The 1950s and ’60s were the decades of his prime, but that doesn’t mean that Kirk Douglas has since withered away into obscurity. He burst onto the silver screen just during the peak of Hollywood’s golden era, and you bet your Spartacus that no one has forgotten his smoldering gaze.
At 103 years old, the Hollywood legend took his leave. And even as the world stood in the dumb silence of an end, his son Michael drew back the curtains once more to show us the man Kirk really was. Lights off, reels stopped, Michael delivers the encore Kirk deserves.
When someone has the body to portray a Roman general and the creative genius to play Vincent van Gogh, you know you’re dealing with a legend. Making his film debut in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Douglas graced the big screen for over 60 years.
But when he wasn’t making audiences swoon, he led what many would consider to be an unexpected life. Douglas fathered four sons, but the one we’re most familiar with is his firstborn. Michael Douglas, born in 1944, followed his father’s footsteps straight into Hollywood.
Michael really broke out in 1987 with his performances in Wall Street and Fatal Attraction alongside Glenn Close. Just like his dad, once the world got a taste of Michael, they just kept coming back for more.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame has over 2,000 brass stars embedded into the 15-block span of sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard. And you better believe Academy Award-winner Michael Douglas has one of those five-pointed symbols of prestige.
On the day Hollywood made the decision to welcome Michael into the elite realm of star holders, family, friends, and hordes of fans attended the event to show their support and admiration for the actor. But one guest stood out above the rest.
Michael’s father, the legendary Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, was right there alongside his son to shower him with praise and to wear his fatherly pride like a badge of honor. After all, Kirk’s own Walk Of Fame star wasn’t too far away.
Michael used his Hollywood Boulevard speech to honor his father and relay what really made Kirk a legend. More than the dozens of classic films that he starred in or the impressive awards he accumulated, Michael pointed out, is his epic rags-to-riches journey.
Kirk’s story, or Isadore Demsky, as he was originally named, started out in a poverty-stricken area of America. After migrating from Russia with his Jewish immigrant family, Kirk faced discrimination on top of his family’s financial struggles.
Back in Russia Kirk’s father had been a successful horse trader, but in the states he was forced to work as a “ragman.” He perused the streets with a wagon, purchasing rags, metal scraps, and other bits of junk to turn for a minuscule profit.
The poverty Kirk experienced fueled an intense desire to succeed. Dreaming of becoming an actor, he enrolled in the theater program at New York’s St. Lawrence University, where he began his journey to the top.
After school, Kirk slowly but surely started being cast in smaller film roles. Finally, in 1949, he earned an Oscar nomination for the film Champion. With that, he was officially part of the Hollywood elite.
Screen Plays / Stanley Kramer Productions
Kirk went on to fall in love and marry a woman named Diana Dill. Together they had their first child, a son they named Michael. The marriage didn’t last, but the bond between father and son did. As Michael grew, their lives only became further intertwined.
Kirk’s father had been a heavy drinker and was wont to get into fights. Largely, he was absent from Kirk’s life and this affected the rising star greatly. Kirk swore when he became a father, his kids would always take first place. And he honored that promise.
In 1954 Kirk married again, this time his bride was named Anne Buydens. Him and Anne had two more sons together, Peter and Eric. All his sons eventually went into the film business, as either actors or producers. Obviously, Kirk was a huge role model.
Over his career, Kirk earned several Oscar nominations for his work but never ended up taking the little golden man home. Critics particularly thought he was snubbed after being nominated but not winning the award for his work in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
Oscar glory was indeed owed the golden-era heartthrob, but Kirk eventually got paid his dues with some even more prestigious honors. The first, in 1981 when President Jimmy Carter awarded him the nation’s highest civilian distinction, The Medal Of Freedom.
The later token of his success came in 1996 when the Academy presented Kirk Douglas with the Lifetime Achievement Award. This was his first public appearance after suffering from a severe stroke earlier that year, and seeing the former leading man with a cane came as a shock.
The stroke had greatly affected the actor’s speech and set him into a depression so intense, he later admitted to having suicidal thoughts. But just as he had fought himself, tooth and nail, out of poverty, Kirk also crawled out of that dark place.
Jack Manning/The New York Times
In his best-selling 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk says that “the actor never gets lost in the character he’s playing; the audience does.” As much as he was invested in his work, he never turned his back on his family. And they didn’t forget it.
Michael’s speech about his father touched the hearts of everyone in the crowd. He ended the tribute to his dad with an earnest statement of gratitude. “Thank you for your advice, inspiration,” he said. “I’ll say it simply and with all my heart: I’m so proud to be your son.”
Kirk raised above his circumstances and proved to be the greatest father and role model for his sons. Raising a family in the brutal world of show business isn’t easy, and a star’s influence — for better or worse — can really rub off on their kids.
If the argument of nature vs nurture ever comes up in regards to talent, it’s hard not to think on Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Their theatrical personas, cabaret voices, and unique looks have long bound them together.
© CBS Photo Archive
Recently, however, fans have caught on to a much more profound similarity between this mother-daughter duo that is leaving the world in awe all over again. Unfortunately, it’s not all heel-clicks and glitter.
At just four years old, when she was still known as Frances Ethel Gumm, Garland’s family was forced to leave their home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, after her father was accused of making advances towards some male ushers.
The family then moved to a small town outside of Los Angeles, California. This proved to be a fateful move, as Judy’s mother began managing her and her two older sisters in their Vaudeville act known as The Gumm Sisters.
But her father’s homosexuality didn’t escape Garland’s notice, despite her young age. As they say, it’s quite common for women to seek traits in romantic male partners that are similar to that of their fathers. Perhaps that’s what ultimately attracted Garland to Vincente Minnelli.
Judy Garland married the famous film director in 1945 when she was only 23 years old. And just one year after the church bells tolled, the couple brought their first child into the world, a little girl they named Liza Minnelli.
Of course, today it is widely understood that Vincente Minnelli was bi-sexual, but that wasn’t so clear to Judy Garland back then. It wasn’t until she caught him with another man that their relationship came to a crushingly abrupt end.
But that’s not the only similarity between mother and daughter. As The Gumm Sisters began to gain some attention, their mother pushed even harder for their success. Her new mission was to get her girls into the pictures.
It was undeniable that the Gumm sisters had talent, but what was even more obvious was that Judy was the true star. MGM studios was certainly sensible to this when they called her in for an audition shortly after her 13th birthday.
Young Garland performed Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart and an old Yiddish Vaudeville number, Eli, Eli. She apparently knocked it out of the park because MGM signed her to a contract right on the spot.
That fateful moment was the real taking off point of Garland’s career. Her success turned her into the financial pillar for her family, a stress that did not come without plenty of company.
As burdening as her financial responsibilities were at such a young age, Garland didn’t do much to stave that load off her own daughter’s back. In fact, Liza began her own career as a performer at just 3-years-old.
Like mother like daughter, Liza was just born a star. Garland was the terminal model and mythic for young Liza, so when things started to turn dire for her mother, she stood right up to support her.
Even their insecurities mirrored each other. It’s obviously trying enough to constantly be in the limelight and have your appearance critiqued and commented on. But for Judy, that was only the beginning of the nightmare.
From the moment she signed with MGM studios at age 13, she was given the nickname “little hunchback.” Producers were constantly telling her she needed to lose weight and even putting her on strict diets and giving her pills.
Even when producers wanted to cast her in The Wizard Of Oz, the director, Victor Fleming refused, saying she was too unattractive. He even went so far as to go behind the studio’s back and request Shirley Temple and other actresses.
When everyone turned him down, Fleming finally conceded to cast Garland as Dorothy. But he never let her forget that her looks were unlovely, forcing her to wear rubber caps over her teeth and even discs to reshape her nose.
Unfortunately, this became the standard wardrobe for Garland and in turn, the foundation of her perception of herself. The pill-pushing, prosthetics, and relentless criticism led Garland to become an enemy of her own appearance.
As Liza took on much of her mother’s features, it doesn’t leave much room to wonder why she also struggled with self-esteem. She constantly referred to herself as ugly, which led her to some serious self-medicating.
The results of their low self-esteem were brutal. Because of intense schedules and the studio pushing so many weight loss pills, Garland developed a critical prescription drug addiction early on.
From a series of failed marriages to tumultuous professional relationships and a flatlining career, Garland also developed an intimate dependence on alcohol. Unfortunately, in this regard, Liza also followed in her mother’s footsteps.
Liza’s downward spiral with drugs and alcohol didn’t really start until the ’70s, following her mother’s death. In a journal entry, Andy Warhol recalls seeing Minnelli arrive at a party in ’78, demanding guests, “give me every drug you’ve got.”
When Garland overdosed in her London flat in ’69, Liza turned to heavy doses of Valium to try to cope. The sedatives, however, were only the beginning. Again, like Garland, Liza’s string of failed marriages led her to the bottle.
Both women also had very rocky love lives. Incredibly, Vincente Minnelli wasn’t the singular time Garland was married to a gay man. Her fourth husband, actor Mark Herron also came out.
The feeling of betrayal from both Minnelli and Herron, along with the physical and verbal abuse she experienced from her other husbands, set a jarring example of what romantic love could be. An example, her daughter didn’t stray from.
Liza’s first marriage with Australian musician Peter Allen ended after seven years as he began to embrace his own homosexuality. From there she went on to have three more stormy and short-lived marriages.
Homosexuality didn’t just stop with their marriages, either. It might seem that Garland and Minnelli are hailed as icons in the gay community because of their three marriages (between the two of them) to gay men. However, the LGBTQ community says otherwise.
The real reason they are recognized as heroes is due to the struggles and prejudices they endured in their careers, which many gay men say they can relate to. Of course, they’re also both fabulously extra divas.
There is another tie that binds them perhaps more closely than the rest: despite their turbulent paths, this mother-daughter duo will go down in history among the greats. Their legacy has inspired generations to dream of more, somewhere even beyond the rainbow.