Kirk Douglas resembles an Easter Island monolith, only with blue eyes and a cleft chin. His face, disproportionately large, is primeval, while his acting is intense and modern.
While not (yet) as enduring as the South Seas statuary, the prolific actor celebrates his 100th birthday on Dec. 9. He is one of the last great 1950s stars still standing.
Douglas once boasted that he made his career playing sons of bitches. This is not quite accurate. What is true is that he was a star who didn’t much care about cultivating a sympathetic persona. Mostly he played tenacious guys, like the real-life gladiator-hero that led a slave uprising against Rome in Spartacus. Or like Jonathan Shields, the opportunistic producer estranged from friends and lovers in The Bad and the Beautiful. Or Vincent van Gogh, the moody post-Impressionist who pushes away those who care for him in Lust for Life.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in the upstate New York hamlet of Amsterdam. He was the fourth child — and only boy — of seven siblings.
As Douglas told it his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, his family was so poor that Issur and his father employed the peasant method of insulation: Through spring and summer, they collected horse manure, and in the fall, they spread it around the base of their house to keep the heat in. Poverty didn’t insulate Issur from dreams of acting. He was hooked from the moment he recited a poem in kindergarten, and the class applauded. “I liked that sound,” he wrote. “I still do.”
His father’s lack of ambition stoked Issur’s own. The son worked many jobs to save money for college and enrolled as a work-study student at St. Lawrence University. Even then, he was magnetic: Despite the pervasive anti-Semitism on campus, he was elected student-body president.
After a brief career on Broadway (during which he changed his name) and an even briefer stint in the Navy (during which he married Diana Dill, his first wife and mother to his son Michael), he went to California. Douglas’ friend Lauren Bacall, who had a teenage crush on the actor, talked him up to Casablanca and True Grit producer Hal Wallis. The actor would spend his next 70 years in Los Angeles, 62 of them (and counting) with his second wife Anne.