Kirk Douglas was drawn to acting from a young age. Even as a kindergartner, he captivated an audience with his recital of “The Red Robin of Spring.” This experience sparked a passion for performing that never waned. Growing up in poverty, Douglas had to work hard to help provide for his family.
He sold snacks to mill workers and delivered newspapers, among other odd jobs. Douglas also found it stifling to be part of a large family. He desperately felt the need to break free and forge his own path. Acting offered him creative release and hope for a better future. He participated in plays at Amsterdam High School, where he discovered a sense of purpose and direction on stage.
The Life of a Ragman’s Son
Kirk had a tough childhood and would later share his harrowing early life experiences in his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” Kirk's father, a horse trader in Russia, had no choice but to become a ragman when arriving in the US. He bought old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for a pittance and sold them for a meager profit.
Even in the poorest section of town, where all families struggled to make ends meet, the ragman was at the bottom of the social ladder. As for Kirk, he was just the ragman's son – a tag he had to learn to live with throughout his childhood.
He Had an Unstable Family Life
To add to the family's woes, Herschel had drinking issues and was known to have abused his family. With the little money they had, his father squandered on alcohol, leaving Kirk and his mother and sisters to deal with crippling poverty. These early days were immensely challenging, with the family enduring tremendous suffering and deprivation.
His family's immigrant background and his upbringing in a large Yiddish-speaking household would influence his life and career. Douglas would later write an autobiography, offering glimpses into his early struggles. His stories are a testament to the resilience that helped him become the Hollywood icon the world remembers him as today.
The Tenacious Kirk Douglas
After graduating in 1934, Kirk Douglas knew that he wanted to pursue acting professionally. He was determined to continue his education after high school, but finances were tight. Undeterred, he talked his way into the dean's office at St. Lawrence University and showed him a list of his high school honors. Impressed, the dean allowed him to enroll.
Despite financial difficulties, Kirk worked hard and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 1939. To pay back a loan he received for tuition, he worked part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout athlete on the university's wrestling team, even wrestling in a carnival one summer to make extra money. Through wrestling, Kirk also developed a friendship with world-champion wrestler Lou Thesz.
He Earns a Scholarship and Also Falls in Love
Kirk Douglas's acting talents did not go unnoticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. In recognition of his potential, he earned a special scholarship to further his studies. It was here that he met his future wife, Diana Dill, who was also a student at the academy. The two quickly hit it off and eventually tied the knot.
Another important figure in Douglas's life at the academy was his classmate, Betty Joan Perske, who later went by the name Lauren Bacall. The two had a brief romantic relationship, and Bacall would go on to play an instrumental role in launching his film career.