Douglas established his image as a tough guy in his eighth film, Champion, playing a selfish boxer. From then on, he made a career of playing “sons of bitches”. From that film on, he decided that to succeed as a star, he needed to ramp up his intensity, overcome his natural shyness, and choose stronger roles. He later stated, “I don’t think I’d be much of an actor without vanity. And I’m not interested in being a ‘modest actor’.” Early in his Hollywood career, he demonstrated his independent streak and broke his studio contracts to gain total control over his projects, forming his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother.
Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1949 in the Anton Chekhov play Three Sisters, produced by Katharine Cornell.
Douglas was a major box office star in the 1950s and 1960s, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era. Among his various roles, he played a frontier peace officer in his first western Along the Great Divide (1951). He quickly became comfortable with riding horses and playing gunslingers, and appeared in many westerns. In Lonely Are the Brave (1962), his own favorite of his performances, Douglas plays a cowboy trying to live by his own code, much as he did in real life.
in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), one of his three Oscar nominated roles, Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a hard-nosed film producer who manipulates and uses his actors, writers, and directors. In Young Man with a Horn (1950), Douglas portrays the rise and fall of a driven jazz musician, based on real life horn player Bix Beiderbecke. Composer-pianist Hoagy Carmichael, playing the sidekick role, added realism to the film and gave Douglas insight into the role, being a friend of the real Beiderbecke.
In one of his earliest television appearances, Douglas was a musical guest (as himself) on The Jack Benny Program (1954). In the opening monologue, Benny reads the reviews of critics who liked his season premiere, while skipping the ones who did not. He then hurries home for his weekly jam session with Tony Martin (on clarinet), Fred MacMurray (saxophone), Dick Powell (trumpet), Dan Dailey (drums), and Douglas (four-string banjo). They avail themselves of the coin-operated vending machines in Benny’s living room. The band plays Basin Street (Blues), but Douglas keeps going into Bye Bye Blues, the only song he knows.
In Lust for Life as Vincent Van Gogh
Douglas played many military men, with varying nuance, in Top Secret Affair (1957), Paths of Glory (1957) (his most famous role in that genre), Town Without Pity (1961), The Hook (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Heroes of Telemark (1965), In Harm’s Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Is Paris Burning (1966), and The Final Countdown (1980).
His role as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), filmed mostly on location in France, was noted not only for the veracity of his appearance but also for how he conveyed the painter’s internal turmoil. He won a Golden Globe award for his role. Director Vincente Minnelli stated, “Kirk Douglas achieved a moving and memorable portrait of the artist a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award.” Douglas himself called his acting role as Van Gogh a “very painful experience.” He writes, “Not only did I look like Van Gogh, I was the same age he was when he committed suicide.”
Douglas played the lead with an all-star cast in Spartacus (1960). He was the executive producer as well, raising the $12 million production cost. He also played an important role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist by making sure that Dalton Trumbo’s name was mentioned in the opening and ending credits of the film for the outstanding screenplay he did for the film. Douglas initially selected Anthony Mann to direct the movie, but dismissed him when he judged the initial shooting to be unsatisfactory. To replace Mann he chose Stanley Kubrick, who three years earlier had collaborated closely with Douglas in Paths of Glory, where Douglas played one of his most notable roles as Colonel Dax, the commander of a French regiment during World War I. Spartacus was a huge success, but Kubrick, considering himself a mere employee of Douglas and since much of the footage (including Peter Ustinov’s key scenes) was shot under Mann, did not consider it to be part of his own oeuvre.
In addition to serious, driven characters, Douglas was adept at roles requiring a comic touch, as in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, wherein he plays a happy-go-lucky sailor who is the opposite in every way of the brooding Captain Nemo (James Mason). The film was one of Walt Disney’s most successful live-action movies and a major box-office hit. He manages a similar comic turn in the western Man Without a Star (1955) and in For Love or Money (1963).
Douglas made seven films over the decades with Burt Lancaster; I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these movies but, with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were more or less the same size. Both actors arrived in Hollywood at the same time, and first appeared together in the fourth film for each, albeit with Douglas in a supporting role. They both became actor-producers who sought out independent Hollywood careers.
President Jimmy Carter greets Kirk Douglas and Mrs. Douglas, March 1978
Douglas stated that the keys to acting success are determination and application, “You must know how to function and how to maintain yourself, and you must have a love of what you do. But an actor also needs great good luck. I have had that luck.” Douglas had great vitality, “It takes a lot out of you to work in this business. Many people fall by the wayside because they don’t have the energy to sustain their talent.” His intensity spilled over into all elements of his film-making. As an actor, he dove into every role, dissecting not only his own lines but all the parts in the script to measure the rightness of the role, and he was willing to fight with the director if he felt justified. According to his wife, he often brought home that intensity, “When he was doing Lust for Life, he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house it was frightening.” His distinctive acting style and delivery made him, like James Stewart, a favorite with impersonators, especially Frank Gorshin.
Unlike some actors such as Robert Mitchum, Douglas had a high opinion of actors, movies, and moviemaking, “To me it is the most important art form—it is an art, and it includes all the elements of the modern age.” But he also stressed the entertainment value of films, “You can make a statement, you can say something, but it must be entertaining.”
His first film as a director was Scalawag (1973). In his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, he said “Since I was accused so often of trying to direct the films I was in, I thought I ought to really try my hand at directing.” It was a difficult debut with many production problems, requiring his wife to act as producer. Douglas plays a charming scoundrel with one leg, a considerable challenge to his athleticism, and though he got credit for his role, the film received unimpressive reviews. Later in 1973, Douglas appeared in a made-for-TV musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Douglases with President Ronald Reagan, December 1987
On July 5, 1986, he co-hosted (with Angela Lansbury) the New York Philharmonic’s tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television. The orchestra was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Douglas was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. He was especially disappointed for not winning for the last film, “I really thought I had a chance.” Douglas did not win any competitive Oscars, but received a Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for “50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community”.
Douglas with Zubin Mehta, March 2011
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Douglas has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Blvd. He is one of the few personalities (along with James Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Gene Autry) whose star has been stolen and later replaced. In 1984, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA, and he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991.
In October 2004, the avenue Kirk Douglas Way in Palm Springs, California was named in his honor by the Palm Springs International Film Society and Film Festival. Popular at home and around the world, Douglas received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, the French Legion of Honor in 1985, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001.
In March 2009, Douglas starred in an autobiographical one man show titled Before I Forget at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. The four performances were filmed and turned into a documentary that was first screened in January 2010.
On February 27, 2011, Douglas appeared on the stage of the Kodak Theatre for the 83rd Academy Awards to present the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.