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Kirk Douglas's work in American Theater, Radio, and Television

Playbill, Schubert Theater, Oct 1963 (B62 F18)


Like other aspiring actors, Douglas chose to pursue his profession in New York City. In 1941 he won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and supported himself by living in the Greenwich Village Settlement House, waiting on tables at Schrafft's, teaching dramatics to children, and doing odd jobs. It was during his year at the American Academy that he chose his stage name. Douglas made his Broadway debut in 1941 as a singing telegraph boy in Spring Again. The advent of World War II provided him with a new career in the U.S. Navy. Douglas attended Midshipman School at Notre Dame University and was subsequently commissioned as an ensign. He served with an anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific until he received a medical discharge following injuries in 1944. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant (j.g.).

Kirk Douglas got his first "break" soon after his return to civilian life, when he was chosen to replace Richard Widmark as the juvenile lead in Kiss and Tell. He also worked in four other plays: Trio (1944), Star in the Window (1944)Alice in Arms (1945), and The Wind Is Ninety (1945). The latter play won Douglas both critical acclaim and the attention of Hollywood. Lauren Bacall, one of Douglas's fellow students at the Academy, recommended Douglas to producer Hal Wallis, and his screen test was so successful that he won the lead opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Among the Theater files are also scripts and correspondence regarding plays perhaps considered for production as motion pictures. 

Of interest in this series are the records of the 1963-64 Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, adapted by Dale Wasserman from the novel by Ken Kesey, in which Douglas starred.  Though Douglas tried for a decade to get the play produced as a film, not until 1975 did it come to fruition, produced by Kirk's son Michael Douglas and starring Jack Nicholson.  The film was directed by Milos Forman and became the first picture to win all five of the biggest Academy awards (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Leading Actor and Leading Actress). Partial records of both productions are present in the Theater series, including Ken Kesey's strong defense of the theatrical production against published criticism.

Kirk Douglas's early career included a number of roles on radio, and his papers show that the young Douglas had ideas for radio productions starring himself that may not have materialized but demonstrate his interest in the medium.  His first radio experience was in an adaptation of the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers on This Is Hollywood (13 April 1947).  From 1948 through 1952 he played a number of radio roles, in shows ranging from the thriller series Escape and Suspense to anthology dramas like The Prudential Family Hour of Stars and The Theater Guild on the Air.  His hand-annotated script from " Never Steal a Butcher's Wife" on Suspense (9 Feb. 1950) show that Douglas personalized his roles and made them his own.


In addition to motion pictures, Bryna was also involved in television production. Three of Bryna's motion pictures were planned for production as television specials or series, Tales of the Vikings (from The Vikings), Indian Fighter, and Spartacus, although the latter two never were produced. For these series documentation includes correspondence, financial records, production and promotional files, and scripts for specific episodes. Other files in this series pertain to Douglas's appearances on television interview shows, and specials; made-for-television movies, and more recently, television mini-series. Similar types of records are available for these shows, which span the period 1950 to 1976, although some files are incomplete. Among the more recent productions represented is The Moneychangers (1976).

Bryna's first venture into television, Tales of the Vikings, was a 30 minutes action/adventure show, loosely based on the film.  It made use of the sets, props, and costumes – including full scale Viking ships – that had been used in the film. The series, like the film, was shot in Europe and distributed by United Artists. It ran for 39 episodes as a syndicated program, from 8 September 1959 to 2 June 1960. It also aired on British television during this period, part of the "transatlantic" series popular at the time. Starring Jerome Courtland as Leif Erickson, Walter Barnes as Finn and June Thorburn as Jessica, the show traced the adventures of Leif and Finn as they cruised the waters of the new and old worlds, finding adventure and usually doing good as they went along.

Digital Documents

Correspondence with Ken Kesey

"Never Steal" script and cover sheet

"Radio Show" Douglas's series proposal

Tales of the Vikings sales figures

Episode synopsis, United Artists

Memo from Mark Rubin to Douglas

Memo from Kurland to Douglas

Letter from Ken Kesey to Drama Mailbag

Related Links

Dale Wasserman

Michael Douglas

Ken Kesey

Tales of the Vikings episode list