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Guideposts Remembers: Kirk Douglas

In a long and accomplished life, Kirk Douglas appeared in dozens of motion pictures, wrote several books, raised four sons and battled back from a debilitating stroke.

Actor Kirk Douglas

Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas passed away at 103 on February 5, 2020. The actor, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and whose children found their own success in the entertainment industry, began life “in the poorest section of town.”

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York. His parents emigrated from what is now Belarus, and Douglas and his six sisters grew up speaking Yiddish at home. His father was a ragman, a peddler who wondered about with a horse-drawn wagon buying and selling old clothes, scrap metal and other discards.

Douglas described the family’s status this way in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son: “On Eagle Street…where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”

As a youth, Douglas worked a variety of odd jobs until he was accepted on a special scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City (one of his classmates there was Betty Joan Perske, who would later become better known as Lauren Bacall).

Douglas enlisted in the Navy in 1941, serving as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare. He received a medical discharge in 1941, due to injuries he suffered in battle.

Back in New York City, Douglas began to find work in radio, commercials and theatre, including roles on a number of radio soap operas. He made his motion picture debut thanks to Bacall, his former classmate. By then she was a busy actress in Hollywood, and she recommended him to producer Hal Wallis for a role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). 

Douglas would go on to notch more than 90 credits in movies and on television, and he was nominated three times for an Academy Award in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category. Though he never took home the Best Actor Oscar, in 1996 he was presented with a special Academy Award “for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”

Douglas’ legacy in movies continues to this day, as each of his four sons followed him into the entertainment industry, Peter and Joel as producers and Michael and Eric as actors.


Though his life was a long one and he enjoyed a stellar career, Douglas experienced his share of setbacks. His youngest son, Eric, died in 2004 at the age of 46, and Douglas himself suffered a severe stroke in 1996, limiting his ability to speak. He didn’t let the stroke stop him, however, as he worked tirelessly to recover and rehabilitate after the stroke.

When he was awarded his honorary Oscar later that year, he was able to accept in person, delivering an acceptance speech that inspired those in attendance and millions of television viewers watching the proceedings from around the globe. Douglas would later write a book, My Stroke of Luck, about his experiences in overcoming the stroke; he was the author of a dozen books, including seven memoirs, four novels and a retelling of stories from the Old Testament intended for young readers.

In 1964, Douglas and his wife, Anne, founded the Douglas Foundation, a philanthropic institution that is, according to the foundation’s website, “committed to helping those who might not otherwise be able to help themselves”; the couple also participated in other charitable and philanthropic efforts in the United States and around the world.

In January, 1981, Douglas, a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S. State Department since 1963, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter.

Douglas once said, “In order to achieve anything you must be brave enough to fail.” It was a philosophy that served him well in a long and eventful life and career.

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