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Kirk Douglas was Spartacus — and much, much more

Kirk Douglas in 1982.
Kirk Douglas in 1982.Wally Fong/Associated Press

Kirk Douglas was many, many things in his 103 years on this earth: Hollywood acting legend, daring film producer, blacklist breaker, best-selling memoirist, stroke survivor. He was father to a second-generation movie legend, Michael Douglas. Aside from 104-year-old Olivia de Havilland, he was until his death Wednesday one of the very last stars standing from the glory days of the studio factory system. Surprisingly, he wasn’t an Oscar winner despite three nominations, until an honorary statue came his way in 1996.

Most crucially, I’ll argue, Douglas was the first great anti-hero of American movies and a key figure in the transition from the constricted studio era to a rough-edged new age of screen freedom.

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Maybe Marlon Brando made the bigger cultural detonation when “Streetcar Named Desire” and Stanley Kowalski hit the screen in 1951. But by then, Douglas had already grown from film noir heels (“Out of the Past,” 1947) to the charismatic but corrupt boxer of his breakout film, “Champion” (1949), which earned him his first best actor nomination from the Motion Picture Academy. He had already played a fictionalized version of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke as a self-destructive alcoholic in “Young Man with a Horn” (1950). And in Billy Wilder’s astoundingly cynical “Ace in the Hole” (1951), Douglas plays an amoral journalist chasing the news story of his career and willing to let a man die for a headline.

There were plenty of other tough guys in the post-World War II roster of Hollywood stars. Brooding John Garfield, creepy Richard Widmark, troubled Robert Ryan, mournfully tense Burt Lancaster. Douglas was especially close with Lancaster; the two appeared in nine films together over the years. (“Kirk would be the first to tell you he’s a difficult man,” Lancaster once said. “I would be the second.”) But Douglas’s onscreen intensity was of a higher order than any other. His characters seethed. The virile frustration that could turn his voice into a strangle propelled his movies restlessly forward. He felt ready to explode and take you with him.

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This meant that stand-up comedians had a field day with his mannerisms – how do you imitate Kirk Douglas? Poke a dimple in your chin, grit your teeth, and scream “I’m KIRK DOUGLAS”– even as the star established a startling independence and creative vision. The ragman’s son born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 was breaking studio contracts and setting himself up as a producer by the mid-1950s. His performances as a soulless Hollywood filmmaker in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and a tormented Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956) netted Douglas his second and third Oscar nominations, but it was 1957’s “Paths of Glory,” produced by Douglas with a handpicked young director named Stanley Kubrick, that became one of the finest anti-war movies of all time. It still is.

Kirk Douglas in "Paths of Glory."
Kirk Douglas in "Paths of Glory."

Douglas called on Kubrick again two years later, when director Anthony Mann’s work on “Spartacus” (1960) wasn’t to the producer’s liking. The result was the iconic Kirk Douglas role, a Roman slave leading a rebellion until every one of his followers is ready to declare “I am Spartacus.” That line is his easiest legacy but by no means his most important.

By publicly acknowledging Dalton Trumbo as the writer of “Spartacus,” Douglas helped consign the Hollywood blacklist to a deserved historical dustbin. And before a younger generation came in and took over the industry, he squeezed out a few more career milestones: An underrated elegy for the American cowboy, “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), and “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962), a sort of exhausted spiritual sequel to the acrid Tinseltown expose “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

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There were plenty of movies after that, but the business had shifted to schlumpy modern stars and baby moguls, and the anti-heroes Douglas had pioneered were mainstream figures now. The actor’s dream role, Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was realized on Broadway in 1963 but Douglas was never able to get it to the screen; by the time son Michael produced a film version in 1975, the part (and the Oscar) went to a younger actor named Jack Nicholson.

Kirk Douglas, center, is flanked by his son Michael Douglas, right, and Jack Nicholson, in 1997.
Kirk Douglas, center, is flanked by his son Michael Douglas, right, and Jack Nicholson, in 1997. VINCE BUCCI/AFP via Getty Images

That may be one of the only ones that got away. Kirk Douglas did it all and lived long – long enough to survive a 1991 helicopter crash and long enough to fight his way back from a 1996 stroke that devastated his speech. In his final years, penning poems and memoirs and novels, he seemed both lovable and unkillable – a far cry from the man who played mesmerizing rat bastards onscreen and could be a demanding and hotheaded collaborator when the cameras weren’t rolling. That seemed to suit Douglas fine. “Virtue is not photogenic,” he once said. “What is it to be a nice guy? To be nothing, that’s what. A big fat zero with a smile for everybody.”

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Kirk Douglas knew from nothing. It’s what he came from. And he willed himself into being something – something else entirely, a strapping example of the American male at his most magnetic and flawed. Today, no rising young actor is taken seriously until he’s played a rat bastard or two. But Douglas got there first. And they’re just one more Spartacus.



Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.