LOS ANGELES – Kirk Douglas, the intense, muscular actor with the dimpled chin who starred in “Spartacus,” “Lust for Life” and dozens of other films, helped fatally weaken the blacklist against suspected communists and reigned for decades as a Hollywood maverick and patriarch, died Wednesday, his family said. He was 103.
“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,” his son Michael said in a statement on his Instagram account.
His granite-like strength and underlying vulnerability made the son of illiterate Russian immigrants one of the top stars of the 20th century. He appeared in more than 80 films, in roles ranging from Doc Holliday in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” to Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.”
Always competitive, including with his own family, Douglas never received an Academy Award for an individual film, despite being nominated three times – for “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life.” But in 1996, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar. His other awards included a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute.
In his youth, he represented a new kind of performer, more independent and adventurous than Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and other giants of the studio era of the 1930s and 1940s, and more willing to speak his mind.
Reaching stardom after World War II, he was as likely to play cads (the movie producer in “Bad and the Beautiful,” the journalist in “Ace in the Hole”) as he was suited to play heroes, as alert to the business as he was at home before the camera. He started his own production company in 1955, when many actors still depended on the studios, and directed some of his later films.
A born fighter, Douglas was especially proud of his role in the downfall of Hollywood's blacklist, which halted and ruined the careers of writers suspected of pro-Communist activity or sympathies. By the end of the 1950s, the use of banned writers was widely known within the industry but not to the general public.
Douglas, who years earlier had reluctantly signed a loyalty oath to get the starring role in “Lust for Life,” provided a crucial blow when he openly credited the former Communist and Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo for script work on “Spartacus,” the epic about a slave rebellion during ancient Rome that was released in 1960.He was born Issur Danielovitch to an impoverished Jewish family in Amsterdam, N.Y. His name evolved over time. He called himself Isidore Demsky until he graduated from St. Lawrence University.
He took the name Kirk Douglas as he worked his way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, choosing “Douglas” because he wanted his last name still to begin with “D” and “Kirk” because he liked the hard, jagged sound of the “K.”
His movie career faded during the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, he did several notable television films, including “Victory at Entebbe” and “Amos.” In his 70s, he became an author, penning a memoir, “The Ragman's Son,” and novels “Dance With the Devil” and “The Gift.”