Kirk Douglas' most memorable roles: Spartacus, The Bad and the Beautiful, and more
With the death of Kirk Douglas at 103 on Feb. 5, the world lost one of its last living links to the golden age of Hollywood. But the iconic actor, producer, and philanthropist leaves behind a legacy of memorable films and powerful performances. Here are 12 of his best.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Douglas made a strong screen debut in this twisty film noir, in which he plays the titular character’s husband, scheming, weak alcoholic Walter O’Neil. Starring opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Douglas proved himself a presence to be reckoned with from his first role, despite its contrast to his later tough-guy persona. Douglas landed the role after producer Hal B. Wallis saw him onstage in New York at the recommendation of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who had been a fellow classmate with Douglas at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Out of the Past (1947)
One of Douglas’ notable early roles came in this quintessential film noir, in which he played a smooth-talking gambler who bedevils Robert Mitchum’s weary private eye. Mitchum once recalled to Roger Ebert that Douglas was “quite serious about his profession” in those days. “He spent most of his time on the set with a pencil on his chin,” said Mitchum, which “tickled the hell out of” costar Jane Greer.
Douglas cemented his image as a tough guy and earned his first Oscar nomination playing a selfish boxer in this stark sports drama. One line in particular foreshadowed the actor’s own ambitions: “I don’t want to be a ‘hey you’ all my life. I want to hear people call me mister.”
Ace in the Hole (1951)
In Billy Wilder’s ahead-of-its-time takedown of soulless media and insatiable consumers, Douglas portrayed a sleazy reporter who turns a human interest story into a circus. “It’s a very good film, but the critics gave it unkind reviews,” Douglas told EW in 2015. “I think it was because it was about an unscrupulous newspaperman and that hit too close to home.”
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
“Usually it’s difficult to make a movie about making movies, and to make it believable,” Douglas once said of this scathing melodrama about an unscrupulous producer trying to woo three collaborators he wronged in the past. The characters are so solipsistic that when one dies, extras are hired to attend his funeral. “I think the film is a very realistic story about Hollywood,” Douglas joked.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Douglas showed he could carry a tune in this Technicolor sci-fi adventure based on the classic Jules Verne novel. “I sang in that!” he reminisced to the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “For a guy who can’t sing, I sang a lot. ‘Got a whale of a tale to tell you lads!’ … All the young kids at that time knew that song. They made a disc of it professionally, and I said in an interview that my friend Frank Sinatra was jealous of me!”
Lust for Life (1956)
Douglas notched his third Oscar nomination with a vivid, anguished portrayal of master painter Vincent van Gogh in this Vincente Minnelli-directed biopic. “The role affected me deeply,” Douglas wrote in his 1997 book Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning. “I was haunted by this talented genius who took his own life, thinking he was a failure.”
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Of the half-dozen films in which Douglas co-starred with Burt Lancaster, this John Sturges western was the biggest box office hit. As Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, Douglas and Lancaster displayed an edgy chemistry that perhaps mirrored their offscreen dynamic. “Kirk would be the ﬁrst person to tell you that he’s a very difﬁcult man,” Lancaster once remarked at a tribute dinner for Douglas. “And I would be the second.”
Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by a 28-year-old Stanley Kubrick, this dazzling antiwar drama stars Douglas as a WWI colonel who refuses to send his soldiers into a bloodbath. “The picture made Stanley Kubrick,” Douglas would recall in 2015, decades after he handpicked the wunderkind filmmaker. “He was such a talent, but very difficult and troubled.”
Douglas’ signature role — as a Roman slave leading an uprising — was also the one that best allowed him to flex his muscle within Hollywood. “Spartacus represents all people who work for freedom,” he once told EW, noting that as a producer he hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to pen the film under a pseudonym. “Then I decided, the hell with it! I’m going to put his name on it.”
Seven Days in May (1964)
Douglas’ company Joel Productions helped bring this political thriller to the screen. The film, which is based on a novel of the same name, received much pushback from the Pentagon, given its tale of a military-political cabal’s planned takeover of the U.S. government following the president’s negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. This required director John Frankenheimer to develop some guerilla tactics when wishing to film around battleships and military properties — but the President himself, John F. Kennedy, supported the project and arranged to be away from the White House on filming weekends to help production run more smoothly.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
For Douglas, this drama about a modern-day cowboy who gets himself thrown in jail to rescue his best friend (played by Michael Kane) was a personal favorite. “I always consider that my best movie,” he said in 2012. “It was not a big success. It’s gotten to be more of a cult film right now. … Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay. It was the one time we never changed a word; it was perfect, like a hole in one.”