Kirk Douglas (1916 - )

Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:


His ready grin, granitechisled features, cleft chin, and an approach to acting that made him equally convincing in both sympathetic and unsympathetic roles made Kirk Douglas one of the brightest stars of post-WW 2 Hollywood (and, later, the international arena as well). Born into immigrant poverty, he saw an acting scholarship as his ticket out of the ghetto. He secured small roles on Broadway before entering the Navy in World War 2, and afterward resumed his stage career. His old classmate Lauren Bacall suggested that producer Hal Wallis test him, resulting in his being cast in the lead role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Douglas won excellent reviews, which encouraged him to remain in Hollywood, and in 1947 he made the classic noir Out of the Past the film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (as Peter), and the undernourished drama I Walk Alone (the first of several films with close friend Burt Lancaster). Douglas also had a key role in the multi-Oscared A Letter to Three Wives (1949), then scored a knockout as the venal boxer Midge Kelly in that year's Champion a classic prizefighting drama that cemented his stardom and earned him his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

Now acknowledged to be a top leading man, Douglas played a thinly disguised Bix Beiderbecke in Young Man With a Horn the "gentleman caller" in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (both 1950), a heartlessly ambitious reporter in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), a two-fisted cop in Detective Story (both 1951), a frontiersman in The Big Sky a ruthless movie producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (both 1952, the latter Oscarnominated), an intrepid seaman in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, in which he sang "A Whale of a Tale"), the title role in Ulysses (1955), a sharp-tongued cowpoke in Man Without a Star (1955), artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956, again, Oscar-nominated), gambler/gunfighter Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and a war-sickened colonel in Paths of Glory (both 1957). Douglas infused every role with passion, and his performances were often multilayered ones; he could bring sinister traits to sympathetic characters, and vice versa. Something in his eyes, in his voice, behind that toothy grin, suggested lurking menace in some characters and suppressed mirth in others. But in all cases he kept audiences glued to their seats. He formed his own production company, Bryna, in 1958; its initial venture was a big-scale adventure film, The Vikings (1958), followed by The Devil's Disciple (1959), which was a coproduction with Lancaster's company, and the sexy melodrama Strangers When We Meet (1960). That same year also saw the release of Douglas' most ambitious film, the epic drama of Roman Empire days, Spartacus as its producer, he broke a long-standing Hollywood blacklist by insisting that scripter Dalton Trumbo (a member of the "Hollywood Ten") get proper screen credit for his contribution.

Douglas remained busy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with a decided emphasis on Westerns and war films; among the more notable were Town Without Pity, The Last Sunset (both 1961), the cult "modern" Western Lonely Are the Brave, Two Weeks in Another Town (both 1962, the latter a semi-sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), In Harm's Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The War Wagon (1967), The Brotherhood (1968), The Arrangement (1969), EB> (1970), A Gunfight (1971), and two that he directed: Scalawag (1973) and Posse (1975). Thereafter he concentrated on character roles in such varied fare as Once Is Not Enough (also 1975), The Fury (1978), Home Movies (a hilarious turn as an egocentric star), The Villain (bravely mocking movie-Western villainy in a ham-fisted, cartoonish parody, both 1979), The Final Countdown (1980), The Man From Snowy River (1982, in a dual role for this Down-Under "Western"), and Tough Guys (1986, his last film with Lancaster). And though he abandoned the first Rambo film, First Blood early in its production, he eventually worked with star Sylvester

Stallone in Oscar (1991). More recently he was cast as Michael J. Fox's crafty uncle in Greedy (1994).

His autobiography, "The Ragman's Son" (1988), was a best-seller, and in recent years he has expanded his literary career to writing novels as well, most notably "The Gift." Though he has never won an Oscar, Douglas did receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1991. His four sons all followed him into show business: actor Eric, producers Joel and Peter, and actor/producer Michael. Incidentally, it was Michael who pulled off Kirk's greatest dream: making Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into a film. Kirk had played the lead role on stage and hoped to reprise it on screen, but in the years it took to launch the project he outgrew the role and surrendered it to Jack Nicholson.

Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

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