Kirk Douglas Dead at 103

Three-time Academy Award nominee and winner of a lifetime achievement Oscar was slowed by a stroke in 1995 but continued acting and carried on as a philanthropist with his wife Anne Douglas

By Natalie Finn Feb 05, 2020 11:31 PMTags
Watch: Kirk Douglas Dead at 103

Hollywood wouldn't be what it is today if people like Kirk Douglas hadn't passed through town and made it their own.

The actor, author and philanthropist, and one of the few surviving super-stars of Hollywood's golden age, has died. He was 103. In a statement shared to Instagram, his son, Michael Douglas, revealed, "It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103."

He continued, "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. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband."

"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 concluded. "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."

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While known as the star of classic films such as SpartacusAce in the Hole20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and many more, the father of actor Michael Douglas also helped usher in the end of the Hollywood blacklist at a time when writers, filmmakers and actors were losing jobs at the hands of a federal witch-hunt for Americans with Communist ties or sympathies.

Douglas wasn't untouched by the toxic atmosphere at the time—he admitted that he signed a loyalty oath to secure his role in 1956's Lust for Life—but a few years later he took a stand. As a producer of Spartacus, Douglas had screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—a member of the Hollywood Ten who refused to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee—go by his real name in the 1960 epic's credits.


"Senator [Joseph] McCarthy was an awful man who was finding Communists all over the country. He blacklisted the writers who wouldn't obey his edict," Douglas recalled later. "The heads of the studios were hypocrites who went along with it. My company produced Spartacus, written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer, under the name Sam Jackson. Too many people were using false names back then. I was embarrassed. I was young enough to be impulsive, so even though I was warned against it, I used his real name on the screen."

Spartacus was a box office hit and went on to win four Oscars, as well as the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama.

Nominated three times for Academy Awards—for his role as troubled boxer fighting his way to the top in 1949's Champion, for playing a filmmaker who will do whatever it takes to get his movie made in 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful, and for his role as Vincent Van Gogh in  Lust for Life—Douglas was finally presented with an honorary Oscar in 1996 for serving as a creative and moral force in the Hollywood community for half a century.

Douglas' first marriage, to actress Diana Douglas, with whom he had two children (Michael and Joel Douglas), ended in divorce in 1951. He was in Paris filming Act of Love in 1953 when he met the German-born Anne Buydens, who was working in film PR. Anne refused to accept a date with the notorious ladies man, but he, as he put it himself, he "couldn't get through to her" until one day she finally agreed to accompany him to the circus.

The couple married in Las Vegas on May 29, 1954, and went on to have sons Peter and Eric Douglas together.

Slowed by a stroke he suffered in 1996, Douglas memorably took the stage at the Oscars to a standing ovation after tribute was paid by presenter Steven Spielberg. Though his speech was slurred, the blue-eyed actor looked his normal hale self.

Earl Gibson III/WireImage

Douglas also received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, was part of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994 and got the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. On an even grander scale, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1981, received the French Legion of Honor in 1985 and was honored with a National Medal of the Arts in 2001.

He acknowledged in an interview with Parade in 2014, upon the publication of his 11th book, Life Could Be Verse, that he actually thought about ending it all after his stroke.

"Humor saved me," Douglas told the magazine. "A stroke, especially for an actor, is a terrible thing, because if you can't speak, you can't act. At first, I thought my life was at an end. But when I put the gun in my mouth, it hit a tooth. Ow! That struck me funny. A toothache was stopping me from committing suicide? And it made me stop. There are even jokes about it: What can an actor do who can't talk? He waits for the silent pictures to come back!"

Michael Caulfield/

But Douglas pressed on, appearing again on the big screen in 1999's Diamonds and co-starring with son Michael Douglas, grandson Cameron Douglas and ex-wife Diana Douglas in the fittingly titled 2003 comedy It Runs in the Family.

The elder Hollywood statesman also focused on philanthropy in his later years, establishing the Anne & Kirk Douglas Playground Award with his wife to sponsor the building of playgrounds near public schools in Los Angeles. The Douglasas were also the official hosts of the annual Thanksgiving meal service at the L.A. Mission, for which celebrities show up en masse to serve dinner to those in need.

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, N.Y., the young man who would rename himself Kirk Douglas wrestled in college and, after scoring a few bit acting parts, joined the Navy in 1941. After he left the service, former classmate Lauren Bacall hooked him up with a Hollywood screen test and he made his film debut in the noir drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946.

"It's an inspirational career," Michael Douglas said about his dad in November 2014, talking to Entertainment Tonight. "He's probably one of the last of his great generation."

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

The family celebrated Douglas' 100th birthday at an intimate but impressively attended party with guests including Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Rickles, as well as the family rabbi. Having been raised in a Jewish household, Douglas started studying Judaism again in his mid-70s and had a second Bar Mitzvah in 1999. Anne converted to Judaism in 2004 and took over the lighting of the Shabbat candles on Friday nights.

"I grew up praying in the morning and laying tefillin," the actor told the Jewish Journal in 2014. "I gave up much of the formal aspect of religion...I don't think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others."

Also timed for his centennial, the Douglases released their first book together, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood.

A recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 1968 Golden Globes when he was 51, Douglas returned to the Globes in January 2018 at 101 in honor of the show's 75th anniversary. In a wheelchair, he appeared alongside daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones onstage and was treated to a standing ovation.

After Zeta-Jones had given a short synopsis of Douglas' enviable career, he replied to her, haltingly but charmingly, "Catherine, you said it all. I can never follow you." 

He is survived by his wife of 65-years Anne Buyden, their three living sons, Michael, Joel and Peter Douglas (son Eric died in 2004); and seven grandchildren.