Kirk Douglas, acclaimed actor, dead at 103

Originally Published: 05 FEB 20 18:53 ET
Updated: 05 FEB 20 19:22 ET

    (CNN) -- Kirk Douglas, one of the great Hollywood leading men whose off-screen life was nearly as colorful as his on-screen exploits, has died, according to his son, actor Michael Douglas. 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," he wrote on his verified 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. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband."

Michael Douglas added that his father's life "was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet."

He added: "Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son."

Douglas was far more than just a leading man, although he was certainly that. The actor was a larger-than-life character, a titan of the entertainment industry, and someone -- by virtue of his longevity-- one of the last surviving links to a particular era of Hollywood's past.

Born to Russian immigrant parents, the self-made star established himself as an actor following World War II, capitalizing on his looks and athleticism. In that regard, he had a good deal in common with another titan of those years, Burt Lancaster, with whom Douglas co-starred in seven movies, including "Gunfight at O.K. Corral" and the political thriller "Seven Days in May."

Still, Douglas exhibited a range that went beyond what was available to stars during an earlier stretch of the studio system. And like Lancaster, he seized control of his career in the mid-1950s by forming his own production company, using that leverage not only to find interesting parts for himself but to champion prestige material, as well as talent like director Stanley Kubrick, with who he collaborated on two memorable films, "Paths of Glory" and "Spartacus."

Perhaps foremost, Douglas was as comfortable -- and as good, if not better -- playing a bad guy, a heel, as he was a traditional hero. His steely edge shone through starting with the film noir classic "Out of the Past" in 1947, followed by "Champion," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "The Vikings."

Douglas was equally comfortable with action and serious drama, combining a nasty streak with a wry sense of humor. He excelled at playing terrible characters who nonetheless left the audience feeling a measure of sadness, in spite of themselves, when they met an untimely end.

The actor earning Oscar nominations for playing Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life," "Champion" and "Bad and the Beautiful," but never won. He did receive a lifetime achievement award in 1996, and crooned a memorable duet with Lancaster at the 1958 Academy Awards, insisting how happy they were not to be among the nominees.

Douglas famously used his clout in other ways, perhaps most famously by allowing blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to put his name on "Spartacus." Although there has been some dispute over just how significant that was in "breaking" the blacklist, as Douglas suggested in his autobiography, it did make clear his commitment to working with top talent, also employing Trumbo on one of his best films, "Lonely Are the Brave," which cast Douglas as a modern-day cowboy.

Douglas also remained a colorful and outspoken figure, even after a 1996 stroke impaired his speech -- mounting a one-man show in its aftermath. His aforementioned 1988 autobiography, "The Ragman's Son," was a classic Hollywood tell-all, detailing various affairs with well-known actresses and settling some old scores. As the New York Times described it, the book read "like a collection of stories the actor has been telling over dinner for years."

In perhaps the most famous -- and certainly most lampooned -- scene from "Spartacus," his fellow rebels, captured by the Roman army, rise to proclaim, "I'm Spartacus!" when told their lives will be spared if they identify him.

Many actors, before and since, have played the sort of roles at which Douglas excelled. But in terms of breadth, volume and variety, there was only one Kirk Douglas.

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