Remembering “The Ragman’s Son”

By Steve Vertlieb: Legendary Hollywood screen star Kirk Douglas has died. His Ace In The Hole was his Lust For Life, and live he did for 103 years. Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9th, 1916, Douglas was born to poverty as “The Ragman’s Son,” vowing to overcome his humble beginnings, and escape the challenge and limitations of an ordinary life. He was the very last of the male superstars of what has come to be known as The Golden Age of Hollywood.

Douglas was an extraordinary actor, possessed with a burning intensity to achieve and overcome his humble Jewish beginnings. He was, at times, perceived as angry in his all-consuming quest to achieve respect and admiration by his peers. It was his inner rage, however, that inspired performance after performance of mounting intensity and commitment to his chosen craft.

As Rick Martin in Young Man With A Horn, based loosely upon the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, Douglas portrayed a lonely, isolated musician whose only friend was his horn, and whose only joy was the music born of his soul. His self-destructive ways and behavior, often in conflict with his musical genius, nearly destroyed him but, in the end, gave birth to a Phoenix rising from the ashes of emotional despair, to play amongst the stars.

In Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole (alternately known as The Big Carnival) Douglas played an embittered newspaper reporter, using the tragedy of a small town man trapped in a mine to cynically ride to the top once more in a big city paper. In Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful, as film producer Jonathan Shields, Douglas uses any device he can to achieve respect and success within the film industry, inspiring both hatred and admiration along that troubled journey.

It was with Vincent Minnelli’s Lust For Life, however, that Douglas revealed his inner torment most effectively, as Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. His anguish as the lonely artist, fighting emotional demons, as well as his personal struggle to achieve recognition and respect, is at times difficult to watch, but remains among the greatest performances of postwar cinema. Lushly conceived by both Minnelli and Douglas, Lust For Life is blessed with a torrid, rapturous score by Oscar winning composer Miklos Rozsa which musically illustrates the actor’s intense, impassioned performance.

As an activist for social change and democracy, Douglas fought for civil rights and, with director Otto Preminger who offered screen credit to the writer on Exodus, ended Joseph McCarthy’s notorious blacklist in America by giving Dalton Trumbo full screen credit for writing the screenplay for Spartacus.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet Kirk Douglas and spend ten minutes with him in 1974 on the set of The Gene London Show in Philadelphia during his cross-country tour promoting Scalawag, and was impressed by his culture and civility. I asked him about his impressions of working with director Michael Curtiz on Young Man With A Horn, and he appeared intrigued by their remembered collaboration. When his publicist urged him to end our conversation and leave the station for their next interview, Douglas raised his hand and said “Wait a minute. I’m talking to this gentleman.” He had become a mensch.

I shall always love Kirk Douglas for, along with Spencer Tracy and James Mason, he will ever remain among my life long favorite actors. He overcame his humble beginnings and, as with many of the characters that he chose to play, achieved the respect and admiration that he fought so valiantly to achieve. Actor, producer, writer, social activist, and philanthropist, Kirk Douglas shared his lust for life and living with all of us and, in so doing, elevated the popular culture to artistic heights never before imagined, and made our world an infinitely better place in which to live.

2 thoughts on “Remembering “The Ragman’s Son”

  1. Here’s my favorite line from ACE IN THE HOLE; “I can write big news or little news, and if there’s no news, I’ll bite a dog.”

    Thanks for the report, Steve.

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