Kirk Douglas: The slave who rebelled
Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner during the shooting of ‘Cast a Giant Shadow’ near the Jerusalem Hills / National Photo Collection of Israel (Public domain)

Kirk Douglas was Spartacus, the doomed slave who rebelled against the repressive Roman Empire. He was Colonel Dax, the soldier-lawyer who defends three sacrificial French troops who refuse a WWI suicide mission in Paths of Glory. He was painter and social activist Vincent Van Gogh who took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden in Lust for Life.

Kirk Douglas died on February 5 at the age of 103.

As an actor, as well as activist, Douglas never wavered. In the face of the McCarthy Blacklist, he defied Red-baiters, hiring leftist Dalton Trumbo to write the script for the award-winning Spartacus. In Lonely Are the Brave, in Douglas’s favorite role, he takes the side of the immigrants against police persecution.

Kirk Douglas came by his politics growing up in a poor Jewish immigrant family from Russia. Before he became Kirk Douglas, Issur Danielovitch was always conscious of being and defending the outsider, the underdog. His father was a ragman, driving his horse cart through the poor streets of Amsterdam, New York, buying, begging and “finding” scrap metal and junk.

Douglas helped support his family by taking on odd jobs, over 40 by his own calculations, even as he made his way through school. He struck up friendships with other junkmen, mill workers, construction workers, and laborers. Supposedly, he talked his way into St. Lawrence University, where he excelled in English, acting and wrestling  He wrestled in carnivals to help pay tuition, the experience which solidified his friendship with Burt Lancaster, with whom he would do seven films.

Lauren Bacall befriended and supported the impoverished Douglas, and helped him secure his first motion picture role. He capitalized on his tough guy image, drawing on his fighting experience not only in Champion (1949) but as a battler against injustice, the law, and often against his own personal demons. In the quintessential film noir Out of the Past, Douglas’s menacing tough guy is on the other side of justice.

Through the fifties and sixties, the roles varied from The Detectives, The Bad and the Beautiful, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, and Town Without Pity, to Seven Days, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and List of Adrian Messenger.

The variety of roles and his prominence in Hollywood as one of its top stars and greatest actors made Douglas an icon. A generation of America’s youth got to see the world through his eyes, influenced by the progressive characters that he created. His Academy Award-winning son Michael has continued this tradition and those values through his work. The Hollywood that right wingers now rail against was largely shaped by men like Kirk Douglas.

“I’ve made over 85 pictures,” he fondly remembered, “but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the Blacklist.”

Thank you, Spartacus.

An iconic scene from Spartacus can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.