Kirk Douglas, with his granite jaw, dimpled chin and penetrating gaze, was among the world’s biggest film stars. In the 1950s and ’60s, he starred in war movies, epics, biopics and westerns — making as many as three films a year. But ironically, Kirk enjoyed his happiest, most fulfilling days off-screen in the last decades of his life.
It took three terrible events — a tragic helicopter crash, a debilitating stroke and the death of a son — to push Kirk to change his ways and devote his life to family, faith and charity. “I feel that every brush I had with death changed me and made me a better person,” Kirk wrote in his 2007 memoir Let’s Face It. “I began to think less about myself and more about other people.”
Like so many who have known great success, Kirk, who grew up dirt poor with a gruff, unloving father, had to be single-minded in the pursuit of his goals. He estimated that he worked more than 40 odd jobs before he was able to pay his rent by acting. But success came at a price. Kirk and his first wife, Diana Dill, the mother of sons Michael and Joel, divorced not long after Champion made Kirk a star in 1949.
“He was wild in those years,” admits an insider. After the split, Diana moved with the boys to New York, and in-demand Kirk saw less of his sons. “He remained a very big presence in his boys’ lives, but he wasn’t always present,” says the insider. “He was very busy.”
Kirk was occupied in other ways too, even after he married Anne Buydens, the mother of Peter and Eric, in 1954. “He was a typical Hollywood ladies’ man, sleeping with stars like Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford,” notes the insider. Anne put up with it as best she could. “Kirk never tried to hide his dalliances from me,” the German-born businesswoman wrote in 2017’s Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood. “As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage.”
In 1991, Kirk survived a helicopter crash that claimed two lives. A few years later, a stroke permanently impacted his speech and plunged the actor into a deep depression. “He actually took a gun and put it in his mouth,” Rabbi David Wolpe, a close friend, exclusively tells Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. Anne came to the rescue with tough love.
“Anne would say, ‘Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy.’ That helped,” said Kirk, who also began weekly Torah studies with Wolpe to help him better understand Judaism, the religion he’d been born into.
Kirk’s growing faith was put to the greatest test when his youngest son with Anne, Eric, died of an accidental overdose in 2004 at age 46. “Anne’s first reaction was guilt,” Kirk recalled. “[But] I felt it was all my fault.” They would never get over Eric’s loss, but the tragedy brought the couple closer than ever.
Along with love and family, charity became a bigger priority. Through their foundation, Kirk and Anne donated a hefty $188 million to worthy causes. “Kirk mellowed in his later years, and it helped him to be a better person,” says the insider of the actor who died in 2020 at age 103. “He had a full life, and he died a very grateful man.”
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.