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Kirk Douglas in a 1950 studio publicity shot.

Golden era actor more than what was seen on screen

Kirk Douglas died Feb. 5 and the plaudits immediately began pouring in for the 103-year-old legend of the silver screen, and deservedly so. His résumé includes the classic films “Paths of Glory,” “The Vikings,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Spartacus” and “Lust for Life.”

But Douglas was more than just an actor. He formed his own production company in 1955 — Bryna Productions, which was named for his mother. He produced and starred in his own films, including “The Vikings,” “Lonely are the Brave, “Seven Day in May,” “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus,” the latter two of which were directed by Stanley Kubrick.

“Paths of Glory” is a brilliant anti-war film, with Douglas playing Colonel Dax, a French officer in World War I who tries to save three soldiers from the firing squad after they are charged with cowardice for refusing to attack an enemy position in what would surely be a suicide mission. The Criterion Collection release describes it as a “haunting, exquisitely photographed dissection of the military machine in all its absurdity and capacity for dehumanization.” Shot in black and white, its scenes of trench warfare are harrowing. Douglas is superb as the principled officer taking on the bureaucratic military machine.

Fittingly, Kubrick, who was a control freak, and Douglas, whose hard upbringing had forged a strong will of his own, fought frequently during the making of the film, mainly because of Kubrick’s tendency to re-write the script without telling Douglas first. The film was shot to the original script and Douglas considered it Kubrick’s most important film.

Despite clashing heads, Douglas respected Kubrick’s work , and when it came time to replace original director Anthony Mann on 1961’s “Spartacus,” he turned to Kubrick once again. Douglas was executive producer on the film, and with its $12 million budget it was one of the most expensive films produced up to that point.

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Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.

Any marginal screen buff knows the classic scene when Spartacus, having led an uprising of slaves, must give himself up to the Roman Centurions who have threatened to kill all the slaves unless he reveals himself. As he is about to give himself up, one slave stands up and says, “I’m Spartacus.” Then another stands and says, “I’m Spartacus,” then another and another. It’s a moving scene of solidarity — ignore the fact that the Romans end up crucifying them along the road, it’s the message of solidarity that counts.

In real life, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to write the script. Trumbo had written “Lonely Are the Brave,” in which the Douglas plays a cowboy trying to live by his own code. Douglas said it was his favorite role.

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Dalton Trumbo

However, Trumbo had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10 during one of America’s darkest hours. In 1947, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his friends’ supposed political leanings. HUAC was the invention of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy who spearheaded the anti-communist “Red Scare” that lasted from the late 1940s to late 1950s. Americans who may or may not have been affiliated with Communism pre-World War II were subjected to a witch hunt that resulted in losing their jobs in all walks of life.

Those who refused to testify by “pleading the fifth,” referring to the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, faced prison time for obstruction of Congress. Trumbo served 11 months.

Trumbo was blacklisted and struggled to make a living. He and others resorted to submitting scripts under pseudonyms, or submitting scripts through friends, or “fronts.” Trumbo’s screenplays won Oscars — “Roman Holiday,” submitted through a front, and “The Brave One,” written under a pseudonym.

When Douglas hired Trumbo for “Spartacus” in 1960, he insisted that Trumbo be credited using his real name. Earlier that same year, Otto Preminger credited Trumbo for “Exodus.” The two films effectively ended the blacklist and Trumbo and others were free to work again. Trumbo was eventually given full credit for his work and in 1975, he was officially awarded the Oscar for “The Brave One.”

Whether Douglas deserves the full credit he claimed or not, he was certainly instrumental in ending a shameful period in Hollywood’s — and America’s — history.

Douglas was different from many of his peers. In an era where Hollywood’s leading men were expected to display a rugged masculinity — with John Wayne typifying the post-war American male — Douglas, while not shying away from heroic roles (“The Vikings,” “Spartacus”), was willing to test himself with much more diversity than Wayne would have even been capable of.

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Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.”

In Vincent Minelli’s excellent “Lust for Life,” Douglas played Vincent van Gogh. The 1956 classic was filmed in France and dealt with the artist’s final two years in Arles in southern France. Douglas does a brilliant job of capturing the “tortured” artist, as he allows the emotional turmoil to shine through. With a magnificent Anthony Quinn playing Paul Gauguin, full of self-confident arrogance, Douglas’ Vincent is needy and desperate, pleading for his friend’s validation.

As a young aspiring painter, I felt like Douglas perfectly embodied the struggle to create, the drive, the insecurities. Let’s be honest, creative types are generally bundles of neuroses and insecurities — maybe not on Vincent’s scale, and I certainly didn’t plan on shooting myself in a cornfield, but the cliché of struggling for one’s art is real.

Quinn won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and Douglas was nominated for best actor, winning a Golden Globe for the role. Minnelli was convinced Douglas should have won the Oscar. “He achieved a moving and memorable portrait of the artist — a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness,” Minnelli said.

Douglas said playing Van Gogh was a painful experience. “Not only did I look like Van Gogh, I was the same age he was when he committed suicide,” he said. Douglas’ wife, Anne, said he often remained in character when he was off set. “When he was doing ‘Lust for Life,’ he came home in that red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house — it was frightening,” she said.

My favorite anecdote related to the film relates to the uber-macho John Wayne. After a screening of the film, according to Douglas’ memoir, “The Ragman’s Son,” Wayne was horrified. “Christ, Kirk, how can you play a part like that? There’s no few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters not those weak queers.” Douglas tried to explain, “It’s all make believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.” Wayne, born Marion Morrison and a supporter of the blacklist, looked as if Douglas had betrayed him

I’ve always thought that anecdote perfectly conveys the difference between an actor and a movie star.

With Douglas’ death, only Olivia de Havilland, at 103, remains from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the studio’s ruled the roost. Even among these mythic figures, Douglas stood out for being more than just a celluloid hero. He was a principled activist and philanthropist (he left his entire fortune to charitable causes). More than that, he was an actor of remarkable depth. With a “lust for Life.”

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