“Age should be defined by a person’s ability to function.”
And that’s how Kirk Douglas lived his life — lighting up the screen as an award-winning actor; driving the talents of others as a world-renowned director; and inspiring millions through exhaustive philanthropic work all over the world.
On Wednesday, Mr. Douglas passed away at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 103, leaving behind his wife, Anne, and three sons.
Mr. Douglas made his century count, impacting lives wherever he went, including in Montecito, where he and his wife owned a home for nearly two decades.
One of his favorite places to frequent was Trattoria Mollie when it was located on Coast Village Road in Montecito.
Anne enjoyed Le Pizze Margherita, while Mr. Douglas usually sided with La Caprese.
But it was the relationship that Mr. Douglas fostered with Mollie Ahlstrand, the restaurant’s owner and innovative chef, that was reflective of Mr. Douglas’ approach to life.
Ms. Ahlstrand, a small businesswoman from Ethiopia, was introduced to the Douglas family some 28 years ago, her food the gateway to what would become a lifelong friendship.
She would be invited to their home, not to just deliver food, but to experience the Douglas family, to get to know them on a personal level.
“They treated me like family, and to this day, I still feel like a member of the Douglas family. I can’t even begin to explain how much love I have for them,” Ms. Ahlstrand said.
And the love was reciprocal, as Mr. Douglas took a keen interest in supporting Ms. Ahlstrand’s endeavors.
Born on Dec. 9, Mr. Douglas actually shared a birthday with one of his grandchildren, enjoying celebrating those birthdays together — “he lived for his grandchildren,” Ms. Ahlstrand said.
Shortly after Ms. Ahlstrand released her first book, “Primi Piatti, First Course,” she found herself with a book signing — on Dec. 9.
Yet, as she signed away, she was shocked to look up and see Mr. Douglas.
“‘I love you. I’m proud of you.’ He said that to me, he came to honor me in that moment,” Ms. Ahlstrand recalled. “To this day, if anyone asks me who my favorite person is, it will always be my Kirk. I love him. I love that family.”
The family man
Mr. Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, N.Y., the only son — he had six sisters — of illiterate Jewish-Russian immigrants.
In many ways, his humble beginnings defined all that he became, watching his father make it in America as a rag collector — as many factories refused to hire Jewish workers during the time of both world wars.
Mr. Douglas was already saving for college at the age of 13, delivering newspapers in New York.
He’d eventually earn a wrestling scholarship to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where he graduated in 1938, before moving on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
He did enlist in the Navy at the start of WWII, serving as a communications officer on an anti-submarine unit, only to be honorably discharged before seeing any combat duty.
At the end of his time with the Navy, he married his first wife, Diana Hill, with whom he’d have his first two boys, Michael and Joel.
The couple would amicably divorce after eight years.
Mr. Douglas would meet Anne during an interview to help him with his acting publicity, a gig that she turned down.
They’d stay connected and eventually would marry in Las Vegas in May 1954.
“We got married in Las Vegas. Where else?” Anne recalled. “I picked him up at the studio at 6 p.m. We flew to Las Vegas, got married at 9 p.m., stayed overnight and flew back to Los Angeles so he could be at the studio the next morning.”
The couple would have two children, Peter and Eric, with the latter passing away in 2004.
Despite Mr. Douglas being a busy man, he found time to be an impactful father figure to his four sons.
In 2005, he appeared with Michael in an HBO documentary, one that showed what Mr. Douglas truly wanted to be defined by.
“(At one point in that film) I said, ‘Michael, was I a good father?’ Michael took a long pause. He said, ‘Ultimately, you were a great father.’ I said, ‘Ultimately?’
“What made an impact on me was the pause. It was so eloquent! I analyzed that pause. I think it meant that I became a father when I needed my kids more than they needed me.”
Michael’s affection for his father was apparent in an Instagram post on Wednesday:
“It is with tremendous sadness that my brothers and I announce that Kirk Douglas left us today at the age of 103. 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.
“But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.
“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.
“Let me end with the words I told him on his last birthday and which will always remain true. Dad- I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”
It was family that pushed Mr. Douglas and his wife to relocate to Santa Barbara, selling their home in Palm Springs in order to move closer to Peter and his family. In the early 2000s, they would commonly be seen at the Montecito YMCA rooting on their grandchildren during coed basketball season.
“He’d do anything for his family, he loved them dearly,” Ms. Ahlstrand said.
His love affair with mankind wasn’t limited to his family, as Mr. Douglas devoted the latter half of his life to improving the lives of others.
Alongside Anne — and now headed by son, Peter — Mr. Douglas founded the Douglas Foundation in 1964, with nearly $118 million donated to date, according to Town & Country.
In talking to the News-Press in 2000, both Mr. Douglas and Anne were energized by the continued good that they were doing all over the world, from Los Angeles to Israel.
In 2000, they were working with the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless and Anne Douglas Center for Women.
The Douglases are as passionate about other projects the foundation funds, including the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless and Anne Douglas Center for Women.
Initial money came from the sale of priceless artworks — a Picasso, Miro and Chagall — which once filled their home in Beverly Hills.
“My wife has a good eye,” Mr. Douglas told the News-Press. “When the children grew up and left home, we moved to a smaller place and decided to sell the paintings to set up our foundation. We believe caring is sharing. It’s very important for us to help others.”
At the time, both Mr. Douglas and his wife were focused on improving playgrounds all over the L.A. School District, setting a lofty goal of 400 that would be endowed. They enjoyed showing up for the dedications.
“It’s purely selfish on our part because we want to see the children’s faces. It’s so rewarding. They take our hands and say, ‘Thank you,’“ Anne said.
The Foundation’s work extended to Israel, where four playgrounds were also endowed, including one in honor of the Oklahoma City bombing victims and another that is shared by Arab and Jewish children in Jerusalem.
Soon after Anne began the project, her husband asked what he could do to help.
“Do you know what she said? ‘Get a job. We need the money,'” laughed Mr. Douglas.
While appearances might have been fewer over the past decade, the Foundation’s impact certainly continued to grow — including a massive South Coast project.
The Foundation assisted in the funding of the reconstruction and renovation of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, calling out the hospital’s ability to provide pediatric intensive care and neurosurgical services.
The aid was in lockstep with part of the Foundation’s mission statement:
“The Douglas Foundation’s principal goal is to help those who cannot otherwise help themselves. Its primary focus is improving education and health, fostering well-being, and most importantly developing new opportunities for the children who hold our future in their hands.”
The actor, director & author
Considered to be one of the final pieces of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Mr. Douglas rose to fame more than 70 years ago, launching into a movie career that saw him receive three Best Actor nominations at the Oscars.
While he’d never win one for his roles in “Champion” (1949), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1953) and “Lust for Life” (1957), he did respond with a career-defining role in Spartacus in 1960.
He also started his own production company — aptly named “Bryna,” after his mother — and directed two movies.
While his movie career faded away in the 1960s, he would eventually be given an honorary Oscar in 1996 for his role as a “creative and moral force in the movie industry.”
He’d continue to act in various TV roles until 2009.
His post-acting passion was a series of best-selling books, including “The Ragman’s Son,” “Dance With the Devil,” “The Gift” and “My Stroke of Luck.”
The latter dealt with his nearly deadly stroke in 1995 — just four years after surviving a helicopter crash that claimed two lives.
He struggled for a time with the stroke.
“I was very depressed because it took away my livelihood. What is an actor who can’t speak? I felt my life was over,” he said.
But, he’d regain his voice through sheer willpower and help from therapists — allowing him to inspire others who survived a stroke.
“I tell them not to give up. I’ve given more speeches since I had the stroke than I ever had. I feel like the pinup boy for stroke victims. I make strokes fashionable,” he said.
He’d even try to use it as an excuse to get out of a social engagement or two — something that Anne would read right through.
“I would say to her, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to talk.’ Do you know what she said to me? ‘If they put a mic in front of you, you will talk,'” said the famous actor, producer and writer, laughing uproariously at the response he has learned to expect from his spouse who has never been known to coddle him during their happy marriage of 65 years.
While his on-screen talent is what made Kirk Douglas a household name, it is his down-to-earth, genuine approach to life that will allow him to live on for centuries.
“Kirk should be honored, but not for what he did, but for what kind of person he was,” Ms. Ahlstrand said.
That is one incredible way to be defined.
News-Press staff writer Tess Kenny contributed to this report. Archive stories by Marilyn McMahon are used in this report.