Gritted teeth, an adamantine dimpled jaw and a voice sounding as if it came through a meat grinder: for a postwar movie generation Kirk Douglas, who has died aged 103, was the definition of macho.
He played mean heroes, greedy heroes, angry heroes, brave heroes. In films such as Champion, Ace in the Hole and The Bad and the Beautiful he was the ultimate American go-getter. In Paths of Glory and Spartacus, his Stanley Kubrick diptych, he laid a mythic patina across the search for justice and freedom in a battle-torn world.
He could make an artist seem the stuff of elemental defiance (Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life) and a tubercular doctor the last word in frontier pluck (Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral). And it wasn’t wise to get in his way when he donned a Norse helmet (The Vikings), a Marine colonel’s uniform (Seven Days in May) or a cattle driver’s chaps (The Last Sunset).
The adage “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” might have been made for Douglas. In later years he survived a helicopter crash that killed two co-passengers and a speech-impairing stroke. He fought back from the stroke to become a regular television chat show guest, celebrating not just his own career but that of his family, notably producer-actor son Michael. He also wrote an autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, and a clutch of memoirs and novels.
Twice married, first to Diana Dill whom he divorced in 1950 and then to Anne Buydens, Douglas leaves two other sons, Joel and Peter. A third, Eric, predeceased him.
Born in Amsterdam, New York on December 9 1916 as the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, his real name was Issur Danielovitch Demsky. After pushing himself through school and St Lawrence University (working as a waiter to pay his fees), he briefly became a wrestler before enrolling in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He had won small roles on Broadway when the second world war intervened and he joined the navy.
He won his first movie role in 1946 opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. By the late 1940s Douglas was a star, flashing that feral grin as a gangster in Out of the Past, a small-town cock of the walk in A Letter to Three Wives and — first Oscar nomination — a boxer in Champion.
Playing antiheroic heroes soon became the Douglas speciality, the style established in two films that became cult classics. In Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole he was a ruthless reporter manufacturing a story from the misery of a man trapped in a collapsed mine. In Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful he won a second Oscar nomination as the ultimate Hollywood shark, a producer gnawing on the talent around him.
After an action adventure spell — The Big Sky, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Man without a Star — there were two forays into different forms of “art cinema”. In Lust for Life Douglas was a startlingly convincing Van Gogh, the facial similarities enhanced by the gnashing anguish Douglas could bring to tormented heroes. The following year a young Stanley Kubrick cast him as a French officer arguing for the lives of three first world war soldiers condemned to execution in Paths of Glory.
Kubrick repaid him by taking over Douglas’s own troubled project, Spartacus. The actor turned producer had festooned this epic with liberal credentials — scenarist Dalton Trumbo was the first blacklisted writer to receive a Hollywood credit after the anti-communist witch-hunts — but the film groaned with expense and logistical difficulty. Douglas pulled it through with Kubrick’s help, though his own performance evinced a new coarsening, the beginning of a hamminess that would mar subsequent movies such as The Vikings, The Devil’s Disciple, The Heroes of Telemark.
One labour of love showed Douglas in subtler colours: the liberal modern western Lonely are the Brave. But from the mid-1960s his career alternated guest roles in starry blockbusters — In Harm’s Way, Is Paris Burning? — with rheumatic westerns and ill-judged action comedies. He varied acting with directing (Posse) and producing, under the banner of his company Bryna Films. He began a new mini-career as a memoirist and pop novelist. He even worked for the US government as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department.
In 1981 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996, a year after his stroke, he won an Oscar for lifetime achievement. He once said, “I’ve made a career of playing sons of bitches.” His son Michael carried on the tradition, winning the family’s first Best Actor Oscar for Wall Street.
This family triumph may have softened the wound earlier inflicted on Douglas père when, as producer of the hit movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Michael gave the main role to Jack Nicholson in preference to the actor who had triumphed on Broadway: his father.