Kirk Douglas’ Childhood Made Him a Charitable Man Yet None of His Kids Got a Penny from His Fortune

You can’t talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood without mentioning Kirk Douglas. An award-winning actor, he certainly left his mark on American cinema. While many of us are familiar with his film career, many probably aren’t so savvy on how he got there. Kirk Douglas’ story is a true rags-to-riches affair. He then returned the favor by using his wealth in a highly charitable fashion. In fact, none of his children received any of his money when he passed away in February of 2020.

Kirk Douglas Came From Nothing

Before Kirk Douglas was a famous and wealthy Hollywood legend, he was a poor child born to immigrant Jewish parents from Russia. His father immigrated to Amsterdam, New York. Soon after he sent for his wife, Kirk Douglas’ mother, to come be with him. Unable to work because the town wouldn’t hire Jewish people, he bought a horse and worked as a ragman. This meant that he collected, dealt, and sold rags, old clothes, and other items. (1, 2)

The couple went on to have seven children, six girls, and Kirk. It was not an easy life as the family lived in poverty. His sisters would beg for bones so that their mother could make soup. Kirk would often resort to stealing food when he was really hungry.

When I was hungry, I stole food – an egg from under a neighbor’s hen or a tomato from a garden. I also wiped fruit and vegetables from a stand.” he recalled in an interview.

 

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In their family home, his parents slept in one room and his sisters were divided between two others. Kirk slept on a shabby living room sofa. Their house had no hot water, proper stove, or washing machine. Still, their mother worked hard to feed and clothe the children. Kirk Douglas also mentioned how much he loved his father, though the man was quite distant. As a boy, he worked very hard to win his praise and affection.

Making His Own Way

The future award-winning actor graduated from high school in 1934 still without a penny to his name. An intelligent and decorated student, he wanted his opportunity to go to college. With no other options, he hitch-hiked 200 miles to Canton, New York, where his friend was a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. He brought with him all of his high school acting awards, essays, and poems, as well as his transcript and a letter of recommendation from his English teacher.

Upon arrival, he pitched to the dean why they should want him to study at their institution. His pitch worked and the dean helped him get a loan. The following semester, he won a scholarship.

Throughout his time in college, he worked at various hotels and resorts, as well as as a shill in the circus, wrestling. Finally, he acted at the Tamarack Playhouse on Lake Pleasant, all to help him pay for his studies.

His first break came when he was 25. He met 17-year-old Betty Perske at Manhattan’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She shot to stardom quickly with her first film. She then convinced her director to go see Kirk on Broadway. That is how he first made his way into Hollywood.

Kirk Douglas In Hollywood

First, Kirk served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and had a brief career on Broadway. Once he broke into Hollywood, however, he never looked back. His first film was 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. His first breakthrough performance was three years later as a boxer in 1949’s Champion. His performance as Midge Kelly in that film earned him his first Oscar nomination.

 

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Kirk Douglas has since flourished in many roles and received a number of awards. He particularly specializes in edgier characters who’ve got rough edges about them.

“I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” he told The Times in an interview in 1984. “I don’t find virtue photogenic.” (3)

The Family Life of Kirk Douglas

Of course, Kirk Douglas had a life outside of his Hollywood career. He married his first wife Diana in 1943. Together they had two children, Peter and Michael Douglas. The former has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a mega Hollywood star as well. The couple divorced in 1951.

Not long after, Kirk Douglas met his second wife, Anne. They married in 1954 and stayed married until Kirk passed away in 2020 at the age of 103. Anne then died a year later in 2021 at 102 years of age. The couple also shares two sons, Joel, and Eric Douglas. (4)

 

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The Douglas Foundation

His impoverished upbringing made Kirk Douglas want to give back as much as he could. He wanted to use his wealth to help other young people like himself who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Anne, too, knew what it meant to struggle. Though born into privilege in Germany, the second World War divided her family and quickly her luck changed.

Kirk and Anne Douglas, despite their fortune, never forgot where they came from and how they lived before. They wanted to share their wealth, as well as teach their children and grandchildren about giving back. For this, they founded The Douglas Foundation.

“The Douglas Foundation’s principal goal is to help those who cannot otherwise help themselves. Its primary focus is improving the education and health, fostering the well-being, and most importantly developing new opportunities for the children who hold our future in their hands. Recognizing the crisis in health care today, the Douglas Foundation also lends its support to medical research, equipment, and programs within the health system that strive to enhance the quality of care in local communities.” (5)

 

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When Kirk died in 2020, he left most of his $80 million fortune to The Douglas Foundation. Though son Eric died of an accidental overdose in 2004, his other three sons did not receive any money when their father passed. Naturally, Michael Douglas does not need it, as he is worth $300 million in his own right.

“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,” Michael said in a statement after his father’s passing. “But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter, he was simply Dad.” (6)

Kirk Douglas certainly left a legacy. As his son Michael said, he set a standard for all of his family, as well as everyone else who has privilege like he had, to aspire to.

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