Friends, as I always point out in any of these articles there is never any joy in sharing the news of a beloved entertainer passing away – it is with an extremely heavy heart that we report that Kirk Douglas has passed away at the age of 103. Obviously that is an incredibly long life and it cannot be denied that Douglas left us an amazing amount of films to enjoy throughout the years as one of his legacies. I will tell you truly though that when fellow Pop Culture Retrorama Author, Gary Burton, shared the news of Kirk Douglas passing away – I had to hang my head for long seconds in an effort to get my thoughts in order. In total, Douglas was credited with 95 film and television roles – with his first role being in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Having said that the first film I saw featuring Kirk Douglas – thanks to the TBS Sunday morning movie, was the epic tale of slave rebellion in Roman times, the Academy Award winning Spartacus.
That also happened to be the first Stanley Kubrick directed film I had the pleasure of watching, even if I read online that the Director didn’t care for the movie himself. And it isn’t like Kubrick and Kirk Douglas hadn’t worked together before – with the actor portraying the memorable Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory just three years previously. While the Director didn’t care for it – I quite like Spartacus, it was in fact the first movie I can recall watching where the ‘hero’ and his allies came to a very nasty end. Another element of 1960’s Spartacus that stands out is that the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was publicly given credit by Kirk Douglas – in addition John F. Kennedy, who had already been elected the 35th President of the United States but hadn’t taken office, crossed through a picket line made up of American Legion members so he could watch the film. These elements among others have been credited as helping to put an end to the era of the blacklist in Hollywood.
The next film with Kirk Douglas that I watched was thanks again to the TBS Sunday morning movie, that was 1956’s Lust for Life, a biopic on the life of Vincent van Gogh. This also happened to be the first movie that I caught with Anthony Quinn – who would earn an Oscar for his incredible role as Paul Gauguin. While it is most certainly true that I prefer watching films in the horror genre – the performance delivered by Kirk Douglas as the tortured artist had me glued to the TV screen until the end.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Lonely Are the Brave, The War Wagon, Seven Days in May, The Final Countdown, The Man from Snowy River, and Eddie Macon’s Run are just a few of the excellent films that Kirk Douglas appeared in. Besides the two biopics I have already mentioned there are two additional films that I count as my favorites of Douglas – one being 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With Walt Disney’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel – Douglas portrayed Ned Land, a harpooneer who is equally proficient with his fists as well as playing a guitar. This film version also has the amazing James Mason as Captain Nemo, Peter Lorre as the bumbling but lovable Conseil, to say nothing of that stunningly beautiful design of the Nautilus itself!
The second of the two films I want to share with you is a prime example of how versatile Kirk Douglas was – yes, he was incredibly charismatic, athletic, and a skilled thespian – but he could also deliver a comedic performance. Or in the case of 1986’s Tough Guys along with the equally iconic Burt Lancaster – they managed to deliver performances that showed off all of those talents!
I have shared in the past at how when working at the local movie theater of my youth, a co-worker when hearing of the passing of a beloved celebrity would mention ‘We will dim the lights in the auditorium’ to mark their passing. I adopted that phrase… but I tell you what, friends, with Kirk Douglas… we are shutting off the lights. He will be missed.