Kirk Douglas is one of Hollywood’s most legendary actors. Mostly known for his explosive acting style, he starred in over 90 films. Born Issur Danielovitch, Douglas made his debut in 1946 for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with Barbara Stanwyck. From there, his career soared with heroic roles throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood. And he was touted as a male screen legend by the American Film Institute. May he rest in peace.
In honor of this great legend, here are among his best roles that defined him and his career and must be seen to be believed.
10 Major Steve Garrett in Town Without Pity (1961)
Based on the 1960 German novel The Verdict, Town Without Pity is about a US army officer who has to defend four American soldiers, who are accused of raping of a local German girl.
As Major Steve Garrett, Douglas carried a lot of weight as a grizzled army leader who not only had to deal with dissecting the case but also its aftermath in the town where the crime “presumably” had taken place. Yet, there is passion in Douglas to confront these heavy issues and deal with them unconventionally.
9 Midge Kelly in Champion (1949)
After his debut, Douglas’ career soared to new heights. And his role as Midge Kelly for the noir sports film Champion is best described by its title. As Kelly, Douglas brought humanity as a boxer who has to wrestle with his demons and contend with his success on the ring. For its time, that was astounding.
While the resulting film garnered an Academy Award for Best Film Editing, Kirk Douglas reaped a nomination for Best Actor. This role is so notable that it was featured in his 1999 film Diamonds.
8 Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951)
Ace in the Hole is one of the earliest examples of depicting the press as the front-and-center of a drama. Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a disgraced journalist who does what it takes to regain his job on a major newspaper by pushing the envelope.
Billy Wilder’s noir direction is fine as usual, with his in-depth sinking into the seedy world of press coverage and journalism and its perception by the public. And Douglas held power in every scene he is in. Too bad it was a failure on release.
7 Detective Jim McLeod in Detective Story (1951)
Detective Story is a classic on its own. Another film noir, directed by Ben-Hur auteur William Wyler, this film centered on Douglas playing Detective Jim McLeod, a grizzled New York inspector who delved deeper on a case about an abortionist as he interview several people who may have connections to the suspect.
The true highlight of this noir are the several characters who show up on McLeod’s precinct and tell their stories. While they are excellent on their own, that does not detract from Douglas stellar performance.
6 Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956)
Alongside playing rough but moralistic men with badges, Douglas also played real-life figures. Douglas played Vincent van Gogh in this 1956 film, based on the 1934 novel of the same name, that covers Van Gogh’s life story behind his finest works. Douglas embodies the famed painter, down to his hat, the hair, and behaviors.
While Douglas is more subdued in this part, he was given an opportunity to breathe along with the artist’s inner psyche and how he conveyed it to his paintings. Beautiful and captivating, Lust for Life mesmerizes.
5 Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Kirk Douglas’ heroic roles turn out to be rebellious figures who achieve impossible feats that their contemporaries will witness in their sudden rise and subsequent fall. This was notable in Lonely Are the Brave, wherein Douglas plays a cowboy on the run who must break out of prison with an acquaintance. He also has to contend against a sheriff, played by Walter Matthau.
One of Douglas’ recognized collaborations with Dalton Trumbo, Lonely Are the Brave is a sharp Western with tension and empathy for its figures.
4 Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
The Bad and the Beautiful placed Kirk Douglas in an uneasy position as a film producer who had to regain the trust of his collaborators for his further success. As Jonathan Shields, he had to go to disturbing lengths to reclaim his glory, a common theme of the movies of the Hollywood Golden Age.
The film is a winner for Douglas’ impassioned performance and his inner psyche, and also for the writing by George Bradshaw and Charles Schnee, for Gloria Grahame’s performance and its jazz score by David Raskin.
3 Colonel Dax of Paths of Glory (1957)
On his first collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, Douglas goes full heroic mode as Colonel Dax in this anti-WWI film that had him defend his troop’s actions of armistice from a hostile court-martial. Almost like a satire that calls for pacifism, Douglas carried the vitality throughout the film as it jumps from loud battle scenes to talky planning scenes.
More than that, Douglas treats his character of a highly decorated officer with a poorly conceived strategy as the most human of them. It really shows off Douglas’ incredible range.
2 Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Adventure movies were a great fit for Douglas, who brought heroic roles to life. In this case, Douglas played master harpooner Ned Land in Walt Disney’s 1954 version of the Jules Verne classic. His heroic character had to contend with the brash Captain Nemo inside the Nautilus. And the levity that Douglas gave was much needed, contrasting James Mason’s outstanding performance as Captain Nemo.
His presence makes him a relatable character, especially as they battle against the ferocious giant squid. Those aspects made the movie one of Disney’s best.
1 Spartacus in Spartacus (1960)
Kirk Douglas is Spartacus. He will always be Spartacus. Though many slaves claimed they were, Douglas is the only Spartacus. And that would not be possible without Kubrick’s powerful direction, Trumbo’s eclectic writing, and the impossible feats manifested by the crew.
But that does not detract from Kirk Douglas giving arguably his most iconic role as the leader of a Roman slave revolt. Sword-and-sandal epics of the old age always feature iconic characters. The Ten Commandments has Charlton Heston as Moses. Lawrence of Arabia has Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence. And Spartacus has Kirk Douglas in the title role. Outstanding.
NEXT: Laurence Olivier: 10 Most Iconic Roles In Film History, Ranked