Kirk Douglas, the last leading man of Hollywood's Golden Age, best known for his title role in 1960's Spartacus, died Wednesday, his family announced. He was 103.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his son, actor Michael Douglas, said in an Instagram post. “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 in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
No cause of death was given.
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on Dec. 9, 1916, to Russian Jewish immigrants in the small town of Amsterdam, New York, Douglas served in World War II in the US Navy before parlaying early success on Broadway (and a friendship with Lauren Bacall) into his wildly successful film career. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Douglas cut a striking figure as the prototypical male movie star — unabashedly handsome, with a barrel chest, bright smile, deep and gravelly voice, and trademark cleft chin.
"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," Michael added in a caption. "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."
Michael's wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, also posted a tribute to Douglas on Instagram, writing, "To my darling Kirk, I shall love you for the rest of my life. I miss you already. Sleep tight..."
He first vaulted to fame with the 1949 gritty boxing drama Champion, which earned Douglas an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance as a ruthlessly ambitious boxer, Michael "Midge" Kelly. Douglas's willingness to embrace darker roles also paid off with Oscar nominations for 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful (as a take-no-prisoners movie producer) and 1956's Lust for Life (as the famed obsessive Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh).
Unlike contemporaries James Stewart, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando, however, Douglas never developed a cohesive, singular star persona. His career ran the gamut of leading roles in Hollywood, including family adventure films (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954), Westerns (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1957), war films (Paths of Glory in 1957), historical melodramas (the Revolutionary War–set The Devil's Disciple in 1959), contemporary thrillers (Seven Days in May in 1964), and sci-fi action films (Saturn 3 in 1980) — often with his regular costar Burt Lancaster. Douglas’s name was a box office anchor throughout the ’60s and ’70s, when the studios struggled with an unpredictable marketplace. Many of his films have faded in memory even as his status as a cinema icon endured.
Douglas's signature role was as the title hero in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 Roman epic Spartacus — which Douglas also executive produced. Very loosely based on the leader of a historical slave uprising starting in 73 BCE, the film has lasted in no small part thanks to its ending, in which Spartacus, captured with what is left of his army, is thwarted from proclaiming his identity to his Roman captors after all of his compatriots begin declaring "I am Spartacus!" Douglas also fought to give screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — who had been blacklisted for communist sympathies — full credit on the film, a move often cited as the effective end of the blacklist.
After buying the rights to Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and playing the lead in the 1963 Broadway adaptation, Douglas gave the film rights to his son Michael, who produced the 1975 movie version that swept the Academy Awards. Michael's own successful acting career in the 1980s and ’90s further established his father as a kind of dynastic Hollywood legend.
Douglas and his family, however, have been far from immune to setbacks and tragedies. In 1991, when he was 72, Douglas survived a crash between a helicopter and a small plane that killed two people, which he said led him to rediscover his Judaism. In 2004, his son Eric Douglas died of a drug overdose; and his grandson Cameron Douglas (son of Michael) was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for heroin possession, intent to distribute meth and cocaine, and possessing drugs while in prison.
If there was a unifying theme through Douglas’s life and career, it was an almost single-minded determination to press forward. In 1996, Kirk Douglas accepted an honorary Oscar on the 50th anniversary of his feature film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers — less than two months after having a debilitating stroke that severely restricted his speech. All four of his sons were there to watch him accept the award.
Outliving all of his peers, Douglas will be remembered as the last of a certain type of movie star who relished the ability to loom larger than life, as if personifying Hollywood itself. Spartacus is still shown in high school history classes across the nation, and his cleft chin remains a signifier of a specific and steadfast type of virile masculinity.
Few have lived to see the industry that launched them change so fundamentally. But Douglas’s mark on that history will endure.