Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, known for the unmistakable cleft in his chin and a caring heart of gold which helped legions around the world, has died aged 103.
Douglas made more than 90 movies in a career that stretched across seven decades, with starring roles in Spartacus and The Vikings making him one of the biggest box office stars of the 1950s and ’60s.
Despite his vast movie-made wealth, Douglas who had an impoverished childhood with immigrant parents and six sisters, spent his life helping others.
The Douglas Foundation, established in 1964 by Kirk and his second wife Anne, is one of the entertainment industry’s oldest and largest philanthropies.
It supports education, medicine, and other causes, among them 405 public playgrounds.
In a 2014 interview published in Parade Magazine, in which he reflected on his life, Dougles told contributing editor Dotson Rader that the most important lesson he had learned in his life was to: “Help other people”.
He said he and Anne, who were married in 1954, “feel you have to help, even if you don’t have enough yourself. That’s what being a human being means”.
“When I was in college [St. Lawrence University, New York from which he graduated with a degree in English) I noticed there were no black students.
“The first thing that I did when I graduated and made money is have them start four-year scholarships for minority students. In my will I ensure that that endowment continues,” he said.
Douglas made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck and quickly developed into a leading box-office star throughout the 1950s, known for serious dramas, including westerns and war movies.
But it was with Spartacus, a 1960 epic historical drama film produced by his own company and directed by Stanley Kubrick, that he became a Hollywood icon and at the same time reinforced his reputation for helping others not as fortunate as himself when he hired the film industry’s blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, to write the screenplay.
After Douglas publicly announced, in the face of criticism, that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to view the film, helping to end blacklisting.
Douglas, who survived a helicopter crash in 1991, in which two fellow occupants were killed, leaving him with a debilitating back injury, celebrated two important milestones at the time of his Parade interview: the publication of Life Could Be Verse, his 11th book, and his 98th birthday.
An Oscar and Kennedy Center honoree and a recipient of the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, Douglas and Anne lived in Los Angeles.
“I love her,” he said of Anne, “because she gave me stability in the crazy world in which I’ve made my living.”
Douglas had a fully Jewish upbringing, but did not practice extensively as an adult. This changed when, on his 83rd birthday, he had a second Bar Mitzvah, reaffirming his faith and causing him to practice again.
Douglas, despite his fame and considerable wealth, had known more than his fair share of heartbreak and trouble.
In 1996, he suffered a devastating stroke, which made speaking difficult for him although he went on to make more films.
Worse, eight years after his stroke, his youngest son Eric Douglas overdosed, and then in 2010 the eldest of his four sons, Michael Douglas, was diagnosed with cancer, and his grandson Cameron was sent to prison.
When he had his stroke he admitted he considered suicide
“Humor saved me. A stroke, especially for an actor, is a terrible thing, because if you can’t speak, you can’t act”, he said.
At first, I thought my life was at an end. But when I put the gun in my mouth, it hit a tooth. Ow! And that struck me funny.
“A toothache was stopping me from committing suicide? Funny! And it made me stop. There are even jokes about it: What can an actor do who can’t talk? He waits for the silent pictures to come back!”
Douglas said in the interview he was “amazed” by his son Michael’s strength, “living through all he has gone through”.
“I admire his handling of his problems. He took it all, everything, and he didn’t complain.”
Michael Douglas was treated for tongue cancer in 2010. That same year Michael’s eldest son, sometime actor Cameron Douglas, 35, was convicted of drug offenses and was jailed for a minimum of eight years.
Asked if he thought that Michael and he were both strong because they married very good women? (Michael Douglas is married to actress Catherine Zeta Jones), Douglas replied: “Being married to the right woman is very important.
“Michael and Catherine have two very bright, fantastic kids, Dylan and Carys. I’m sure that they are both going to be actors. Their mother, father and grandfather are actors, and Dylan considers himself an actor.”
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