He starred in about 90 movies over the course of six decades, taking on roles ranging from a tortured artist ("Lust for Life") to a gladiator ("Spartacus"). Here, for his 101st birthday, are 25 intriguing facts about Kirk Douglas.
He Led With His Chin
When Kirk Douglas was starting out, a director wanted him to fill in the dimple in his chin with makeup. "I said, 'Listen, this is what you get.' I didn't cave," the actor later recalled. In due course, the cleft chin became his trademark. There's even an imprint of it, along with his hands and feet, on the famous sidewalk in front of Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre.
He Grew Up Poor
His birth name was Issur Danielovitch. Douglas' parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in upstate New York, where his father eked out a living as a ragman, trading in old rags and other junk. "I came from abject poverty," Douglas told Esquire in 2007. "There was nowhere to go but up."
He Toughed It Out
Kirk Douglas on his profession:
"Acting is like prizefighting. The downtown gyms are smelly, but that's where the champions are."
He Decided to Marry Diana Dill When He Saw Her on a Magazine Cover
After working his way through college, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Later, in the Navy during World War II, Douglas saw a former classmate, Diana Dill, on the cover of Life magazine. "Hey, I know that girl!" he recalled telling skeptical shipmates in his memoir "The Ragman's Son." "And you know what else? I'm going to marry her." He wrote to Diana, in care of the magazine, and they were married six months later.
Lauren Bacall Was His "Lucky Charm"
Another acting school classmates was Betty Joan Perske—soon to be known as Lauren Bacall. She had "a wild crush on Kirk," according to her memoir, and later helped him land his first movie role. When she died, in 2014, Douglas wrote, "It's hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey. In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm."
In His First Hollywood Role, He Played a Loser
After acting on Broadway, Douglas made his Hollywood debut in 1946, playing Barbara Stanwyck's alcoholic loser husband in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers." Stanwyck, already a major star, was aloof on the set, but eventually turned to Kirk and said, "Hey, you're pretty good." Douglas' reply: "Too late, Miss Stanwyck." But they got on after that.
Fame Didn't Change Him
Kirk Douglas on fame:
"When you become a star, you don't change—everyone else does."
He Admits He Wasn't the Greatest Husband
Here he is with his son Michael, the future Oscar winner and star of hit movies like "Romancing the Stone," "Fatal Attraction" and "Wall Street." Family life wasn't as serene as this photo suggests. Douglas would be the first to admit that he wasn't a faithful husband, and Diana, Michael's mom, filed for divorce in 1949.
He Dated Patricia Neal
They coupled up in 1949, and Douglas remembers Neal fondly. Just one catch: She was madly in love with Gary Cooper, her co-star in "The Fountainhead." "I think Pat reached out to me to try to break the hold that Cooper had over her," Douglas wrote in his memoir. "But she couldn't."
He Got Around
Douglas was linked to Golden Age icons ranging from Marlene Dietrich and Gene Tierney to Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, his co-star in 1952's "The Bad and the Beautiful." His oddest hookup was with Joan Crawford: "In the middle of our lovemaking, she murmured, 'You're so clean. It's wonderful that you shaved your armpits when you made 'Champion.'" Never mind that it wasn't true. Douglas found it "a strange comment to make; a stranger time to make it."
He Has What It Takes
Kirk Douglas on acting:
"All children are natural actors, and I'm still a kid. If you grow up completely, you can never be an actor."
His Brush With Brigitte Bardot Was Strictly a Photo Op
"I didn't recognize the nubile young woman—very ooh-la-la in a form-fitting bikini—who ran up to me on the beach shouting 'Keeerk!'" Douglas said of his much-publicized encounter with Brigitte Bardot, then 18 years old, at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. At the time, he was falling in love with Anne Burdens, the festival's 34-year-old head of protocol, who would become his second wife.
He and Anne Tied the Knot for Good
A poised and elegant Belgian, Anne Burdens had turned Douglas down when he tried to hire her as a Paris-based publicist and general assistant in the early '50s. But they ended up marrying in 1954, renewed their wedding vows in 2004 and celebrated their 60th anniversary 10 years later in Beverly Hills. Back when they were newlyweds, Kirk wrote, "The ring felt strange on my finger for a few months. Then, like Anne, it was part of my life."
Playing Van Gogh Weirded Him Out
The role of Vincent Van Gogh in 1956's "Lust for Life" had a disturbing effect on Douglas, who at times felt himself "going over the line, into the skin" of the Dutch artist whose mental illness drove him to suicide. "The memory makes me wince," Kirk wrote. "I could never play him again."
He Sees Nothing Wrong With a Flawed Character
Kirk Douglas on moral perfection:
"If I thought a man had never committed a sin in his life, I don't think I'd want to talk with him. A man with flaws is more interesting."
He Was Known for Leaving Parties Early
Douglas (seen here with Frank Sinatra at the 1959 Boomtown gala, a charity event that raises money for children in need) wasn't one for staying up until the wee small hours of the morning. He'd often duck out early, even when he was the host.
He Battled the Blacklist
He had the title role in 1960's "Spartacus," but Douglas is prouder of the part that he played in breaking the Hollywood blacklist, which barred artists accused of having Communist ties from working in the movie industry. Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer, had been working under pseudonyms, but Douglas insisted that Trumbo receive a screen credit for "Spartacus." In 1991, the Writers Guild of America gave the actor an award for this "singular act of courage."
He Has a Theory About Marriage
Kirk Douglas on the way partners reflect each other:
"If you want to know about a man, you can find out an awful lot by looking at who he married."
He Counseled Ava Gardner
One night Gardner (seen here in 1964's "Seven Days in May") showed up at his door in tears over her marriage to Frank Sinatra. "She said they had had an argument," Douglas recalled. "Frank had a gun. He threatened to commit suicide. I said, 'Ava, married people have arguments. Frank loves you. You must go back and try to act like nothing happened.'"
He Occasionally Struck Out
It had the earmarks of a winner—directed by Elia Kazan, co-starring Faye Dunaway not long after "Bonnie and Clyde"—but 1969's "The Arrangement" was a critical and financial flop. Still, Dunaway praised Douglas' performance, noting that "he's as bright a person as I've met in the acting profession."[
He's Philosophical About Childrearing
Kirk Douglas on being a parent:
"Give your children lots of rope. Allow them to make their own mistakes. Don't give them too much advice. Each child is different; you have to respect that. It's a crapshoot: You roll the dice, and you see what happens."
He Made a Bundle on "Cuckoo's Nest"
Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and starred in an adaptation of the novel on Broadway. But by the time it became a movie—produced by his son Michael—Kirk was too old to play R.P. McMurphy, so the plum role went to Jack Nicholson. Although the film made more money for Douglas than any of his acting jobs, he called it one of the great disappointments of his life.
He Loved Working With Burt—Not That It Was Easy
Longtime friends and co-stars of movies like "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "Seven Days in May," Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster appeared on screen together for the last time in 1986's "Tough Guys." Douglas, then 69, told the New York Times, "We're both impulsive, we're both difficult. But what I like about working with Burt—it ain't dull."
Even After the Stroke, He Kept On Slugging
In 1996, Douglas suffered a stroke that severely hampered his ability to speak. Refusing to retire, he underwent years of speech therapy and made a big-screen comeback in 1999's "Diamonds," a comedy about a boxer recovering from the same affliction. Kirk's feeling about it: "So what if my stroke left me with a speech impediment? Moses had one, and he did all right."
He Has Thought About Heaven
Kirk Douglas on death:
"Maybe when you die, you come before a big, bearded man on a big throne, and you say, 'Is this heaven?' And he says, 'Heaven? You just came from there.'"
Fresh perspectives on aging in films that are genuinely moving or funny—and often both
Hit singles of the '70s and early '80s that had only one mission—to make you get up and dance
The Backwoods Barbie who became a country-pop icon
Major stars whose performances landed on the cutting room floor
Long-running shows that went out with a bang
The best of the blues-rock legend who gave up a piece of her heart with every song