In 1960, Douglas delivered a career-defining performance as Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator slave rebel, in the epic film “Spartacus.” The all-star cast, combined with Douglas as executive producer, contributed to the movie’s hefty $12 million production cost, making it one of the most expensive films of its time. The movie was praised all over the world for its powerful performances and theme.
When the film was released, Douglas publicly credited the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, for its success. Trumbo had been black-balled in Hollywood, but “Spartacus” effectively ended the blacklist. Douglas considered breaking the blacklist one of his greatest accomplishments, even above his 85 other films.
The Time He Played Vincent van Gogh to Perfection
In “Lust for Life” (1956), Kirk Douglas delivered an exceptional performance as Vincent van Gogh, a tortured artist seeking solace through his work. The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli and shot primarily on location in France. Douglas was impeccable as van Gogh, displaying a profound ability to convey the artist’s inner turmoil.
Many critics also appreciated how Douglas captured the physicality and emotion of painting as a process. He won a Golden Globe Award for the role, while his co-star Anthony Quinn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Paul Gauguin. “Lust for Life” is still regarded as one of the finest cinematic portrayals of artists and their creative processes.
Lancaster and Douglas: A Partnership Through the Ages
Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster teamed up for several films over four decades. Among them was “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), written by novelist Leon Uris and directed by John Sturges. The story is based on the legendary figure Wyatt Earp, played by Burt Lancaster, and his friend, Doc Holliday, played by Kirk Douglas, who suffers a severe illness.
The plot follows their battles against the villainous Clanton gang but also explores the personal conflicts each man faces with women, each other, and their destiny. Lancaster delivered a standout performance as the melancholic Earp, while Douglas shone as the ailing Holliday. The film's depth and complexity make it not only an action-packed adventure but a fascinating exploration of the complex relationships between the main characters.
He Retains Movie Rights for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest"
In 1963, Kirk Douglas purchased the rights to stage a play adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” and starred in the play alongside Joan Tetzel and many others. The play ran on Broadway for five months, receiving a mixed response from critics. Douglas managed to retain the movie rights for the story through an innovative loophole.
He was unsuccessful in bringing the story to the big screen - despite trying to find a producer for over a decade. He finally passed the rights to his son, Michael, who would make cinematic history with the movie years later.
From Films to Music and Everything in Between
Douglas joined forces with his long-time co-star, Burt Lancaster, for the final time in the crime comedy film, “Tough Guys” (1968). The movie was the culmination of a 40-year-long partnership between Douglas and Lancaster that left an unforgettable collaboration in the movie industry. Aside from his work in film, Douglas was also an active participant in the arts scene in New York City.
In the same year, he co-hosted a special tribute organized by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty alongside actress Angela Lansbury. The symphony, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was a grand celebration of the iconic monument.