BARREL-chested, blue-eyed, dimple-chinned Kirk Douglas was the last colossus of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
When he died aged 103 on Wednesday, he had long outlived his silver screen contemporaries such as John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Laurence Olivier.
No one will ever forget the chorus of “I am Spartacus” as the slave warriors in the 1960 box office smash Spartacus stood up to declare their support for Kirk’s heroic leader.
His magnetic charm had previously transformed Paths Of Glory, Gunfight At The OK Corral, The Bad And The Beautiful and Lust For Life into all-time classics.
The movie industry paid tribute to this son of a rag and bone man who became an icon.
Steven Spielberg said he was “honoured to have been a small part of his last 45 years”.
Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted that “the world loved you”. And Bryan Cranston described Kirk as “a towering presence in film history”.
Kirk was a maverick who broke the rules by setting up his own production company, playing hard-to-like characters and ignoring a government blacklist.
He had an unquenchable drive, which extended to his turbulent personal life. Ever the lothario, he once claimed to have slept with 29 women in 29 days, before failing to get aroused on the 30th night.
When Kirk told his shrink he was worried he might be impotent, the therapist replied: “You know, even God rested after six days.”
Passion for poems and sex at the age of 15
Somewhere amid truth and rumour lay more serious claims from Kirk’s past. Shortly after his death was announced, social media sites were quick to republish allegations that he may have been linked to the rape of actress Natalie Wood, who died in 1981.
She had told of an attack by an older man in the 1950s when she was 16 but never told police who it was. However, she did tell friends that it was Kirk who had attacked her.
His 100-year-old second wife Anne, who remained devoted to Kirk for 65 years, stuck with him, despite knowing about the philandering.
He has left behind a movie dynasty, with his son Michael and grandson Cameron both becoming actors.
Double Oscar-winner Michael, 75, led the tributes, saying: “Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come.”
As the son of a Hollywood legend, Michael’s start in life could hardly have been more different from Kirk’s dirt-poor childhood in Amsterdam, New York State.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Kirk was born Issur Danielovitch, one of seven children. His dad Herschel could not get work in the town’s mills due to anti-Semitism and instead became a ragman, going from door-to-door collecting rags and other household scraps to sell to merchants.
Kirk recalled: “In the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder.”
As the only boy with six sisters, Kirk was expected to bring in money so his mum Bryna could feed the family when his brawling, drunken and illiterate dad could not.
But from an early age he dreamed of being an actor and his English teacher, Louise Livingston, gave him a passion for poems and sex at the age of 15.
He later tellingly recalled: “Under her guidance I became a different person. I am eternally grateful. By today’s standards she would have gone to jail.”
By working odd jobs and lobbying academic institutions for scholarships, Kirk managed to get into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
There he met the girl who was to become his first wife, actress Diana Dill, as well as long-time pal Lauren Bacall, who he dated on and off.
By the time he made his stage debut on Broadway in 1941 he had legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas.
The same year, America entered World War Two and he joined the US Navy as a junior lieutenant, chasing enemy submarines in the Pacific. But in 1944 he was medically discharged after being injured by a depth charge.
‘Sex on tap’
Kirk had married Diana in 1943 and they had two sons, Michael and Joel, now 73, and he started to make his name in Hollywood.
The risk-taker turned down a big-paying movie to choose the role of an unlikeable boxer in 1949 film Champion, which paid off by earning Kirk his first Oscar nomination.
Fame meant sex was available on tap, and Kirk recalled in his 1988 autobiography that co-stars would take their clothes off and ask him to make love to them.
He said: “I was surrounded by beauty, so I was like a kid in a candy store, not knowing which one to reach for.”
He described Ava Gardner as a wonderful country girl, Rita Hayworth as too sad, Marlene Dietrich as affectionate sex and Joan Crawford as clinical.
But for years rumours swirled around Tinseltown that Kirk used his power to seduce young actresses. He was also linked to the 1949 disappearance of 26-year-old actress Jean Spangler, who was found dead with a note to “Kirk” in her bag and was believed to be on her way to an abortion clinic.
By 1951, his wife Diana had had enough and divorcing the star.
When German film publicist Anne Buydens first met Kirk she knew his reputation and spurned his affections.
Kirk recalled: “She was the most difficult woman I ever met. I mean, I was a big movie star! And I invited her to dinner and she said, ‘Oh thank you very much, but I’m so tired’.” But he eventually won her over and they married in Las Vegas in 1954 in cowboy hats.
Anne later said she knew it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage, but she expected Kirk to be honest about who he romanced.
He received two more Oscar nominations, first for The Bad And The Beautiful in 1952, then for his portrayal of tortured artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust For Life in 1957.
‘That’s me. I’m a pretty unlikeable character’
But determined not to be a studio “poodle” he broke his Warner Brothers contract in 1955 and set up his own production company. It was a radical move at a time when studios had the power to make or break stars.
One of Kirk’s self-produced movies was Spartacus, which won four Oscars and remains his most memorable role. It also marked the end of the much-hated blacklist of Hollywood figures with
supposedly Communist sympathies when Kirk decided to use the banned screen writer Dalton Trumbo, later calling it the most important thing he did in his career.
But he also fell out with director Stanley Kubrick while making Spartacus and gained a reputation for being difficult to work with.
He admitted: “I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it because that’s me. I’m a pretty unlikeable character.”
In the 1980s he was overshadowed by son Michael, whose hits Basic Instinct, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction made him a household name.
Self-deprecatingly, Kirk ended his autobiography The Ragman’s Son by recalling how he sucked in his gut when a pretty young blonde called out: “Mr Douglas”, only for her to add: “Wow, Michael Douglas’s father”.
He also had to contend with trying to keep his actor son Eric, from his second marriage, out of prison and away from drugs.
Having repeatedly paid for him to go into rehab, Kirk attempted “tough love” by cutting him off. So he was inconsolable when Eric died from a drug overdose in 2004.
Michael’s son Cameron, 41, also went to prison for possessing drugs and it led Kirk to muse that he had been “lucky” to grow up poor because it gave him a purpose in life that rich kids didn’t have.
Kirk reached his century having dealt with numerous health problems. In 1986 he was fitted with a heart pacemaker and, in 1991, a helicopter crash resulted in a severe back injury.
Worse was to come in 1996 when he suffered a stroke so serious that he was told he would never speak again. Depressed by the thought of his acting career ending, he put a loaded gun in his mouth but decided not to pull the trigger.
Instead, with the aid of intensive speech therapy he was able to say the words “thank you” on collecting his lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in the same year.
In later life he grew closer to his children, Michael, Joel and Peter, 64 — his other son with Anne.
He said: “I like the person I am now much better than the person I was before. I’m a better father and grandfather. I think more about my family now instead of thinking too much about myself.”
Kirk also thought about others, with The Douglas Foundation giving away more than £90million to the homeless, children’s playgrounds, a children’s hospital and other good causes.
But what he will most be remembered for are the ground-breaking movies that will survive him.
Steven Spielberg said: “His wisdom and courage — even beyond such a breathtaking body of work — are enough to inspire me for the rest of mine.”