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Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas has had a legendary career in Hollywood, including 84 films, nine plays, eight books, and a host of other contributions to his art, his country and his fellowmen.

Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, NY, he was the son of illiterate Jewish-Russian immigrants. He won a wrestling scholarship to Saint Lawrence University and worked as a wrestler in summer carnivals. A second scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts put him on the road to Broadway. He made his Broadway debut in Spring Again, but interrupted his budding stage career in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.

He returned to Broadway in The Wind is Ninety. He was then cast opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Three years later, in 1949, his role in Stanley Kramer's Champion won him both stardom and an Academy Award nomination. He received his second nomination in 1952 for The Bad and the Beautiful, and his third in 1956 for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (he won the New York Film Critics' Best Actor Award).

In 1955, Douglas formed one of Hollywood's first independent film companies, Bryna, named for his mother, and managed by his wife, Anne. The Bryna Company produced many memorable films, including Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, and Seven Days in May.

Kirk Douglas also established the Douglas Foundation in order to make more significant and meaningful contributions to civic and charitable causes, including the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless, which has opened the Anne Douglas Center for Women, and the Motion Picture Relief Home's Alzheimer's Unit, which has been named Harry's Haven after Mr. Douglas's father. The Douglas Foundation is currently restoring neglected playgrounds of Los Angeles schools and building a series of playgrounds in Israel. The Foundation has committed funds for a theater directly opposite the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and for the Kirk Douglas Theatre of The Center Theatre Group, set to open in Culver City, California, in 2004.

In 1958, Douglas broke the notorious Hollywood blacklist when he gave screen credit to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo for the Spartacus screenplay. He was widely condemned for his decision at the time. 30 years later the American Civil Liberties Union and the Writers Guild of America recognized his act as courageous. He considers it his proudest achievement.

In 1963, he bought the dramatic rights to Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and starred in it on Broadway. In 1975, his son Michael produced the movie, which collected five Oscars including best picture, but the biggest disappointment of his life was that he didn't play in the film.

In 1981, President Carter presented Douglas with the Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award. He has been honored by governments and organizations of other countries as well, including France, Italy, Portugal, Israel, and Germany. Among the top international awards he received was his appointment in 1990 as Officier de la Legion d'Honneur for distinguished services to France in arts and letters.

In 1991, the American Film Institute singled him out for its Life Achievement Award. In 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts distinguished him with its award for contributions to U.S. cultural life. In 1996, the Academy of Motion Pictures honored him with a Special Oscar for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.

Kirk Douglas's conscience has often found an outlet in his movies. The TV movie Amos, which earned him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, focused public attention on abuse of the elderly. His efforts have also included editorials and letters to newspapers, appearances on national television, and testimony before the Congressional Select Sub-Committee on Aging. In 1992, through the TV movie, The Secret, he attacked the social stigma associated with dyslexia. His performance was singled out as the year's best by the Los Angeles Times critics, and earned him the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation.

Kirk Douglas movie projects are often family affairs. Amos was produced by his son Peter, as were Final Countdown and Inherit the Wind, which won an Emmy award for best film. He has also co-starred with his son Eric in Yellow, a segment in HBO's Tales of the Crypt series, which earned him a second Emmy nomination. His son, Joel, served as production manager on the Douglas-directed Posse.

In 1991, Douglas had a helicopter crash in which two people were killed and Kirk almost broke his back. In 1996, he had a stroke which affected his speech. For a time, he believed this would end his career as an actor, but with the encouragement of his friends and family, he kept working with a speech therapist and at the end of 1998 he returned to the screen in Diamonds, followed by an Emmy-nominated guest star role for Touched by an Angel.

When not acting, Douglas occupies his time writing. His autobiography, The Ragman's Son, published in 1988, received rave reviews and became an international bestseller. He followed it up with three novels (Dance with the Devil in 1990, The Gift in 1992, and Last Tango in Brooklyn in 1994) and children's books (The Broken Mirror in 1997). In 1997, he published a sequel to his autobiography entitled Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning. His second children's book, Young Heroes of the Bible, was published in October of 1999. The third installment of his autobiography, My Stroke of Luck, came out in January 2002.

On December 9, 1999, Douglas celebrated his second Bar Mitzvah at age eighty-three at Sinai Temple in Westwood, California, marking the second cycle of life that began at the age of seventy, according to the Talmud. Since then, he has traveled to Israel and Jordon (as guest of King Abdullah and Queen Rania). He had a high school named for him in West Granada Hills, received the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, published another autobiography, received the Presidential Medal of the Arts in Washington.

Douglas has been married to his wife, Anne, for 48 years, and is the father of four sons from two marriages: Michael, Joel, Peter and Eric. He also has five grandchildren who call him Poppy. He and Anne divide their time between residences in Beverly Hills and Montecito.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2003.

Kirk Douglas Facts

Birth NameIssur Danielovitch Demsky
BirthdayDecember 9, 1916 (106)
BirthplaceAmsterdam, New York, USA
Height5' 8" (1m73)  How tall is Kirk Douglas compared to you?
Awards1999 Screen Actors Guild Awards: Life Achievement Award
1996 Academy Awards: Honorary Award
1968 Golden Globe Awards: Cecil B. DeMille Award
1957 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama (for Lust for Life)

Selected Filmography

Seven Days in May
In Harm's Way
The Man From Snowy River
Man from Snowy River, The
Catch Me A Spy
The Final Countdown
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The War Wagon
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