‘I’m Spartacus!” — “I’m Spartacus!”— “I’M SPARTACUS!” Every film buff knows that moment, every panel show comedian riffs on it. The scene is from the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas, the last major survivor of the Hollywood golden age who died on Wednesday aged 103: he was impossibly handsome, virile and inimitably dimpled.

A crowd of defeated slave rebels in the pre-Christian Roman empire are told their wretched lives will be spared but only if their ringleader, Spartacus, comes out and gives himself up to be executed. Just as he is about to sacrifice himself, one slave, Antoninus (played by Tony Curtis) jumps up and claims to be Spartacus, then another, and another, then all of them, a magnificent display of solidarity, while the man himself allows a tear to fall in closeup.

It is a startling variant on the Christian myth – in the face of crucifixion, Spartacus’s disciples do not deny him – and it is a pointed political fiction. In real life Spartacus was killed on the battlefield. This classic scene was invented by the film’s screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted author who had to work under aliases and found no solidarity in Hollywood. Yet Douglas himself, as the film’s producer, stood up for the writer. He put Trumbo’s real name in the credits and helped end the McCarthyite hysteria.

Really, the main reason the scene is so potent is its extraordinary irony. Who on earth could claim to be Spartacus when Spartacus looked like that? Douglas was a one-man Hollywood Rushmore, almost hyperreal in his masculinity. He is now the movie world’s lost Colossus of Rhodes, a figure of pure granite maleness yet with something feline, and a sinuous, gravelly voice. Douglas was a heart-on-sleeve actor, mercurial and excitable; he played tough guys and vulnerable guys, heroes and villains. And as a pioneering producer he brought two Stanley Kubrick movies to the screen: Spartacus (he hired Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann) and the first world war classic Paths of Glory, in which he was superb, playing a principled junior officer.

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus film
Hyperreal masculinity ... Kirk Douglas in Spartacus Photograph: PR

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch, the son of a Moscow-born Russian Jewish ragman in upstate New York, with an uncle killed in a pogrom. In his 1988 memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas describes the casual antisemitism that he faced almost throughout his career. Rebranding yourself with a Waspy stage name was what actors and indeed immigrants had to do to survive and thrive in the US.

Why Paths of Glory is the one film you should watch this week – video

After a start on the Broadway stage, he made his screen reputation playing the driven fighter Midge Kelly in an exhilarating boxing movie, Champion (1949), which earned him the first of his three Oscar nominations. Champion had stunning images and a notable slo-mo scene: it is much admired by Martin Scorsese and transparently an influence on his Raging Bull. In Detective Story (1951), directed by William Wyler, Douglas gave a grandstanding star turn in a melodrama set in a police station, playing the vindictive, violent Detective McLeod, an officer with an awful secret. It was a movie that laid down the template for all cop TV shows, including The Streets of San Francisco, which was to star his son Michael.

But it was in Ace in the Hole (1951), directed by Billy Wilder, that Douglas gave his first classic performance, as the sinister newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum who prolongs the ordeal of a man trapped in a cave to create a better story. He is an electrifying villain in that film, a Phineas T Barnum of media untruth. At one stage he actually slaps the wife of the trapped man (whom he is also seducing) because she wasn’t sufficiently demure and sad-looking for his purposes, like an imperious film director looking for a better performance. He was similarly brilliant in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) as Jonathan Shields, the diabolically persuasive movie producer who betrays everyone.

ace in the hole
Electrifying villain .... Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Paramount

Arguably it was in Paths of Glory, directed by Kubrick, that Douglas found his finest hour as the tough, principled Colonel Dax who stands up to the callous and incompetent senior officers of the French high command. Douglas’s handsome, unsmiling face is set like a bayonet of contempt.

Douglas himself probably chiefly prized his sensitive and Oscar-nominated performance as Vincent van Gogh in another Minnelli film, Lust for Life (1956). Some may smile a little at this earnest and high-minded movie now but it is very watchable, with a heartfelt belief that Van Gogh’s art can be understood by everyone. There is a bold, passionate performance from Douglas, who simply blazes with agony. Not everyone liked it. John Wayne famously stormed up to Douglas after a screening and raged: “Christ, Kirk, how can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play tough, strong characters. Not those weak queers!”

Lonely Are the Brave film still
The last cowboy? ... Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave Photograph: Universal/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Douglas lived long enough to endure a scene of almost Freudian trauma. Having bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the 1960s, he himself played the lead in its Broadway stage adaptation: McMurphy, the subversive wildman imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. For years he struggled to raise the money for a film version. His son Michael took over as producer and, in the early 70s, brought his dad good news and bad news. The movie would indeed get made but with the younger hotshot Jack Nicholson in the lead. It was a uniquely painful moment for both father and son. Kirk Douglas’s A-list moment had passed.

Michael announced the death in a statement to People Magazine on Wednesday evening, in which he praised his father’s work as a humanitarian and philanthropist. The Douglas Foundation was set up in 1964 by Kirk and his wife, Anne, to serve disadvantaged communities.

“To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to,” Michael Douglas said. “Kirk’s life was well lived, and he leaves a legacy in film that will endure for generations to come, and a history as a renowned philanthropist who worked to aid the public and bring peace to the planet.”

The death of Kirk Douglas is a supremely sad moment: he was the quintessential hero and star of old Hollywood. I will treasure all of his great performances, but my favourite is the defiant cowboy Jack Burns in the superb western thriller Lonely Are the Brave (1962). Perhaps the last cowboy in America, surreally leading his horse across a modern landscape of automobiles, he gets into a bar fight and is slung into jail where he intends to rescue an inmate buddy of his in a prison break. Douglas was never more cool, witty and charismatic. It’s a glorious film – and he was a glorious star.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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