danger-a riverboat going down the Missouri surrounded by aggressive Indians. Douglas fought off giant deep-sea creatures in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and battled mythological creatures in Ulysses (1955). He fought the good fight, defending his men from senseless slaughter as Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). And in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Kirk played U.S. officer Mickey Marcus, who helped lead Israel in its fight for independence against the Arabs in 1949.
When Anthony Mann dropped out of Spartacus two years later, Douglas turned to Stanley Kubrick to take over the director's reins. Although Kubrick later 'disowned' the film, he created a high-water mark of the gladiator genre. Based on the historical incident of a slave who led a large-scale rebellion against his sadistic Roman captors, Spartacus commented on the paranoid days of McCarthyism in the U.S., urging individuals to stand up to corrupt and oppressive authority. Douglas's intelligence helped to elevate many of his films from pure entertainment to potent messages directed at his audience.
Kirk Douglas was the perfect movie idol. While Brando and the Method school of acting sought to identify with their characters, Douglas seemed to disappear into each part. As a sleazy movie producer, Douglas was deliciously hateful in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Looking like he stepped out of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, Douglas's portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life (1956) brought him an Academy Award nomination. Unlike the hearty figures of the West, Douglas introduced a consumptive Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Other memorable Western roles would follow with his portrayal of Senator William J. Tadlock, the tyrannical, driven leader of the Oregon Liberty Train in The Way West (1967) and a down-on-his-luck gunslinger betting his life against Johnny Cash in a public shootout (A Gunfight, 1971).
One of his most overlooked performances, partly because the film and his character were so abrasive, was in Billy Wilder's The Big Carnival (1951, aka Ace in the Hole). As opportunistic reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum, Douglas recklessly endangers an injured man's life in order to increase and extend his front page coverage. Another offbeat role for Douglas and one which he often pointed to as a personal favorite was Lonely Are the Brave (1962). In it, he played an itinerant cowboy who is arrested for a barroom brawl, breaks out of jail and becomes the subject of a massive manhunt.
From black and white film noirs to widescreen Technicolor historical epics, Kirk Douglas brought passion and intelligence to each of his films. From humble beginnings, he proved himself as a hero for all ages and a man who wouldn't quit in the face of defeat. Onscreen and off, Kirk Douglas remains a formidable, larger-than-life personality.
* Titles in Bold will air on TCM on 8/30
by Jeremy Geltzer