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The superstar had a humble start: The first-generation American was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky to Russian-Jewish parents in Amsterdam, New York, back in 1916. An avid performer in high school plays, the go-getter made his mark at Saint Lawrence University in upstate New York, where he became a wrestling champion. He later received an acting scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he met classmate and fellow future icon Lauren Bacall.
The actor had barely launched a theater career when he shipped out with the U.S. Navy in 1941 and changed his name to Kirk Douglas. The war vet returned to New York City in 1945 to work radio shows, theater, and commercials. When the jobs dried up, the young hopeful moved to Hollywood, and with the help of former classmate Bacall, got a screen test and his first role in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," starring Barbara Stanwyck. And, as they say, a star was born.
The actor was on a roll, receiving top billing in movies like "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" one of seven with co-star Burt Lancaster. The A-lister has appeared in 91 films, from Stanley Kubrick's antiwar drama "Paths of Glory" to a comedy western with Arnold Schwarzenegger called "The Villain."
Photo by Everett Collection
According to the head of the organization, Douglas actually received meals there himself when he first arrived in Hollywood, explaining, "Mr. Douglas, his father was a ragman, he knows what it's like to be on the street and to be hungry."
The family man, who has seven grandchildren and four children, including actor Michael Douglas and the late Eric Douglas, also knows what it's like to have a scare. In 1991, he survived a helicopter crash that killed two people. Just four years later, Douglas suffered a stroke, which impaired his speech. He recovered and even wrote a book about the experience (naturally), titled "My Stroke of Luck."
Indeed, on his 90th year, the birthday boy noted, "This birthday is not only special but miraculous. I survived World War II, a helicopter crash, a stroke, and two new knees."
The icon is named in the American Film Institute's list of the greatest male American screen legends of all time, and is the recipient of 25 awards, including the 1996 Academy Honorary Award "for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community." The way Douglas is going, he may be around for many more.
- Kirk Douglas