When Kirk Douglas made his big-screen debut in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the director wanted him to fill in his distinctive chin dimple. Kirk steadfastly refused. “I said, ‘Listen, this is what you get,’” Kirk recalled. “I didn’t cave.”
That was Kirk Douglas in a nutshell: self-confident, headstrong and one of a kind. “He had drive, ego and intelligence,” John Landis, who directed the actor in 1991’s Oscar, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “Kirk was a real classic American story and a great Hollywood star. He was a legend, and he deserved to be one.”
Kirk — who passed away at the remarkable age of 103 on February 5— came from the humblest roots. Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, N.Y., he was raised by impoverished Russian immigrants. His alcoholic father wasn’t allowed to work in the town’s mills because he was Jewish, so he scraped together a living selling rags.
“He was the toughest guy in town,” Kirk said. “I was 7 years old, and I’d done a little play. My father, without my knowing it, had come in the back and saw me doing it, and he bought me an ice-cream cone as a reward. It was worth more to me than an Oscar.”
He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC, where he met Lauren Bacall. Later, when she’d made it in Hollywood, Lauren recommended Kirk to a casting agent. Three years after landing Martha Ivers, Kirk became a star as a boxer in Champion. He didn’t handle fame well at first, developing a reputation for arrogance. “Now that you’ve got a big hit, you’ve become a real son of a bitch,” gossip columnist Hedda Hopper told him. His response: “I was always a son of a b—h — you just never noticed.”
Kirk also became known as a notorious womanizer. He’d married actress Diana Dill (who became the mother of sons Michael and Joel) in 1943, but Kirk had affairs with countless leading ladies, including Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. Kirk and Diana divorced in 1951, and he was on the prowl in Paris when he met German-born translator Anne Buydens on the set of the 1953 film Act of Love. He asked her out, but she politely declined, wary of the handsome heartbreaker.
“The fact that I didn’t impress her certainly impressed me,” Kirk said. “With no romance in the picture, I stopped talking about myself and began to listen to her.”
They fell in love and wed a year later; sons Peter and Eric soon followed. Kirk continued to stray during the early years of their marriage, but Anne stayed with him. “As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage,” she explained. Yet Anne insisted that Kirk confess to his affairs: “I wanted to hear it from him directly, not via an idle piece of gossip.”
Over time, the couple came to a deeper understanding. “Anne never tried to change me, but she never hesitated to speak her mind,” Kirk said. “She did change me, and very much for the better.”
Kirk ruled as one of Hollywood’s top stars through the ’50s, and he ultimately used his power for good. Appalled by the blacklist that destroyed the careers of many who were branded as communists, Kirk stood up for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, insisting he receive credit for 1960’s Spartacus. That helped bring an end to the McCarthy era’s campaign of fear. “The blacklist was one of the most embarrassing things in our history,” Kirk said. “When I think of it, it hurts me.”
That strength of character would serve Kirk well as he faced a number of hardships later in life. In 1991, he was riding in a helicopter when he survived a mid-air collision with a plane; two people, including an 18-year-old boy, were killed. “He asked himself, ‘Why am I alive, and this kid is dead?’” son Michael revealed. “That brought him back to his original Jewish roots.”
Kirk began studying with a rabbi, David Wolpe, and met with him weekly for the rest of his days. “Being Jewish was a very big part of his life,” Rabbi Wolpe tells Closer. “We had many discussions about God.” Adds Michael, “It totally changed my father as a man. It brought a tremendous amount of spirituality to his life. As proud as I am of all he’s accomplished, to watch what he’s done in the third act of his life is amazing. It brought him peace.”
In 1996, Kirk suffered a devastating stroke, which robbed him of the ability to speak. “That was the darkest moment of my life: an actor who can’t talk,” he said. “Depression had me by the throat.”
He pondered suicide, but “humor saved me,” he says. “When I put a gun in my mouth, it hit a tooth. Ow! That struck me as funny.”
Anne convinced Kirk to see a speech therapist, and he learned to talk again. Then in 2004, the family suffered another tragedy: Kirk’s youngest son, Eric, died of a drug overdose at 46. “I must have taken him to 15 different rehabs,” Kirk later said. “I visit his grave every week and ask what more could I have done. But sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
More tough times came: Michael battled cancer, and grandson Cameron served prison time for drug offenses. “You endure it — it’s all part of life,” Kirk said. “Michael says it made me a softer guy.
Over the years, Kirk came to forgive his father for his shortcomings. “He did have a strong feeling for me, but it was impossible for him to express it, to say, ‘I love you,’” Kirk realized. “It’s a phrase I always use with my own sons.”
Kirk’s love extended beyond his own family. He donated a large portion of his $80 million fortune to charity. “Anne and I always felt an obligation as well as a joy in sharing our good fortune with worthy causes,” he said.
His generosity will live long beyond his 103 years. “He’d want to be remembered as somebody who both made it on his own and never forget how far he came,” says Rabbi Wolpe. “He was an inspiration.”
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