Recently, actor Michael Douglas received a high honor. After five decades in the acting business, he was finally granted a Hollywood Walk of Fame star. His loved ones were there to join him in the exciting occasion, and among them was his elderly father, Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas. Consequently, Michael had plenty to say about his dad and the extraordinary life he had led.
Kirk Douglas is a fascinating figure. Not only is he a movie star and the father of Michael, but he’s lived out an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. First of all, his family and himself were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and suffered poverty and discrimination after they reached America. Subsequently, Kirk wrote about that time in his 1988 autobiography.
“My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes,” Kirk wrote. “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
But the ragman’s son had a dream of being a professional actor, and he was willing to fight hard to pursue it. He wished to attend St. Lawrence University, but he couldn’t afford it. He went directly to the dean and showed him the honors he’d been awarded at school. He was given a loan to go to the school, but had to pay it back.
To pay off his debts, Kirk took on a series of odd jobs. He worked as a janitor, a gardener and even a wrestler at a carnival. “I’ve held down more than 40 jobs in my life,” Kirk told The Saturday Evening Post in 1957. “Among other things, I’ve been a dishwasher, a punch-press operator, a cashier, a night watchman, a lifeguard.”
Once Kirk made it into drama school, he adopted the name that we know him – and his son – by today. “I chose the name Douglas— I can’t remember why,” he said in the 1957 interview. “Perhaps if a psychiatrist drained my mind he would find the name ‘Douglas Fairbanks’ floating in the sludge. Anyhow, I remember that we decided to put Kirk in front of Douglas because it would sound ‘snazzy.’”
While at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Kirk met an actress called Betty Joan Perske – a.k.a. Lauren Bacall. She liked him tremendously, and they dated for a time but very casually. “Kirk did not really pursue me. He was friendly and sweet—enjoyed my company—but I was clearly too young for him,” Bacall wrote in her 1978 book By Myself and Then Some.
Meanwhile, Kirk was still broke at that point in his life. Bacall noted in her autobiography that he had been very poor, so much so that he had once stayed overnight in a jail cell purely to have somewhere to sleep. At one time, she gifted him her uncle’s coat, and he was “thrilled and grateful.” Kirk’s biggest dream, Bacall wrote, was to move his family to New York so that they could see him tread the boards.
Though Kirk had no lasting interest in Bacall, he did in her friend, a classmate of the pair of them named Diana Dill. Indeed, Dill would marry Kirk in 1943. One year after the wedding, their first son Michael was born. Kirk was still an aspiring actor at this point – his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, wouldn’t happen until 1946.
It was actually Bacall who got Kirk into the movies. “I was in a play called The Wind Is Ninety — don’t ask me what the title means — when I got a visit backstage from an important Hollywood producer, Hal Wallis,” Kirk told HuffPost in 2014. “My friend Lauren Bacall had urged him to see me when he was in New York because I had gotten good reviews. He offered me a job.”
After The Strange Love of Martha Ivers came Kirk’s big break, 1949’s Champion. He played boxer Midge Kelly and won rave reviews for his performance. He also received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Suddenly his dream had come true, and he was rising fast up the A-list.
Kirk appeared in many more movies throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Young Man with a Horn, where he appeared opposite his old friend Bacall. He had hit after hit: The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, Spartacus and more. And by 1969, his son Michael was acting as well.
In 1975 Kirk gave his son Michael the rights to the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk had played McMurphy in a stage production, but Michael vetoed the idea of him doing the same on film. He told his father he was too old for the role and cast Jack Nicholson instead. Subsequently, the film was a huge hit.
“[One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] opened to raves, and on Academy Awards night, the film won all five major Oscars,” Kirk told HuffPost in 2014. “I couldn’t have been prouder of Michael, even though he wouldn’t let me play McMurphy.” He added that he had long since forgiven his son for not casting him.
After that, Kirk continued to play big roles, acting alongside some of his most famous peers. He starred opposite Henry Fonda in There Was a Crooked Man… in 1970 and with Bruce Dern in 1975’s Posse, which he also directed. Fonda and Dern would also see their children follow them into showbusiness.
Meanwhile, Kirk suffered a stroke in 1996, a serious one that affected his speaking ability. Alongside that, it also sent his mental health plummeting and left him very depressed. However, he went to therapy and was able to continue working as an actor. In 1999 he made the movie Diamonds, which co-starred Lauren Bacall once again.
As for Michael, his family expanded. In 1978 he had his first child, Cameron, with his wife Diandra Luker. However, that relationship didn’t last. The pair divorced in 1995, with Diandra getting $45 million in the settlement. In that respect, Michael followed in the footsteps of his father, who had divorced Diana Dill in 1951.
Father, son and grandson acted together in the 2003 film It Runs in the Family. Diana Dill also appeared in the film, playing the wife of Kirk’s character. The film wasn’t a success, but people noted how the two main stars, Kirk and Michael, were honest about their relationship when displaying it for an audience.
Over the years, Michael has spoken about his at times complex relationship with his dad. “I was the product of a divorced family,” he told AARP in 2010. “My dad was always torn; he was working really hard and would want to see us. But then, with all his Kirk Douglas passion, he’d try to be a father for a week, a summer, whatever. It was tough.”
Indeed, the divorce of Michael’s parents, which happened when he was still a child, affected him deeply. “Within 18 months of him being in California, [my mother] had seen and read enough to call time on the marriage,” Michael told The Guardian in 2016. “They divorced when I was seven and my younger brother, Joel, four.”
Both Kirk and Diana married again. “Dad’s second wife, Anne, is still alive and theirs has been a good marriage – lasting now for more than 60 years,” Michael told The Guardian. But he also added, “Looking back, I can see that Dad was film star first, father second. We were much more emotionally attached to our stepfather.”
Michael’s stepfather, William Darrid, passed away in 1992. “Bill was an extraordinary guy, the most important male influence through my teenage years,” Michael told The Guardian. “To his credit, Kirk always referred to him as my surrogate father. Step-parents often get a bad press. But it isn’t always true.”
Michael’s mother Diana passed away in 2015. And he wrote a post on Facebook to break the news. “I am saddened to announce the death of my beloved mom, Diana Douglas Webster,” he said. “She died peacefully of cancer after having been a patient in palliative care since early June. I will love and miss her forever.”
However, Diana had lived long enough to see her son Michael become happily married to Catherine Zeta-Jones and have two children with her. The Douglas-Jones children are Dylan Michael, who was born in 2000, and Carys Zeta, born 2003. Both of them have plans to follow their father and grandfather into the acting industry.
Many of Michael’s loved ones joined him as he was awarded his Walk of Fame star in November 2018. Catherine Zeta-Jones was present, as was Michael’s first son Cameron. Cameron and his girlfriend Viviene Thibes had had a child in 2017, making Michael a grandfather and Kirk a great-grandfather.
Before the ceremony, Catherine posted some cute videos to Instagram. “We’re in the car, and someone is getting a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame, and that is my hubby, Michael Douglas,” she announced in the vid, as Michael pointed to himself. The other video was of Michael arriving for his star alongside his father.
For Kirk was there too, of course. He looked on as people Michael knew made speeches about how much he deserved the star. One of the speakers was Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda’s daughter and Michael’s co-star in The China Syndrome. “When I first heard Michael was getting his star, I thought, ‘What took so long?’” she told the audience.
“Michael Douglas and I share something far more specific and unique than acting together… we both come from families referred to by the press as Hollywood royalty,” Fonda went on. Both of our fathers were movie legends, and thankfully, Kirk Douglas is still with us. Stepping into a family business, any family business, is always challenging.”
“Carving out your own identity in a world-famous family business is especially difficult when parent and child are the same gender. I believe it was easier for me to follow in my father’s footsteps than it was for Michael to follow in his father’s footsteps,” Fonda continued. But, she went on, Michael had forged his own identity.
Upon receiving his star, Michael thanked his family for their support. “I’m so proud to see my son Cameron,” Michael said. Cameron had a seven-year stint in prison for drug offenses but after getting out, did better for himself. Michael also called out to Catherine. “By the way, in another week we’re celebrating our anniversary, our 18th anniversary, so thank you for the 18 best years of my life sweetheart,” he said.
Then Michael began talking about his dad, and he seemed to be stopping himself from crying as he did so. “And my dad is here,” he said. “In a month, Kirk turns 102 years old. So those of you who took the under on him making 80, you lost a long time ago, all right? It means so much to me, Dad, that you’re here today.”
“Thank you for your advice, inspiration, and I’ll say it simply and with all my heart: I’m so proud to be your son,” he finished. As if that wasn’t touching enough, Michael’s star got placed right near Kirk’s on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Kirk’s star there is one of the oldest, as he was one of the original 1,558 celebrities selected to appear on the Walk.
The ceremony and speech were all the more important considering that Kirk isn’t often seen in public anymore. He’s no longer acting. However, news about him is still reported, including the celebration of his 102nd birthday on December 9, 2018. His family and friends released social media statements for the occasion.
Catherine posted a whole video on Instagram, a montage of Kirk growing older. In the background was a piano track of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” as played by Catherine and Michael’s daughter Carys. “Happy 102nd birthday to the most beautiful man. We love you Kirk,” Catherine wrote.
Carys put her own birthday tribute post on Instagram. “To my inspiration, my pappy. I can’t put into words how much you mean to me. Happy birthday, I love you,” she wrote. Her brother Dylan said much the same thing on his own account. “Though you are adored by millions, my love for you is by far the greatest. Love you forever and always,” he said.
To put those 102 years into perspective, USA Today listed some of the things that were taking place when Kirk was born in 1916. Women in America hadn’t yet been given the right to vote, for a start. And Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, was entering his second term.
Kirk has lived a truly incredible life by anyone’s standards. “I never, ever thought I would live to be 100. That’s shocked me, really. And it’s sad, too,” he told The Guardian in a 2017 interview. When the subject of parenthood came up he was dismissive of his abilities in raising children, but still talked about them with pride.
“I am so proud of Michael because he never followed my advice. I wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, and the first time I saw him in a play I told him he was terrible,” Kirk informed The Guardian. “But then I saw him a second time and I said: ‘You were wonderful!’ And I think he is very good in everything he’s done.”
Michael is still enjoying his acting career. He’s currently working on the Netflix series The Kominsky Method – and he jokingly plugged it during his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony. The show is about a once-famous actor who becomes an acting coach as he deals with the problems of aging.
Kirk of course knows a thing or two about both acting and aging. When Douglas picked up a Golden Globe for The Kominsky Method in 2019, he shared a lesson his father once had taught him. “He was out of the school where you give your best shot, you give the best thing you can, and then f*** it,” he said. “That was the best advice I got.”