← Back

Kirk Douglas – Actor, Producer and Villager

“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.

Kirk Douglas in the 1960 film Spartacus.

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.

Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, 1929. Image via NYPL


Schrafft’s 61 Fifth Avenue, c. 1940. Image via NY Times

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.

Kirk Douglas at his 100th birthday with son Michael Douglas and daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones. Photo Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP


Now that we have you here…

… help us protect the neighborhoods you love at a time when big real estate and development pressures threaten to overwhelm what makes New York City such an incredibly special place. Make a year-end gift to GVSHP .

We’re asking our readers to help us before the New Year so that we can continue our work even more vigorously in 2019. Small or big, every contribution you give will help us.

GVSHP’s independence means that we can advocate unequivocally for our neighborhoods, challenging the powerful and holding them to account. No one tones down our advocacy and no one steers our research.

In 2018 we will have organized over 60 free public programs including book talks and walking tours with expert authors and preservationists. Our children’s education program provides lessons to over a thousand students throughout New York City, regardless of need each year. And every day our blog Off the Grid brings you new and interesting tidbits about the wonderful history and culture we care so much about. It is our members’ support that makes this work possible.

We’re in this together – with your support we can keep achieving tangible results. We hope to start 2019 on a strong footing. We want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported GVSHP so far.

Please invest in our advocacy, public programs, and education today by making a year-end gift now:

One response to “Kirk Douglas – Actor, Producer and Villager

  1. To Kirk Douglas a.k.a. Issur Danielovitch Demsky

    You were one of my mother’s favorite actors.

    “Don’t Spend So Much Time Inside Your Mind That You Go Out Of It.” Lyrics written 06/14/1977 in Cambodia Music written 01/21/2011 by Richard Reeck & R. L. Zadworny
    Music refound 04/24/2017 by R.L. Zadworny rummaging through old sheet music.

    Don’t spend so much time inside your mind that you go out of it. Thank God for music! We all sing or play different notes at different times in life but we all perform the same song. The better you follow the conductor, the more beautiful the music. Don’t spend so much time inside your mind that you go out of it. Life is more than about you. Give thanks all the time for the gift of life. Though it may be full of strife look for the beauty in it and lift up not only your spirit but others, singing praise in thankful joy. Thank God for music! Which inspires us all to dance with joy and hope. Don’t spend so much time inside your mind that you go out of it. Life is more than about you. The story of life is quicker than a wink of the eye…the story of life is hello and goodbye, until we meet again in the eternal. Don’t spend so much time inside your mind that you go out of
    it. https://youtu.be/SFpCtHVxJvY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *