“I am Spartacus!”
That is what many people think of when they think of Kirk Douglas, in his role in the 1960 film Spartacus as the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome. But did you know he once made his home in Greenwich Village? While he was a struggling actor at the beginning of what would be an auspicious career, he lived here in the years before World War II. He would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men in the mid-20th century, as well as a film producer, philanthropist, and author.
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, to Harry and Bryna Demsky, Russian-born Jews who immigrated to the United States in 1910. His interest in acting started at an early age; he acted in high school and at St. Lawrence University, where he won a number of drama awards. It was while working one summer during college in the Adirondacks that Douglas met a fellow actor and child of immigrants, George Sekulovich (Karl Malden), who convinced him to change his name to Kirk Douglas.
In 1939 Douglas moved to New York City and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on scholarship. In order to make ends meet for the struggling actor, he worked as a waiter at Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, and lived in the settlement house, Greenwich House. During his time in New York, he became friends with a fellow classmate, Betty Joan Perske, later known as Lauren Bacall.
Douglas’ career was interrupted while he served in the United States Navy during World War II. Later, after performing in a number of plays in New York, he was called to Hollywood by producer Hal Wallis on the recommendation of his former classmate, Lauren Bacall. He appeared in several films, but it was not until he took a chance on starring in a low-budget film, Champion, that he soared to stardom and received his first Oscar nomination. After a number of other films, he did something that few other actors did at the time — started his own production company, Bryna Productions, named for his mother. Some of his most celebrated films were produced by his company, including Paths of Glory, Lonely are the Brave, and Spartacus.
Over the course of his long career, that continued through the 20th century, Douglas received numerous honors, including the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1991), the Kennedy Center’s award for contributions to U.S. cultural life, and the Academy of Motion Pictures award for fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community in 1996. He and his wife Anne formed the Douglas Foundation in 1964, which has supported many causes, from helping the homeless to restoring neglected playgrounds in Los Angeles. If that wasn’t enough, this renaissance man has also authored a number of books including his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, as well as novels and children’s books.