Announcing father’s death, son Michael Douglas says square-jawed star of Paths of Glory and Lust For Life leaves legacy ‘that will endure for generations’
The stage and screen actor was well-known for a range of roles, including the 1960 classic Spartacus, in which he played the titular character.
Born in New York in 1916, he rose to prominence during Hollywood’s “golden age”, earning his first Oscar nomination for the 1949 boxing story Champion.
He was also the father of Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas.
Michael said in a statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today.”
“To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies… but to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad,” it read in part.
Many will remember Kirk Douglas as the star of many Hollywood movie from the Vikings to Spartacus.
Spartacus a symbol of struggle that still resonates
The role Kirk Douglas played as Spartacus not only educated but inspired many people, a generation grow up that would call out “I’m Spartacus” when ever an act of unity against oppression was called for. It would be a battle cry that many shouted on picket lines up and down the country, a call for a just cause.
More than one man broke the Hollywood anti-communist blacklist. John Henry Faulk may well have started the ball rolling in 1957 after he sued a company called AWARE, one of the many private organisations making a fast buck at the time by publicising the names of supposed left wing sympathisers in the US film industry.
A born fighter, Douglas was especially proud of his role in the the downfall of Hollywood’s blacklist, which halted and ruined the careers of writers suspected of pro-Communist activity or sympathies. By the end of the ‘50s, the use of banned writers was widely known within the industry, but not to the general public.
Douglas, who years earlier had reluctantly signed a loyalty oath to get the starring role in “Lust for Life,” provided a crucial blow when he openly credited the former Communist and Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo for script work on “Spartacus,” the epic about a slave rebellion during ancient Rome that was released in 1960. (A few months earlier, Otto Preminger had announced Trumbo’s name would appear on the credits for “Exodus,” but “Spartacus” came out first.)
“Everybody advised me not to do it because you won’t be able to work in this town again and all of that. But I was young enough to say to hell with it,” Douglas said about “Spartacus” in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. “I think if I was much older, I would have been too conservative: ‘Why should I stick my neck out?’”
Alfred Hitchcock also helped rock the foundations of a way of thinking which held sway in Tinseltown for more than a decade when he hired blacklisted actor Norman Lloyd as an associate producer for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in 1957. And then there was director Otto Preminger’s public announcement in January 1960 that prominent member of the Hollywood 10 Dalton Trumbo, who had been working under pseudonyms for the past 16 years, was the screenwriter of his film Exodus.
However, it may well have been Kirk Douglas’ intervention during his work on the same year’s Spartacus which played the greatest part in destroying the blacklist. Douglas was also executive producer on the project, and he insisted to Universal pictures that Trumbo be named as screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Roman epic.
“Too many people were using false names back then. I was embarrassed,” he tells the Hollywood Reporter in this interview. “My company produced Spartacus, written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer, under the name Sam Jackson. I was young enough to be impulsive, so, even though I was warned against it, I used his real name on the screen.”
Douglas, who will be honoured for his contribution at an Ambassadors for Humanity Gala Dinner in LA 2016, said he probably only got away with the move because Universal were in the process of being sold and were therefore in a weak bargaining position. Whatever the case, the decision to name Trumbo started the ball rolling to end the blacklist, although many film industry workers never recovered their careers.
Spartacus history of inspiration
Spartacus became an icon for communists and socialists. Karl Marx listed Spartacus as one of his heroes and described him as “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history” and a “great general, noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat”.
“The most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history” and a “great general, noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat”-Karl Marx
Marx was not the only member of the Spartacus fan club. German Communists led by Rosa Luxemburg named their party after him.
Spartacus a man for the LeFT
Spartacus has been a great inspiration to left-wing revolutionaries, most notably the German Spartacus League (1915–18), a forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany.
The Spartacus League was a Marxist revolutionary movement organised in Germany during World War I. The League was named after Spartacus, leader of the largest slave rebellion of the Roman Republic. It was founded by Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and others.
The January 1919 uprising by communists in Germany was called the Spartacist uprising. Spartacus Books, one of the longest running collectively-run leftist book stores in North America, is also named in his honour.
Stanley Kubrick made the film in 1960 — starring Kirk Douglas. The film ends with a famous scene in which the defeated slaves are interrogated by the Romans as they search for their leader. In solidarity, each slave declares “I’m Spartacus” and so joins him in being crucified. This rebellion, interpreted by some as an example of oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning oligarchy, has provided inspiration for many political thinkers.
1939, Arthur Koestler’s first novel, titled The Gladiators, depicted Spartacus as trying to build a City of the Sun in which escaped slaves would live as equals.
The actual motivations behind Spartacus’ revolt do not detract from his accomplishments, however. They became irrelevant starting in 18th century CE France when the gladiator became elevated to iconic status as an enemy of oppression and champion of freedom.
The terrible conditions of life as a slave in ancient Rome have since been compared to those of any group suffering oppression and Spartacus is the most recognisable hero from the ancient world to serve as a symbol.
Kirk Douglas will always be remembered as not only a legend of the silver screen but the modern face of Spartacus. But for this writer Kirk Douglas will always be remembered for the hours of pleasure and escapism growing up watching his many films.