Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas passed away at the age of 103, and through his illustrious 60 year career he has defied the odds. Growing up from poverty, to becoming one of the biggest movie stars on the planet to risking his entire career by standing up and helping put an end to the Hollywood Blacklist that started in the late 1940’s. He was as strong as his most famous character Spartacus was and blessed us with his chiseled physique for decades. The film industry has lost an icon, the last survivor of the golden age of Hollywood. This is the story of The Hollywood Blacklist and the legacy of the one and only Kirk Douglas.
“I wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid in the second grade. I did a play, and my mother made a black apron, and I played a shoemaker. After the performance, [my father] gave me my first Oscar: an ice cream cone” – Kirk Douglas
The year was 1947 and actor Kirk Douglas was only starting his journey in his illustrious career, starring in his third motion picture at the time (“Out Of The Past”). 1947 was when Hollywood would see a turn of the tides when the Hollywood Blacklist came into affect during the McCarthy “Red Scare” hysteria. Senators Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye led the investigation of Hollywood’s role in promoting Soviet propaganda. Wendell Willkie, the lawyer who defended the studios, revealed the senators’ had merged two traditions of Judaism with communism, casting the senators as anti-Semites rather than patriots.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (also known as HUAC), began it’s investigation into Hollywood and summoned Hollywood professionals on the suspicion that their work was communist-inspired. The blacklist was implemented by the Hollywood studios to promote their patriotic credentials in the face of public attacks and served to protect the film industry from any economic harm, that would result from any association of its products with an individual. Though many of the entries on the blacklist were the result of rumors, just the hint of suspicion alone was enough to end someone’s career.
As the media began to publish an extensive coverage of the blacklist, some of Hollywood’s writers, producers, and directors became known as “The Hollywood Ten”. The Hollywood Ten consisted of Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott, and most famous of them all Dalton Trumbo. Although the head of the studios had initially supported the Hollywood Ten, they soon denounced them, and the ten were suspended without pay. Shortly thereafter it was announced that whoever were blacklisted, wouldn’t be knowingly employed in Hollywood again. Nearly 60 percent of all individuals called to testify and an equal percent of all those blacklisted were screenwriters. Only 20 percent of those called and 25 percent of those blacklisted were actors.
These ten Hollywood royals became blacklisted for declining to tell the HUAC members whether or not they were members of the Communist Party. They declared that the committee’s inquiries infringed upon their rights under the Constitution. Due to their lack of cooperation, the House of Representatives had voted 346 to 17 to the approval of contempt citations.
When the first citations were issued, Hollywood’s impulse was to fight back. Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, pledged that he would “never be party to anything as un-American as a blacklist’. Meetings took place at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where the writers called had refused to cooperate and read statements condemning the committee in what often turned into shouting matches. The result just ended up leaving bad press for Hollywood and feelings that the writers were just vying for sensational headlines at the industry’s expense.
All 10 served time in 1950 for up to a year in prison, fined $1,000 and were “blacklisted”. For years long after, the Hollywood ten had a difficult time finding a job anywhere in Hollywood. Upon Trumbo’s release, he continued to write, but it was either through a pseudonym or by having other writers act as a front for him. Over the years, the blacklist grew to 150 names and continued into the 1960s.
In addition to the HUAC, private groups monitored the entertainment industries and published articles and pamphlets that identified blacklisted individuals. The most powerful of the groups was the American Legion, which not only released information about communist associations of media workers but also encouraged its 2.8 million members to picket films made by individuals who had not cooperated with the HUAC.
The anticommunism crusade and Hollywood Blacklist, had subsided in the early 1960s when one of Hollywood’s greatest actors became Hollywood’s biggest risk taker. The recently deceased Kirk Douglas, who died on February 4th, 2020 at the age of 103 had risked his entire career to work with the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, on the now classic and masterful 1960 film “Spartacus”, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Douglas was also an executive producer on the project and enlisted Trumbo to author the script, which was based on a book by another blacklisted author, Howard Fast.
Kirk Douglas’ bold and ultimately career threatening move, had played a role in helping to end the communist purge that was occurring in Hollywood. Douglas shared with People magazine in a past interview: “Dalton Trumbo was one of the best writers we had. He was on the Hollywood blacklist, so he was working under another name. It was such a terrible, shameful time. So I decided the hell with it! I’m going to put his name on it. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of because it broke the blacklist. It caused me a lot of trouble, but it was worth it”.
Prior to writing “Spartacus”, Trumbo had spent 10 months in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Like other blacklisted writers in the ’40 and ’50s, he continued to write under various pseudonyms. Trumbo’s unaccredited screenwriting earned two Academy Awards for Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday” in 1953 and 1956’s “The Brave One”.
The passing of Kirk Douglas, was announced on the morning of February 4th, 2020 by his legendary son, actor and producer Michael Douglas on his social media platforms: Instagram and Facebook. When Douglas spoke to the Jewish Chronicle in 2012, Kirk Douglas said: “I have been working in Hollywood over 60 years and I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist”.
In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Douglas said his decision to give Trumbo a screen credit was motivated by what he saw as Hollywood’s “hypocrisy”. Douglas said: “What I was fighting against was the hypocrisy in Hollywood, where the heads of the studios were using these blacklisted writers and just looking the other way, not paying them their full salary, making them use different names”.
He continued on to say “I Was Threatened That Using A Blacklisted Writer Would End My Career”. Despite Douglas’s claims, members of the Trumbo family have criticised him for what they saw as one man taking the credit for the work of many. Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, wrote a letter to the LA Times in 2002 and said that “no single person can be credited with breaking the blacklist”.
Kirk Douglas is the last of the surviving golden era actors and has since starred in over 100 pictures. Cleft-chinned, steely-eyed and a movie star of international cinema, rose from being “the ragman’s son” (which was the name of his best-selling 1988 autobiography) to become a bona fide and iconic superstar. Kirk Douglas, which was his stage name was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, on December 9th, 1916 in Amsterdam, New York.
His parents, Bryna (Sanglel) and Herschel Danielovitch, were Jewish immigrants from Chavusy, Mahilyow Voblast (a town in Belarus). Growing up in a poor ghetto, Douglas was known to be a fine student and athlete, where he wrestled competitively during his time at St. Lawrence University.
Professional wrestling helped pay for his studies as well as working on the side as a waiter and a bellboy. However, he soon identified with acting and received an acting scholarship to gain his entry into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his Broadway debut in “Spring Again”, before his career was interrupted by World War II. He joined the United States Navy in 1941, and by the end of 1945, he returned to do some theater and radio work.
On the insistence of his ex-classmate and now legendary actress Lauren Bacall, movie producer Hal B. Wallis screen-tested Douglas and cast him in the lead role in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946). His performance received rave reviews and further work quickly followed, including an appearance in the drama “I Walk Alone” (1947), the first time he worked alongside fellow future screen legend Burt Lancaster.
The chemistry was so strong between the two that they appeared in seven films together, including the dynamic western “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), the John Frankenheimer political thriller “Seven Days in May” (1964) and their final pairing in the gangster comedy “Tough Guys” (1986). Douglas once said about his good friend: “I’ve finally gotten away from Burt Lancaster. My luck has changed for the better. I’ve got nice-looking girls in my films now”.
Douglas scored his first Oscar nomination playing the untrustworthy and opportunistic boxer Midge Kelly in the gripping “Champion” in 1949. The quality of his work continued to garner the attention of critics and he was again nominated for an Oscar for his role as a film producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and as tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh in 1956’s “Lust For Life”, both directed but Vincente Minnelli.
In 1955, Douglas launched his own production company, Bryna Productions, the company was behind two pivotal film roles in his career. The first was as French army officer Col. Dax in Director Stanley Kubrick‘s anti war epic “Paths Of Glory” (1957) and the sword and sandal masterpiece “Spartacus” from 1960.
Douglas remained busy throughout the 1960s, starring in many films. He acted alongside “The Duke” John Wayne in three films, 1965’s “In Harm’s Way” 1966’s “Cast A Giant” and 1967’s “The War Wagon”. In 1963, he starred in an onstage production of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, which he developed a keen interest in bringing it to the big screen.
No Hollywood studio could be convinced to bring the story to the screen. However, the rights remained with the Douglas clan, and son Michael Douglas had produced the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson. The film went onto win five Oscars, including one for best picture that went to Michael Douglas for producing. Into the 1970s, Douglas wasn’t as busy as previous years; however, he starred in some unusual vehicles, including alongside a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the loopy western comedy “The Villain” (1979). Then with Farrah Fawcett in the sci-fi thriller “Saturn 3” (1980) and then traveling to Australia in 1982 for the horse opera/drama “The Man From Snowy River”.
Throughout his career, Kirk has long been involved in humanitarian causes and has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the US State Department since 1963. His efforts were rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1981), and the Jefferson Award (1983). Furthermore, the French honored him with the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
More recognition followed for his work with the American Cinema Award (1987), the German Golden Kamera Award (1987), The National Board of Reviews Career Achievement Award (1989), an honorary Academy Award in 1995. He was the Recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1999) and the UCLA Medal of Honor (2002). He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which sits at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on February 8, 1960.
Douglas was a real survivor, having a pacemaker fitted after collapsing in a restaurant in 1986. Survived a helicopter crash in 1991, which two fellow occupants were killed. He was left with a debilitating back injury, he also suffered a stroke in 1996. In 2005, he had both knees replaced against the advice of his doctors. The operation was a success. If Douglas had not heeded his wife Anne Douglas’s advice, he would have been on film producer Mike Todd’s private plane in 1958 when it crashed and killed all on-board. Todd’s wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor was also scheduled to be on the plane but canceled due to a bad cold.
Despite all this he remained active and continued to appear in front of the camera. Until Kirk confirmed his retirement from acting after making “Illusion” (2004), although he did act in one more film, “Empire State Building Murders” (2008), and has had numerous appearances (as himself) on entertainment and gossip programs, and in documentaries.
When Douglas’ passing was announced, floods of tributes raided the internet. Including one from actor and director Rob Reiner, who was one who said it best that: “Kirk Douglas will always be an icon in the pantheon of Hollywood. He put himself on the line to break the blacklist”.
No tribute was more touching or meaningful than when Michael Douglas announced his passing with this statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 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 set a standard for all of us to aspire to. Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet”.
He ends his statement with “Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad – I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son”. With that said, we as film goers and film lovers couldn’t be more blessed to have Kirk Douglas grace our screens for well over sixty years. He will forever be Spartacus and a Hollywood legend.
RIP Kirk “I Am Spartacus” Douglas.