Kirk Douglas, Hollywood Icon and Spartacus Star, Dies at 103
With over 92 acting credits, including some 75 movies, Douglas became a superstar even before the term was coined
Kirk Douglas, one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s golden age, has died. He was 103.
The Spartacus acting legend, who had been in good health since suffering a stroke in 1996, is survived by his wife of 65 years, Anne, and his sons Michael, Joel, and Peter.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” Michael Douglas said in a statement to PEOPLE. “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.”
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.”
In December, Michael, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an acting icon, became a Golden Globe nominee for The Kominsky Method as his father rang in his 103rd birthday.
To celebrate, Michael, 75, shared a sweet Instagram photo of his famous father and himself, thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for nominating him on the same day as Kirk’s milestone birthday.
“What a great day. Thank you HFPA for the Golden Globes nomination and for making my Dad proud on his 103 birthday!” Michael wrote.
In November 2018, Douglas attended Michael’s induction at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in November — where the Basic Instinct star honored his father.
“It means so much to me, Dad, that you’re here today,” Michael said, tearing up. “Thank you for your advice, inspiration, and I’ll say it simply and with all my heart: I’m so proud to be your son.”
With more than 92 acting credits, including some 75 movies, seven of which costarred his friend Burt Lancaster, Douglas became a superstar even before the term was coined.
He received his first Academy Award nomination in 1950 for Champion, and was nominated again in 1953 for the Hollywood expose The Bad and the Beautiful, and once more in 1957 for his performance as Vincent Van Gogh in the biopic Lust for Life.
In 1996, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.
While Douglas’ on and off-screen bravado could be overpowering, and even difficult at times, he was a man of heartfelt conviction, hiring blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — and giving him full-screen credit — to write the 1960 epic Spartacus, which Douglas executive produced and starred in.
“It was such a terrible, shameful time,” Douglas told PEOPLE about the purge of alleged Communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry during the ’40s and ’50s. “Dalton was in prison because he refused to answer questions, so I decided, the hell with it! I’m going to put his name on it. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of because it broke the blacklist.”
A Difficult Childhood
As told in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas — who was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky — was born the poor son of an illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrant.
Douglas spoke about his father to PEOPLE, revealing that, “My father was not very affectionate, he was never interested in what I was doing. I had six sisters and no brothers and I wanted to be close to my father and he just ignored me.”
Instead, he says he found affection from his mother and became determined to not be as distant with his children as his father was with him.
“I’m much more demonstrative with my kids about hugging and kissing them and telling them that I love them,” he said. “My father wasn’t like that.”
Then known as Izzy, Douglas had some 40 jobs growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y., including newsboy, before acting in high school plays sent him on the course that would eventually make him a household name. He studied at Manhattan’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts alongside classmate Lauren Bacall, who later helped get him a screen test that led to his first movie role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Another Academy classmate was Diana Dill, to whom Douglas would be married from 1943 until their 1951 divorce. She is the mother of two of Douglas’s sons, Michael, born in 1944, and Joel, born in 1947.
Family and Fame
Heading a Hollywood family, though, was often as difficult as being in one. As Michael has said on several occasions, including during his 1987 Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech for Wall Street, growing up in his father’s shadow was not always easy.
In 1979, Michael told PEOPLE, “Kirk Douglas was certainly a hard act to follow. I mean, there he was hanging from the cross in Spartacus, walking across the ranks of oars in The Vikings …” Added Kirk: “I think having a famous father was a pain in the ass for him.”
The family patriarch also never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. “I didn’t want Michael to be an actor,” he told PEOPLE. “I wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor, like many fathers. But he’s a good actor, he’s my favorite actor.”
As the years progressed, so did their relationship, even as the family weathered such adversities as the death of Kirk’s youngest son (and Michael’s brother) Erik at age 46 in 2004, and the five-year prison sentence of Michael’s son Cameron in 2010 for drug dealing. That same year, Michael was also diagnosed with throat cancer.
But there were many good times, too, including Kirk’s joy at welcoming Michael’s second wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, into the family in a lavish 2000 wedding — and the birth of Michael and Catherine’s first child, son Dylan, born Aug. 8, 2000. (They also have a daughter, Carys.)
“You know, Dylan has a dimple bigger than mine,” the proud grandpa told PEOPLE. “[But] I think he looks more like Catherine. Catherine with a dimple. Not bad!”
Douglas was proud of his successes but not carried away with fame and known for being genuinely kind. Longtime radio broadcaster and producer Bruce Maiman shared a memorable encounter with Douglas in the early ‘90s when, while promoting his new novel The Gift the actor arrived via cab at WPLJ, the radio station where Maiman worked, having bought a coffee and croissant for Maiman.
“It was as unpretentious as could be and as delightful as you might imagine,” Maiman said of the encounter. “I think fondly of that morning with Kirk Douglas, not because of his standing in Hollywood, or because he bought me a cup of coffee, but because he was so modest and unassuming, a complete mensch, and completely the opposite of the edgy, rebellious and slightly unsavory characters he specialized in playing.”
The legendary actor spent the last years of his life surrounded by his loved ones, including Cameron, who was released from prison in 2016 and welcomed his first child, daughter Lua Izzy, in December 2017.
Lua Izzy was named in honor of Douglas and is his first great-grandchild.
Douglas celebrated his 103rd birthday with his family.
Zeta-Jones shared an old shot of the two on Instagram to celebrate her father-in-law’s milestone. The sweet picture, which appears to be several years old, featured Kirk sitting on her lap as the two smiled for the camera.
“This guy on my knee, is 103!!!!! Happy Birthday Pappy!!! I love you with all my heart,” Zeta-Jones, 50, said.
For his 101st birthday, the star celebrated with two cakes: one decorated with sunflowers in honor of his performance as Vincent Van Gogh in the film Lust for Life, and the other depicting red boxing gloves that honored his first Academy Award-nominated performance in Champion.
The actor was also paid a visit by Judi Dench, who told PEOPLE at the time, “I will never forget this moment. He is a legend in our family.“