[dropcap]K[/dropcap]IRK 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 favourite 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.”
By the time he started his meteoric silver-screen career, Hollywood had become the most blatant example of the crude cold war anti-communist crusade dubbed McCarthyism. One renowned screenwriter who was blacklisted and jailed in the Communist witch-hunt of the ‘40s and ‘50s was Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was forced to write under a pseudonym for many years. Two of his scripts, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Oscars. It wasn’t until decades later that Trumbo’s real name was put on them. When Kirk Douglas produced and starred in the Oscar-winning 1960 epic Spartacus he bravely asked Trumbo to write the script. He publicly announced that Trumbo would be the writer and his name would be on the screen credits. Later that year, director Otto Preminger did the same thing with Exodus, another Trumbo script. The blacklist ban was on its way to being gone.
At the age of 98, he said “I had friends who went into exile when no-one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair. My young co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was unable to work for 12 years after she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“I was threatened that using a blacklisted writer for Spartacus –– my friend Dalton Trumbo — would mark me as a ‘commie-lover’ and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle. I am so proud of my fellow actors who use their public influence to speak out against injustice.
“At 98 years old, I have learned one lesson from history: it very often repeats itself. The blacklist was a terrible time in our country, but we must learn from it so that it will never happen again. “I have been working in Hollywood over 60 years and I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is my part in breaking the blacklist.” (IPA Service)