From His Very First Role to His Final Hollywood Outing, the Story of Kirk Douglas' Life, in Pictures
A Star Is Born
Born Issur Danielovitch to Russian-Jewish immigrants on December 9, 1916, Douglas worked odd jobs until he received a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met Lauren Bacall and future first wife, Diana Dill. "The one thing in my life that I always knew, that was always constant, was that I wanted to be an actor," he said. After a stint in the Navy, Douglas makes his film debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Douglas embraces son Michael, here 4, his first child with wife Diana Dill, whom he married in 1943. The couple went on to have another son, Joel, before divorcing in 1951. "Kirk's career was constant, overwhelming — the guy didn't stop," Michael later told The Guardian. "Back then they were doing five movies a year. My father did 90-plus films ... He was also consumed with guilt because of the time he spent away from the family.
He takes the cake! Douglas surprises his second wife, Anne — they married in 1954 — at her birthday party in 1959. The actor said that Anne's "vicious sense of humor" is what drew him to her.
One of his most iconic roles was his star turn in 1960's Spartacus. Douglas was instrumental in breaking the Hollywood blacklist — a list of entertainment professionals "banned" from working due to alleged Communist ties — when he insisted blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive credit for his work on the film.
Douglas (center) poses with his sons (from left, Joel and Peter, both producers, Michael and the late Eric) in 1988. "I think he blames himself for a lot of what has happened to me," Eric said of his father, before dying of a drug overdose in 2004.
The Men in Black
Douglas faced off against Johnny Cash in the 1971 tough-guy Western, A Gunfight. "I've made a career of playing sons of bitches," Douglas once said.
President Jimmy Carter presented the actor with the Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award — in 1981, praising Douglas for "acting as an ambassador for goodwill beyond our shores" and for "his love of film and country."
A prolific writer, Douglas published his first book, Wisdom of the Elders, in 1986. His autobiography, The Ragman's Son, debuted in 1988 and quickly became a bestseller.
After surviving a helicopter crash in 1991 and then suffering a debilitating stroke, the actor appeared at the 1996 Academy Awards to receive an honorary Oscar. "He's done nearly everything on film. He's directed, he's produced, and in the process, he's helped to hammer the blacklist to pieces," praised Steven Spielberg. "Courage remains Kirk Douglas's personal and professional hallmark." The actor received a standing ovation from the audience, and said, "This is for my wife, Anne. I love you" — as the cameras panned to his tearfully happy wife in the audience.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Rabbi Katzow honored Douglas with the prestigious King David Award in 1997 for his commitment to Israel. The actor later detailed his return to the Jewish faith in his 2001 book, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning.
Runs in the Family
Clowning around while presenting best picture at the 2003 Academy Awards, Michael joked to his father that he had two Oscars, whereas the elder Douglas only had one. "I'm still young," quipped Kirk — who then accidentally ripped the envelope in half when opening it. The winner? Chicago, starring Douglas's daughter-in-law, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Party of Four
Douglas is flanked by his grandson Cameron (left), ex-wife Diana Dill and son Michael at the premiere of their 2003 film, It Runs in the Family, where the real-life clan played a dysfunctional New York City family.
'I Do,' Always
After 50 years of marriage, Douglas and wife Anne renewed their vows in a traditional Jewish ceremony in 2004. Famous guests like Nancy Reagan, Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis joined the couple at the Beverly Hills ceremony, where Douglas performed a song he'd written for his wife, "Please Stay in Love with Me."
Master of Ceremonies
Douglas presents Melissa Leo with the best supporting actress Oscar in 2011. He teased the nominees, flirted with cohost Anne Hathaway ("Where were you when I was making pictures?" he joked) and took a playful swipe at Hugh Jackman.
A Quiet Farewell
On Feb. 5, 2020, Michael told PEOPLE his father — seen here at one of his last public appearances in 2018 — had died at the age of 103.
“To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to,” he said.
Michael continued, “But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.”
“Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet,” Michael added. “Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”