What Kirk Douglas, now 100-years-old, has learned in the last century

Age may have diminished him physically, but it’s done what it should do: made Douglas a wiser, better man.

Kirk Douglas at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in West Hollywood, 2013. Larry Busacca | VF13 | Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas turns 100 today.

He plans to celebrate the occasion in true celebrity style—with his wife, Anne, his son Michael and daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta Jones, and, of course, 200 of his closest friends.

“My only job is to stay well and rested so I can show up and be charming,” he writes in Closer Weekly. “And, of course, give a little ‘extemporaneous’ speech that I will have practiced with my speech therapist so people will understand me.”

It’s stunning to think about the changes Douglas has seen in the last century. He was born during World War I, the war that would supposedly end all wars. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected to his second term as president, and not a single woman voted for him: they didn’t have the right to do so. The Chicago Cubs had just moved into what would become Wrigley Field, and the movie industry was in its infancy. Douglas would be nearly 11 before The Jazz Singer, the first motion picture with synchronized sound, would be released. He could’ve bought a ticket for a quarter.

College graduation photo of Kirk Douglas in 1939. Wikipedia
Kirk Douglas near his home in Los Angeles, circa 1950. Wikipedia
Postcard photo of Kirk Douglas signing his name in the wet concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, 1962. Wikipedia

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Douglas should be grateful, for the worse was terrible indeed.

Douglas has changed, too. And while his speech may be difficult to understand at times (due to a 1996 stroke) and he may not have the physique that made him a star in movies like Spartacus, Lust for Life, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, some might say that he’s changed for the better.

Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn, 1950. Wikipedia
Eve Miller and Kirk Douglas in The Big Trees, 1952.
Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus, 1960. Bryna Productions | MoviestillsDB.com
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Spartacus, 1960. Bryna Productions | MoviestillsDB.com
Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966. Bryna Productions | MoviestillsDB.com

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Douglas has been married twice. His first marriageto Michael’s mother Diana—lasted seven years. He then married Anne Buydens in 1954. But Douglas was a notorious womanizer. “I often said to [Anne], ‘Like the song, I’ve always been true to you darling in my fashion,’” Douglas once said.

He wasn’t a particularly dutiful father, either. “Looking back I see Dad was a film star first, father second,” Michael recalled in a story for The Guardian. “[My brother Joel and I] were much more emotionally attached to our stepfather [Bill].”

But Anne stuck with him during those difficult days, weathering the infidelities and sticking by his side through better and worse. Douglas should be grateful, for the worse was terrible indeed.

There’s a poem in there I like that starts, ‘Romance begins at 80.’”

Douglas nearly died in 1991 when a helicopter he was riding in smashed into a plane. When he suffered a stroke five years later, the film icon grew suicidal. And then in 2004, Douglas’ 42-year-old son died from an accidental overdose. “Every time I sit by his grave I ask what more could I have done?” he told The Mirror.

Now, Douglas says he owes everything—including the fact that he’s around to celebrate his centennial—to Anne. “I was lucky enough to find my soul mate 63 years ago, and I believe our wonderful marriage and our nightly ‘golden hour’ chats have helped me survive all things,” he wrote for Closer Weekly. In an earlier interview with the magazine, Douglas said, “There’s a poem in there I like that starts, ‘Romance begins at 80.” He may be onto something there.

12/30/1987 President Reagan with Kirk Douglas and Mrs. Douglas attending a private dinner at Eldorado Country Club in Rancho Mirage

Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne with President Ronald Reagan, 1987. Wikipedia

I’ve always been a fan of Kirk Douglas, the actor. No one played angry like he did, whether it was righteous fury or clinical insanity. It wasn’t just his famed dimpled chin that drew your eye when he was on camera; it was his energy, his power, the near threat that he might find a way to break from the TV screen, leap into the living room and sock someone right in the mouth.

We aren’t born wise; we start out so very foolish and become wise.”

We don’t see that anger in him anymore. Not on the silver screen, where he last appeared in 2004, and not in person, either. Age may have diminished the actor, but it built, perhaps, a better man.

We live in an age obsessed by youth. Every child is in a rush to get to 21, and every adult seems determined to stay there as long as possible. But in times gone by, age was revered. We aren’t born wise; we start out so very foolish and become wise.

I can’t say definitively whether Kirk Douglas is a wise man as he enters his second century, of course—I’ve never met him. But it’s telling that he and his wife don’t exchange birthday presents anymore. Instead, they use these “happy occasions” to support the charities they love. Last year, for Douglas’ 99th birthday, they gave $15 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, which used the massive donation to fund a facility to treat old movie vets who have Alzheimer’s. The facility will be named the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion.

And while he may have spent many years being “a film star first and a father second” he now seems first a father and a husband, as well as a philanthropist. He seems determined to make the world a better place. Hopefully it won’t take the rest of us 100 years to learn from his example.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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