LOS ANGELES — Kirk Douglas, the intense, muscular actor with the dimpled chin who starred in Spartacus, Lust for Life and dozens of other films, helped fatally weaken the blacklist against suspected Communists and reigned for decades as a Hollywood maverick and patriarch, died Wednesday, his family said. He was 103.
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103,” his son Michael said in a statement on his Instagram account. “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
Kirk Douglas’ death was first reported by People magazine.
His granite-like strength and underlying vulnerability made the son of illiterate Russian immigrants one of the top stars of the 20th century. He appeared in more than 80 films, in roles ranging from Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life.
He worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, from Vincente Minnelli and Billy Wilder to Stanley Kubrick and Elia Kazan. His career began at the peak of the studios’ power, more than 70 years ago, and ended in a more diverse, decentralized era that he helped bring about.
Always competitive, including with his own family, Douglas never received an Academy Award for an individual film, despite being nominated three times — for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life.
But in 1996, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar. His other awards included a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute.
He was a category unto himself, a force for change and symbol of endurance.
In his latter years, he was a final link to a so-called Golden Age, a man nearly as old as the industry itself.
In his youth, he represented a new kind of performer, more independent and adventurous than Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and other giants of the studio era of the 1930s and 1940s, and more willing to speak his mind.
Reaching stardom after World War II, he was as likely to play cads (the movie producer in Bad and the Beautiful, the journalist in Ace in the Hole) as he was suited to play heroes, as alert to the business as he was at home before the camera. He started his own production company in 1955, when many actors still depended on the studios, and directed some of his later films.
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?’”
Douglas rarely played lightly. He was compulsive about preparing for roles and a supreme sufferer on camera, whether stabbed with scissors in Ace in the Hole or crucified in Spartacus.
Critic David Thomson dubbed Douglas “the manic-depressive among Hollywood stars, one minute bearing down on plot, dialogue and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia, at other times writing not just in agony but mutilation and a convincingly horrible death.”