When Kirk Douglas was a young actor, he took control of his career. Going against his agents’ advice, he accepted the role of a ruthless, self-absorbed boxer in the small independent film Champion (1949), which ultimately made him a star. Douglas earned an Academy Award nomination for the role, and from then on, his dimpled chin, muscular build and explosive energy dominated the big screen. The actor, whose rebellion and ambition reflected that of Hollywood’s Golden Age, died Wednesday at age 103.
“To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years,” wrote Douglas’ son, actor and producer Michael Douglas, on Instagram, in a statement announcing his father’s passing, “a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
Douglas, who starred in some 80 movies between 1946 and 2008, received three Oscar nominations over the course of his career. Known for roles in such movies as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Lust for Life (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Douglas was “arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era,” according to Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge of the Hollywood Reporter.
In 1996, Douglas received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. As he presented the actor with the award, director Steven Spielberg marveled at his track record of performances, saying, “Kirk Douglas never made his characters simple. No good guys or bad guys. He shaded heroics with self-doubt and shaped his villainy with compassion.”
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on December 9, 1916, Douglas—the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants—grew up poor.
“When you are so poor as I was, and when you start at the bottom, you are driven to succeed,” Douglas later told People.
He supported himself throughout his college education by working as a janitor, and eventually enrolled in the American Academy for Dramatic Arts.
But before Douglas became one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, he served in the U.S. Navy and had a brief stint on Broadway. In 1946, he made his silver screen debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck as its titular character.
One of Douglas’ most singular accomplishments was his role in ending the Hollywood blacklist era, which saw screenwriters and cinematic creatives with suspected Communist leanings blocked from finding employment. Despite the crackdown, Douglas openly hired and credited blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his work on Spartacus, an epic about ancient Roman slave rebellion released by the actor’s personal production company.
“Everybody advised me not to do it because you won’t be able to work in this town again and all of that. But I was young enough to say to hell with it,” Douglas told the Associated Press in 2011.
More recently, Douglas sparked controversy with his appearance at the 2018 Golden Globes. During the ceremony, several Twitter commentators drew attention to an anonymous blogger’s 2012 claim that the actor had raped a 16-year-old Natalie Wood in 1954. The allegation was never fully corroborated, and Douglas was never charged.
During the last chapter of his life, Douglas survived a helicopter crash, suffered a stroke, and lost son Eric Douglas. But he soldiered on, working through a speech impairment and returning to the stage in 2009 to perform a one-man show, titled Before I Forget, reflecting on his 60 years in Hollywood.
“I don’t need a critic to tell me I’m an actor,” the famously defiant Douglas once said. “I make my own way. Nobody’s my boss. Nobody’s ever been my boss.”
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will put up a portrait of Kirk Douglas on Friday, February 7, in honor of the Hollywood icon’s passing.