Kirk Douglas caricature 2011 infographic
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Kirk Douglas caricature 2011

By Chris Dinsdale

December 9, 2011 - Hollywood acting great Kirk Douglas celebrates his 95th birthday. Best known for his role as the rebellious sandal-clad slave in the 1960 epic Spartacus, his other notable screen credits include Lust for Life, in which he portrayed tormented artist Vincent van Gogh, and Stanley Kubrick’s World War I drama Paths of Glory.

Kirk Douglas hopes to make it to 100.  For a man who has cheated death half a dozen times, the odds look good.  Almost felled by a stroke 15 years ago, the once-dashing screen actor, who famously fought a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and wrestled demons of a different kind as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), has worked hard to regain his health.  He continues to exercise daily -- including sessions with his speech therapist -- has recommitted himself to his Jewish faith with a second Bar Mitzvah at the age of 83 and renewed his vows with second wife, Anne, on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004.  Despite outliving many of his friends, including Spartacus co-star Tony Curtis, who died last year, Douglas remains at the centre of the acting community in California where a street in Palm Springs is named Kirk Douglas Way.
 
A philanthropist, who auctioned off his paintings by Chagall and Picasso to fund a children's playground regeneration scheme, Douglas was born into poverty in Amsterdam, New York, in December 1916, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and the only boy among six sisters.  As a student he showed a talent for drama and was a keen amateur boxer, a skill which would be put to good use in his breakthrough movie, Champion, in 1949.  The story of a prizefighter seduced by success, the film set the tone for a career in which Douglas found himself cast repeatedly as a tough, uncompromising character, often in a western -- he cites Lonely Are The Brave (1962) as one of his favourite performances -- and in military epics, such as Stanley Kubrick's 1957 classic, Paths of Glory, an anti-war tale of a French court martial set in World War One.  Instantly recognisable, with that celebrated dimple in his chin, Douglas's path ran parallel to that of Burt Lancaster, the pair co-starring in seven pictures over five decades, among them Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and the 1976 Israeli hostage drama, Victory at Entebbe.  Nominated three times for a Best Actor Oscar, he never won, but was given an honorary Academy Award in 1996, just weeks after his stroke.   
 
The father of four sons, Douglas visited his eldest -- actor Michael Douglas -- daily in New York when the Wall Street and Fatal Attraction star underwent treatment for stage four throat cancer a year ago.  His youngest, Eric, died from a drug overdose seven years ago, aged 45.  "I visit his grave every week with my wife," Douglas said in a newspaper interview this summer, "I ask myself what more could I have done? Sometimes there is nothing you can do."  The author of four volumes of autobiography, including the 1988 best-seller The Ragman's Son in which he traces his early life as Issur Danielovitch Demsky, and the 2003 account of his illness, My Stroke of Luck, Douglas has written frankly about everything from his legendary love-life to his near-death experiences -- but for his wife's misgivings, he would have been on film producer Michael Todd's plane when it crashed in 1958, killing all on board.  In a self-deprecating footnote on his website, the man who, for many, will always be the sandal-clad slave leader, Spartacus, from the 1960 Roman tearjerker, describes his life as "...like a B-picture script!  It is that corny. If I had my life story offered to me to film, I'd turn it down."

PUBLISHED: 01/12/2011; STORY: Susan Shepherd; PICTURES: Bob Hoare
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