Kirk Douglas, the man who was Spartacus

One day, when he was at the height of his stardom, Kirk Douglas quietly played golf without knowing that he was being watched by two businessmen. When the actor missed a relatively easy blow, one of them exclaimed aloud: “What a Spartacus!” The anecdote, told by film director Billy Wilder, reflects the public’s tendency to confuse fiction and real life, while confirming the identification of the actor in the popular imagination with the Thracian slave who led the rebellion against the Roman Republic.

The truth is that Douglas felt strongly linked to his most famous character. Somehow he too had to face a lot of adversity in the earliest times of his life. In addition, he never stopped fighting for his artistic independence, promoting personal projects that dared to question the fundamental values ​​of the American way of life that he himself had helped to consolidate through the big screen.

The rag’s son

Before becoming Kirk Douglas, Issur Danilovich Demsky was a poor boy of the Depression era, the son of modest Jewish immigrants from Belarus (when it was still part of the Russian Empire), who worked in more than forty trades to help his family, as a newspaper boy or a sandwich seller, until he found his way through acting.

Miraculously, “the rag’s son” (that’s what Douglas called his autobiography) from Amsterdam, New York, got to go to college thanks to a loan he obtained for his record at the institute. There he stood out, above all, in wrestling. A scholarship later took him to the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, where he shared classes with Lauren Bacall, whom he dated for a time, and Diana Dill, who would become his first wife.

His friend Bacall got him his first Hollywood role after the war

In 1941 he enlisted in the Navy, but after serving as a telecommunications officer in the Pacific for two years, he returned to civilian life in 1944 as a result of war wounds. Back in New York, he began working in radio, advertising and theater, until his friend Bacall landed him his first role in Hollywood, in the melodrama The strange love of Martha Ivers (1946), by Lewis Milestone, where played for the first and last time a cowardly man in the hands of the dominatrix Barbara Stanwyck.

Even then he had an unmistakable face that distinguished him from the stereotypical gallants of the time, with his famous dimple on his chin (which, with a sense of humor, he compared to the anal opening), his mocking smile and features that seemed cut with a knife, as if he were a character from the Dick Tracy comic strips.

With the boxing drama The clay idol (1949), by Mark Robson, reached an early stardom from which he would never alight. Douglas incarnated thereafter a strong and vigorous masculinity, characteristic of the “patriarchal culture”, along with other stars of the time, such as Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston or Victor Mature.

He became the prototype of American vitalism, with his energetic roles in such films as The lawless prairie (1955), by King Vidor. But he also knew how to address the chiaroscuro of the North American identity in a series of films that are not very accommodating to the general public, such as the shocking melodrama about the world of cinema Captives of evil (1952), de Vincente Minnelli.

Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Great Carnival’, 1951.


One of the first to notice his twilight facet was the aforementioned Wilder, who cast him as the avid journalist for success. The great carnival (1951). Thereafter, Douglas he would continue his career alternating roles of an old-fashioned hero, in titles like the Disney hit 20,000 leagues of underwater travel (1954) the Duel of the titans (1957), with others more daring, such as the disenchanted Colonel Dax de Paths of Glory (1957) or the suicidal publicist Eddie Anderson in Elia Kazan’s underrated masterpiece Commitment (1969), one of the sources of inspiration for the series Mad Men.

The Spartacus of Hollywood?

On several occasions, Douglas stated that I would never have achieved anything in life without the help of vanity. The combination of an indefatigable character, devotion to hard work and a considerable ego made him an immortal star, with a career spanning seven decades and more than ninety titles to his credit.

But Douglas couldn’t get enough of the crowd’s heat. Following in the footsteps of his friend Burt Lancaster, with whom he shared the screen in six films, decided to found his own company in 1955, which he named after his mother, Bryna Productions. With this seal he produced nineteen titles outside the commercial formulas of the studios, among them, the aforementioned anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory or the peplum with obvious political resonances Spartacus (1960), which, as is well known, would also go down in history as the first film signed by retaliated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after the Witch Hunt.

Douglas spread the idea that ‘Spartacus’ contributed to ending the Witch Hunt blacklists

The myth, which the actor himself has been in charge of feeding, tells that the film contributed decisively to end blacklists, or, at least, in his own words, “to the lists of hypocrisy.” Douglas published in 2012 I am Spartacus! Shoot a movie, end the blacklists, a sentimental evocation of the times in which he worked as an iron executive producer and protagonist of the film, which, after the dismissal of Anthony Mann, would end up directing Kubrick, thanks to the good memory that the actor had of the experience in Paths of Glory.

In the book, Douglas allows himself to express his dislike, still alive at 96, towards the twelve top Hollywood executives who met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to draft the infamous Waldorf Declaration, which would start the Witch Hunt: “I need to stop for a moment and take a breath. When I review the words of that Declaration more than sixty years later, I feel anger, disgust and deep sadness ”.


Kirk Douglas as the slave Spartacus in the homonymous film, 1960.


The book also provides juicy anecdotes about the vicissitudes of the production: the creative fights with Kubrick and budget problems, the unusual demands of the Censorship Committee (the main one, replacing the famous reference to oysters and snails in the conversation between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis, a homosexual allusion, for “artichokes and truffles”) or the unheard of contribution of the Spanish army to the film with 8,500 soldiers for the battle scenes, thanks to negotiations that included cash receipts to a charity of Franco’s wife.

But was Douglas really the Spartacus of Hollywood? The truth is the actor was never a political activist, although he did not shy away from facing the social prejudices of his time. When he arrived in film mecca in 1945, clergyman Gerald LK Smith, founder of the far-right party America First, lashed out at what he called “the alienated mentality of Hollywood’s Russian Jews.”

For Douglas, who had grown up in a family that, despite speaking only Yiddish, regarded the United States as his own homeland, everything that was a real offense. In time, Smith’s demagogic occurrence of associating anti-Semitism with fear of the specter of communism would in part extend to the Committee on Anti-American Activities.

The actor ended up admiring Trumbo without reservation, for him a true “American hero”

As Douglas explains, if Jewish businessmen like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn agreed to be a part of it all, it was for a very simple reason: “Fear begets fear”. The heads of the studios felt that everything they had achieved could be wiped away at a stroke if their loyalty to the United States was questioned, so they ended up becoming “super patriots.”

Despite some discrepancies during production, Douglas ended up admiring Trumbo without reservation, whom he always considered a true “American hero”, for the security he had in himself and the fidelity that he always kept to his principles. Trumbo and Douglas would work together two more times in a couple of interesting (especially the second) westerns: The last sunset (1961), by Robert Aldrich, which its screenwriter directly described as “abominable”, and the twilight classic by David Miller The brave walk alone (1962), a title that Douglas always considered the favorite of all his filmography.


Actor Kirk Douglas at the 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Phil Klein / Reuters

However, Trumbo himself and his family have disagreed on various occasions of some details of the version of Douglas and Jack Valenti, president of the Hollywood Academy for 38 years, who in 2002 wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times vindicating the pioneering role of the actor in the eradication of the Witch Hunt.

Trumbo’s wife, Chloe, replied that Otto Preminger (director of Exodus, also with the scriptwriter’s libretto) was, in fact, the first who announced that her husband would appear in the credits of the film, prompting Douglas to take the lead in helping promote Spartacus. Apparently, in his recreation of the past, the actor followed the advice of John Ford of The man who killed Liberty Valance: “When the facts become a legend, print the legend.”

In any case, this does not diminish an iota of importance to this enormous figure in the history of cinema, the epitome of cinematographic classicism and its artistic extensions; a born fighter and a true survivor (Already in old age, he overcame the aftermath of a helicopter accident and a severe stroke from which, against all odds, he partially recovered) that he managed to overcome the centenary.

This article originally appeared in issue 585 of the magazine History and Life. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at [email protected]

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Kirk Douglas, the man who was Spartacus