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Kirk Douglas: "Infused Every Role with Passion"

Review Copyright Roger Zotti, 2003


Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch Dempsky) begins his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, by saying he was a nobody: "'Nobody' meant being the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants in the WASP town of Amsterdam, New York ... It meant living at 46 Eagle Street, a rundown, two-story, gray clapboard house ... "

He worked at numerous menial jobs to put himself through St. Lawrence University, where he was on the wrestling team and tried his hand at theater.

Acting, Douglas came to realize, was a way out of poverty.


The film that catapulted Douglas to stardom was Champion (1949). In it, he tore through the screen as unscrupulous prize fighter Midge Kelly. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

He was also nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), in which he portrayed another unscrupulous character, as well as for Lust for Life (1956).

He won the N.Y. Critics Award for Best Actor for his dynamic performance as Vincent Van Gogh in the latter film.

In 1957 he starred in one of the most important films of his long career, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.

Of that long career, Leonard Maltin writes: "Douglas infused every role with passion, and his performances were often multi-layered ones: he could bring sinister traits to sympathize characters and vice versa. Something in his eyes, in his voice, behind that toothy grin, suggested lurking menace in some characters and suppressed mirth in others. But in all cases he kept audiences glued to their seats."


After Douglas read the script of Paths of Glory, he said he fell in love with it. He told the film's director, Stanley Kubrick, that he didn't think the film would make money but that "we have to make it."

Douglas's company, Byrna Productions, would back the film financially.

When Douglas arrived in Munich, Germany, to begin filming, he was handed a totally rewritten script. "It was a catastrophe," he said.

It even had a happy ending. "The general's car," Douglas said, "arrives screeching to a halt the firing squad and he changes the men's death sentences to thirty days in the guardhouse. Then my character, Colonel Dax, goes off with the bad guy he has been fighting all through the movie, General Rousseau, to have a drink, as the general puts his arm around my shoulder."


Douglas met with Kubrick and asked him why he had changed the script. Kubrick said he wanted the film to be commercial and make money.

"I hit the ceiling," Douglas said.

He told Kubrick that either the original script would be used or there would be no film. The original script was used.

As Douglas predicted, the film wasn't a commercial success. "I think [it] is a classic," he said, "one of the most important pictures Stanley Kubrick has ever made."

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