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"My story is the American dream come true," Kirk Douglas says about his life. Some dream! He was born the son of a junk dealer, but he became one of those rare stars who are "as much institutions as actors, cultural icons who conjure up an entire era's worth of images" (The New York Times).
On screen we know him as cowboy, painter, Viking, lover, boxer, trumpeter, cop, slave--characters who fought the system and more often than not ended up destroyed by it. In real life he fought the system, too--but ended up victorious.
He grew up the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, as Issur Danielovich, but he worked his way through St. Lawrence University as a janitor and became president of his class and of the school drama club. With a new name, Isadore Demsky, he went to New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts to pursue his acting dreams and soon landed his first role on Broadway (Spring Again, 1941) and changed his name again, this time to one that would become famous around the world.
He served in the Navy during World War II. In Hollywood his first screen role came in 1946's popular Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Stanley Kramer, producer of Douglas's 1949 star-making film Champion, said Douglas "acted like a star when he was nobody. He came at you, center stage, and there it was." He wasn't a nobody long. In three short years stardom was his.
While most stars were content to be pawns of the all-powerful movie moguls, Douglas founded his own production company and starred in his own films. With that power, he created legendary roles for himself and produced passionate movies such as Paths of Glory and Spartacus.
Along the way Douglas has acted in nearly 80 films, has been named official goodwill ambassador to the United Nations twice, and has published best-selling novels and an autobiography, The Ragman's Son. His most critically acclaimed role as an actor was Lust for Life's Vincent van Gogh, which earned him one of three Oscar nominations and a New York Film Critics Award. Other career touchstones include The Bad and the Beautiful, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Detective Story, and Lonely Are the Brave. Explaining his acting success, Douglas boils it down to "acting with my guts." Michael Douglas, the oldest of the actor's four sons, all of whom have followed him into the film business, talks of his father's ability to give characters "a furious spark of life." It's been noted that his special gift has been to show us the flaws in every hero and the virtues in every heel.
In The Bad and the Beautiful, one of the greatest Hollywood-on-Hollywood films, a very young Kirk Douglas tells star-playing-star Lana Turner: "When you're on the screen, no matter who you're with or what you're doing, the audience is looking at you. That's star quality." He could just as well be describing himself.