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The remarkable life of a fighter who brought more than brawn to Hollywood's Golden Age

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Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne being met by Tony Curtis, (left) on their arrival at London Airport from Paris in 1957. Photo: PA Wire

Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne being met by Tony Curtis, (left) on their arrival at London Airport from Paris in 1957. Photo: PA Wire

PA

Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne being met by Tony Curtis, (left) on their arrival at London Airport from Paris in 1957. Photo: PA Wire

"I must hurry," Kirk Douglas wrote in the foreword to his autobiography, 'The Ragman's Son'. He was concerned about his life ebbing away before "all the pieces of the mosaic" were set down in print.

That was in 1988. Douglas's acting career was almost completely behind him, but who could have guessed how many decades of retirement he'd still live out? His longevity as a man even rivalled his iconic status as a bootstrappy tough-guy superstar who showed Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s that he could also be smart, both in his business acumen and artistic taste.

After that book came out, Douglas found the time to publish nine subsequent tomes - some of them fiction, two of them responses to very different near-death experiences. In 1991, he was in a helicopter which crashed into a small plane in Southern California, killing two of his fellow passengers.

And in 1996 he suffered a debilitating stroke, which left his ability to speak in grave doubt. He proved the doctors wrong after months of therapy, and turned his energies eventually to writing a self-help manual, 'My Stroke of Luck'.

Kirk Douglas, best known for the 1960 historical epic Spartacus, was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s golden age and died aged 103 on Wednesday. Here are some of his best quotes.

These were the last slings and arrows in a remarkable fighter's life, like the last bouts won by his boxer hero Mitch Kelly in 1949's 'Champion', before a haemorrhage claimed him at the end. Douglas's physique was key to the success of this low-budget smash, and to many of his other roles - before acting, he was a stand-out wrestler at university, where he won the respect of peers who had shunned him because of his Jewish blood.

Anti-Semitism haunted the early part of his career, especially after he got a start at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and changed his name, from Issur Danielovitch, the son of an illiterate Russian-Jewish rag peddler, to Kirk Douglas.

Douglas's progress to the A-list was a form of revenge against this bigotry as, in its way, was his legendary profligacy with women in Hollywood - he had a colourful story about a date with Joan Crawford becoming an instant turn-off when she complimented him on clean armpits.

By the time he was playing a "genius" producer and golden boy in Vincente Minnelli's Tinseltown melodrama 'The Bad and the Beautiful' (1952), he'd risen proudly to the top and would take no more insults from anyone.

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Michael Douglas kisses his film legend father during a photo session in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Michael Douglas kisses his film legend father during a photo session in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

AP

With his compact, classical body shape, Douglas was born to play his most iconic role, as the slave-gladiator-rebel 'Spartacus', but he brought more to such projects than mere brawn.

His loathing of bullies - launched, no doubt, by those racial slurs as well as the physical abuse he suffered from an uncaring, alcoholic father - translated itself into a staunch liberal mindset which came to dictate his choice of scripts.

And screenwriters. He famously helped dissolve the blacklist against communist scribes in the late 1950s, not only by hiring the non-grata Dalton Trumbo to rewrite Howard Fast's 'Spartacus' script, but then by resolving to give him an on-screen credit, rather than the noms de plumes he'd recently become accustomed to.

Douglas's vision of his own career got ever steelier and more determined as he went along. He saw Stanley Kubrick's 'The Killing' and expressed interest in whatever he was next going to do. It was his clout as a producer and star that got Kubrick's bitter WWI lament 'Paths of Glory' (1957) into production, and then Douglas who made the tough choice to replace Anthony Mann, the Universal-designated 'Spartacus' director, with Kubrick after two weeks' shooting.

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Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’. Photo: HO/AFP via Getty Images

Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’. Photo: HO/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

His clashes with directors - Kubrick included, whom he described as "a talented shit" - were quite legendary, and gave him the reputation in Hollywood of being hard to handle.

But he didn't forget people: conscious that he still owed Mann a film, he was more than happy to sign on combating Nazis for him in 'The Heroes of Telemark' (1965).

Douglas never won an Oscar but had several near-misses. He was the heavy favourite to win for his fervent portrait of Vincent Van Gogh in Minnelli's 'Lust for Life' (1956) - a role into which he'd plunged so intensely that it took a significant psychological toll but probably produced his career-best performance.

On the night, with everyone telling him he was a dead cert, he had to watch Yul Brynner steal his glory for 'The King and I'. Earlier, despite a great experience with Billy Wilder on 'Ace in the Hole' (1951), he turned down the role in 'Stalag 17' (1953) for which William Holden would then win Best Actor. ("I was dumb.")

The great passion project of his later career was getting a film version of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' off the ground, having originated the part of McMurphy on Broadway in 1963.

The play and his performance got hostile reviews, but he knew the book's film potential, and touted it around studios for a decade.

In the end, his son Michael took over the reins as producer. By the time Miloš Forman's 1975 film came together, Kirk, at nearly 60, was deemed too old to reprise his dream role and Jack Nicholson took it over.

Dozens of parts still awaited him, often in macho genre fare - he directed a pirate flick (1973's 'Scalawag') and a western (1975's 'Posse'), and flaunted those action chops in pulp sci-fi such as 'The Fury' (1978) for Brian De Palma, and Stanley Donen's 'Saturn 3' (1980). It must have been a proud if bittersweet sensation to watch Michael's career as a multiple Oscar-winning actor-producer take off during that same period.

After nearly 60 years of wedlock - he married his second wife, Anne Buydens, in 1954 - he still claimed to have one of Hollywood's happiest marriages. "If cheating husbands admitted what was going on and apologised, their wives would be more willing to forgive and forget," he explained reassuringly.

And after years of ignoring his religion, he went through a traditional bar mitzvah for the second time at the age of 84.

Douglas was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour, by President Jimmy Carter, and more recently he was appointed to the Legion d'honneur.

Kirk was the one who came from nothing and made all this possible by gritting his teeth - a pugilist star proving his mettle, for a century, against anyone who ever doubted it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Kirk Douglas is survived by his wife Anne and three sons: Michael, the actor, and the producers Joel and Peter; another son, Eric, died in 2004 of a drugs overdose. Kirk Douglas, born December 9, 1916, died February 5, 2020

Telegraph.co.uk