Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, Kirk Douglas did everything in his power to make something of himself—and he did just that. In true American fashion, he went on to become one of the most prolific actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era. But his rise to stardom didn’t come without controversy.
Like many families in Hollywood, the Douglas dynasty is better known for their off-screen antics and drama. From Kirk and Michael’s extramarital affairs to grandson Cameron’s prison stint and son Eric’s sudden death, this family knows a thing or two about grief and struggle. So, sit back and relax because we’re taking a look at every member of the Douglas dynasty.
Born Issur Danielovitch, Kirk was one of seven children born to Bryna and Herschel, who were Jewish immigrants from present-day Belarus. After going by Izzy Demsky for most of his youth, Kirk decided to officially change his name before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II. Kirk had it rough growing up in Amsterdam, New York.
With barely any money to eat, Herschel worked as the town’s ragman. He drove around, collecting old rags, metal scraps, and other junk so he could sell them. “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder,” Kirk wrote in his 1988 autobiography. “And I was the ragman’s son.”
Herschel drank away the little money he made while working as a ragman, leaving Kirk and the rest of his family to endure “crippling poverty.” Growing up among six sisters, Kirk took it upon himself to be the man of the house. He delivered newspapers and sold snacks to mill workers so that his family could put food on the table.
But these conditions proved to be too much for young Kirk. “I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me,” the actor wrote in 1988. Kirk dreamed of becoming an actor ever since he was a little kid, and nothing was going to stand in the way of achieving his dream.
After graduating high school without a penny to his name, Kirk talked his way into St. Lawrence University. Fast forward 15 years, and Kirk was the leading box office star of the ’50s. He received three Oscar nominations, opened his own production company, and wrote a number of memoirs.
His discipline and determination may have been the reason why he became so famous, but it came at a price. “I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it. Because that’s me,” he wrote in The Ragman’s Son. “I was born aggressive, and I guess I’ll die aggressive.” Kirk’s career wasn’t his only success. He went on to become the patriarch of one of Hollywood’s largest dynasties.
Kirk was married twice in his lifetime. His first marriage was to actress Diana Dill. The two met as acting students before World War II. Kirk was infatuated with his wife and reportedly showed off her Life magazine cover to his shipmates, telling them that he intended to marry her one day. And he did.
The two tied the knot in November 1943, but their relationship crumbled in 1951 after the birth of their two sons, Michael and Joel. The split was amicable, well, until it wasn’t. In Diana’s candid 1999 memoir, In the Wings, she called Kirk, a “sexually voracious bird of prey” as well as a drug addict. Kirk was so mad that he threatened to boycott their son’s wedding the following year if Diana was invited.
Diana also claimed to have had an affair with actor Errol Flynn during her eight-year marriage to Kirk. But over the years, they were able to make it work. Diana even got along with Kirk’s second wife, Anne Buydens.
“I know Michael has said since being an adult that he was always very grateful that [Anne and I] never did badmouth each other,” Diana told reporters. “She and I cooperated very much in terms of bedtimes and what they could watch on television and that kind of thing.” Diana remarried twice after divorcing Kirk and sadly passed away from cancer in 2015. She was 92 years old.
Kirk was married to Anne Buydens for six-decades! Their love story, however, didn’t begin with love at first sight. In fact, it was quite the opposite. In 1953, Kirk was already a Hollywood star. He was loved by fans (mostly women) for his reoccurring role as the brave hero with “steely blue eyes.”
In Kirk’s mind, he could get whatever woman he wanted. This is why he was so taken back when Anne rejected his invitation for a first date. Anne lived in Paris and worked as a film publicist when one of her friends introduced her to Kirk.
Smitten with Anne, Kirk decided to play it cool. “‘Come on, let me take you to the lion’s den,'” Anne remembers Kirk telling her. The “lion’s den” was the actor’s trailer. As the two began to chit-chat, Kirk decided to shoot his shot and asked Anne out for dinner.
“I thought, I’ll take this young beauty to dinner at the most romantic and expensive restaurant in Paris, La Tour d’Argent,” Douglas later shared with The Los Angeles Times. “She’s sure to approve of my taste and my ability to get a last-minute reservation.”
Anne, however, was unimpressed. “No, thank you, I think I’ll go home and make myself some scrambled eggs,” Anne told her future husband, catching him off guard. Kirk didn’t understand what was going on. “I mean, I was a big movie star!”
“And I invited her to dinner, and she said, ‘Oh thank you very much, but I’m so tired,'” he told USA Today. Although she declined his offer for dinner, Anne did agree to work as Kirk’s publicist. Their relationship remained platonic until Kirk stopped talking about himself and began listening to her for a change.
This willingness to change is what showed Anne that Kirk was more than just a one-dimensional, hotshot Hollywood actor. Anne agreed to go out with him, but she wasn’t convinced that he was “the one” until a night out at a charity gala.
The gala was held at a circus, where Kirk volunteered to scoop up elephant poop while dressed in a tuxedo. “That’s what got me,” Anne revealed to USA Today. “It was not only funny. It was showing me that he was able to do things that are not expected from him.”
It was clear to everyone that Anne and Kirk were head over heels for each other. After tying the knot in May 1954, the couple exchanged a series of love letters that were later published as a book in 2017.
“How incomplete I seem without my family. How can a man live alone?” Kirk wrote to Anne while he was off in Germany filming Paths of Glory in 1957. “To live just for yourself is to be dead. And yes, I welcome this parting from you to rekindle my awareness of how much you mean to me.”
While the early hours of the morning brought out Kirk’s poetic side, who always seemed to be away at work, life wasn’t always perfect. Kirk was known to be a serial seducer, and he cheated on Anne several times with actresses like Patricia Neal, Rita Hayworth, and Christina Crawford.
Anne knew of his affairs but decided to turn a blind eye. “Kirk never tried to hide his dalliances from me,” Buydens explained in the book Kirk and Anne. “As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage.”
But even so, the pair was always able to work things out. Anne’s loyalty to her husband even saved his life. In 1958, Kirk was invited to fly on a private plane from Palm Springs to New York with Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd.
However, Ann had a “strange feeling” about the entire trip and begged Kirk not to get on the plane. This led to an explosive fight between the couple, but Kirk ultimately decided to turn Todd down. “I said, ‘OK, I won’t go.’ But I was very mad at her,” Kirk told USA Today.
A few hours later, the radio announced that Todd’s plane had crashed and there were no survivors. “She saved my life,” Kirk said. Not only did Anne save her husband’s life, but she is also credited for saving his fortune.
When the two first began dating in 1953, Kirk was completely oblivious to his finances. It wasn’t until Anne began questioning his business manager that she discovered Kirk was essentially broke. Leaning on her father’s business advice, Anne found a financial advisor who helped Kirk invest his salary, making him millions.
Kirk had four sons from his two marriages. His eldest son, 76-year-old Michael, is the most famous of the Douglas boys. With Diana and Kirk as his parents, it was clear to everyone that Michael was going to make his way into the Hollywood scene.
From the late ’60s, Michael starred in several productions, ranging from independent films to blockbuster hits. Like his father, he has received several awards for his work, including an Oscar for Best Actor and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Contributions to the World of Entertainment.
In the ’60s, Michael was just another actor trying to make it big in New York City. He paid $150 in rent and lived with another unknown actor trying to find his way in the world. That actor was none other than Danny Devito. The two first met when Danny offered Michael a joint.
“I was on the beach, looking out at the Long Island Sound, and this guy walks up to me, with this long head of hair, if you can imagine. He says, ‘You get high?'” Michael recalled in 2018. “That was the beginning of a long, long friendship.”
Like his father, Michael has also been married twice. He married his first wife, 19-year-old Diandra Luker, in 1977. She was 13 years his junior and the daughter of a wealthy Austrian diplomat. They had one son, Cameron, before parting ways less than a decade later.
Cameron, whom we’ll get later in the article, later blamed his life of crime on his parents’ tumultuous relationship. Apparently, Diandra first learned of Michael’s infidelity in the mid-’80s. Michael was having an affair with his Romancing the Stone co-star, Kathleen Turner, and Diandra was upset, to say the least.
She threatened to end the marriage, but Michael promised her that he would change. Unfortunately for Diandra, this never happened. After he was caught cheating, yet again, Michael checked into an Arizona rehab for treatment for substance abuse. But like many stars in Hollywood, rehab had little effect on the actor.
Suspicious that her husband was still cheating, Diandra hired a private investigator in ’95 to follow Michael around. The PI came back with devastating news. He had photographs of the actor in a hotel with another woman. A few months later, Diandra filed for divorce and received $45 million of Michael’s fortune.
In the midst of his divorce, Michael met and fell in love with the love of his life, Catherine Zeta-Jones. According to E! Online, the two first met at a film festival in 1996. “I had been told Michael Douglas wanted to meet me,” Catherine told Larry King in 2001.
“I was a little nervous because I didn’t quite know what he wanted to meet me about.” She first laid eyes on the actor in her hotel lobby. But Michael didn’t recognize the actress and just breezed right by her. “I guess he doesn’t really want to meet me that much,” Catherine told her brother.
The two were later introduced to one another at a private dinner party later that week. Michael, ever so smooth, asked if he could sit next to her at the dinner table. Everything seemed to be going great until Michael opened up his mouth.
“You know, I’m going to be the father of your children,” he told Catherine. While the actor thought that it was a great line, Catherine was unimpressed. “She said, ‘You know, I’ve heard a lot about you and I’ve seen a lot about you, and I think it’s time I say goodnight,'” Michael recalled in 2001.
Catherine left town the following day. Realizing that he just blew it with one of the most beautiful women in the world, Michael sent her a bouquet of flowers along with an apology. After a few months of speaking on the phone and going out for dinner, Michael and Catherine’s relationship blossomed.
Throughout the years, the long-term couple has proved that age is just a number. Michael and Catherine, who share the same birthday, have a 25-year age gap! But despite the quarter of a century age difference, Catherine’s parents never questioned their daughter’s relationship and are very supportive of the union.
A month after news broke that Catherine was pregnant, Michael decided to take their relationship to the next level. He proposed to his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with a 10-carat diamond ring, which has an estimated price tag of $1 million! Nearly a year later, the couple exchanged vows at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
The ceremony, which cost a whopping $1.5 million, brought out some of Hollywood’s most glamourous stars, including Jennifer Aniston, Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn, and Meg Ryan. Instead of continuing the celebration with a lavish honeymoon, the couple returned to their New York apartment to spend time with their 4-month-old son, Dylan.
The family lived in Bermuda full time before making the move to the Big Apple. It was hard for everyone in the family, and the ruthless paparazzi didn’t help. Then, in 2010, the family’s world was rocked with Michael’s stage IV oral cancer diagnosis.
“When you get sideswiped like that [with the illness], it’s an obvious trigger for your balance to be a little bit off; not sleeping, worry, stress,” Catherine later told reporters. Michael’s diagnosis was a major trigger for the actress, who was already suffering from bipolar II depression disorder.
Catherine checked herself into a hospital in 2011 and then again two years later. With Catherine’s issues and Michael’s medical care, the two’s relationship was on the rocks. In an attempt to save their marriage, the couple decided to live separately in 2013.
With a little time apart, the two were able to reconcile and are now “stronger than ever.” Michael is now cancer-free and is still in good health at 76 years old. Catherine and Michael are now empty nesters, but that doesn’t stop them from spending time with their adult kids.
The couple’s first child together, Dylan, was born in August 2000, just a few months before their wedding. Although Michael and Catherine are huge in Hollywood, they decided to raise their children out of the spotlight.
“We’ve kind of shielded them away, but they’re incredibly mature for their tender years,” Catherine told ET of her children’s exposure to Hollywood in 2018. But despite his parents’ efforts to keep him away from the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown, Dylan couldn’t help but follow in his parents’ footsteps. Before going to college at Brown University, he did voiceover work for Phineas and Ferb.
The couple’s youngest child, daughter Carys, was born in April 2003. Although she is just a teen, she also wants to pursue a career in show business. Not only does the 17-year-old perform in her school productions, but she has a knack for singing and fashion too. In 2019, she appeared with her superstar mother in Vanity Affair Spain.
Michael revealed last year that Carys is enrolled in boarding school. “She’s gone so sort of unexpected. She really wanted to take off,” Michael told reporters. But with everything going on in the world right now, both Carys and Dylan have made their way back to their parents’ home.
While Catherine, Michael, and their brood spend their days cooped up at home, Michael has another son who has been forgotten about. During his first marriage, Michael’s ex-wife gave birth to Cameron in 1978. At first, Cameron enjoyed the lifestyle that came with being the offspring of a famous actor.
But as time went on, his father’s money, fame, and repeated infidelity began to take a toll on Cameron. He has been arrested several times, the first time in 1999 in New York for possession of cocaine. He then faced another major drug charge in 2009 for possession of methamphetamine and intent to distribute.
“I hated the wreckage I saw in my life because of drugs, but I just couldn’t stop,” Cameron later told People magazine. He pleaded guilty to the charges and spent five years in prison. But his troubles didn’t stop there.
Cameron’s sentence was upped by two years after he was caught smuggling drugs. It’s the sneaky power, the stranglehold that addiction has when you’re in the throes of it, ” he continued. “When you get that far down the rabbit hole, there are a couple of options: There’s a prison, and then there’s death.”
Luckily, Cameron was able to turn his life around. Although he lost an early release appeal in 2013, he was released a few months early in August 2016 and has been clean ever since. The time spent behind bars, including two years in solitary confinement, forced Cameron to get his life together.
He later praised his stepmother Catherine for her love and support during the time he spent in jail. “She never gives up on anything, and she didn’t quit on me,” Cameron told The Daily Mail in 2018. “The love of my family got me through my darkest days.”
Today, Cameron is happily married to his longtime love, Viviane Thibes, who works as a yoga instructor. The couple share a daughter Lua who was born in 2017, and a son Ryder who was born in 2020. Cameron says that the birth of his daughter completely changed his perspective on life.
“My daughter is a source of inspiration,” he told People magazine in 2019. “Hopefully, she will see her father has accomplished a lot and is doing good things, and maybe she’ll be proud of my journey.” Since returning to acting with his role in the short film Dead Layer, Cameron has penned a memoir about his past struggles.
Now that we’ve covered Michael Douglas and his brood, let’s take a look at Kirk’s sons’ rest. The second eldest is 74-year-old Joel. He chose not to follow his mother, Diana, father, and brother into acting. Instead, Joel opted to work behind the scenes as a producer.
Most of Joel’s work has involved his family, including It Runs in the Family, which featured Kirk, Michael, and Joel’s nephew Cameron. Unlike the rest of his family, Joel tends to stay out of the spotlight. He has no children but has been married four times.
65-year-old Peter has also followed in his father’s footsteps into the business. But like his stepbrother Joel, Peter works behind the scenes as a producer. His middle name, Vincent (in honor of Vincent van Gogh), was given to him by his father, who was filming Lust for Life at the time.
Peter used his middle name for his production company, Vincent Pictures. His 1988 TV show Inherit The Wind won an Emmy Award for Outstanding TV series. Other than that, not much is known about Peter, except that he lives in Montecito, California, with his wife Lisa and his four kids, Kelsey, Tyler, Ryan, and Jason.
Eric, the youngest of Kirk’s kids, was an actor and comedian. By the time he was an adult, his half-brother Michael had already won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and both his half-brother and brother were already producers. As the youngest of four boys, Eric told reporters that his childhood in Los Angeles was very lonely.
“You end up one kid, one housekeeper, and one dog living next to another kid with one housekeeper and one dog, ” he explained. Eric had a hard time getting along with his family, and it didn’t help that he had a decades-long addiction to hard drugs.
“That relationship gets very difficult because he’s too much like me,” Kirk once told The Chicago Tribune of his relationship with his youngest son. “I sometimes say to him, ‘Loving and hating you is like loving and hating myself.'”
In a different interview, Kirk told reporters that “Eric has inherited all my worst qualities.” Around the time of the interview, Eric had just kicked a police officer (who happened to be one of Kirk’s close friends). Like his father, Eric had acquired a speech impediment—Kirk from a stroke and Eric from an accidental overdose that put him in an eight-day coma.
Although he struggled with substance abuse, he still had the same acting gene as the rest of his family. He studied at the London Academy of Dramatic Art, where he fell in love with avant-garde theatre.
However, acting is a cruel profession, especially if you come from a famous family like Eric’s. “It’s always a problem, rather than a help,” acclaimed director and Eric teacher Helena Kaut-Howson told The Guardian in 2004. “It takes somebody really insensitive, with a thick skin. I know some who can use it as an advantage, but sensitive ones really suffer.”
In the early ’90s, Eric decided to give up acting to pursue comedy. During his first show, he was booed offstage for being too drunk—a trend that seemed to cast a shadow on his career until the end of his life.
Then, in 1994, Eric showed up at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland, claiming that he had been promised a slot for his comedy routine. Not only was that not the case, but the directors were unforgiving. “The criteria of the late slot are that you have got to be funny. If you are not, you die,” Karen Koren said in 1994. “I don’t book people because of their family connections; I book people on their merit.”
As the years went by, Eric became increasingly difficult to be around. He began behaving like a prima donna, cashing in on his family name. In 2001, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who wanted to ban him from her wedding to Michael, shouted at him for a joke he told to an audience in New York.
“Michael’s Jewish, and she’s Scottish—together, they’re the world’s cheapest couple.” She yelled back that she’s Welsh, but Eric didn’t seem to mind. One of his more memorable gags was the one about his father, Kirk. “I came down for breakfast in the morning and found my dad in a toga. I said, ‘Jesus!’ He said, ‘No, Spartacus.'”
By the last week of his life, it was clear to everyone that Eric was in a bad place. “His hair was totally white. He looked like he gained 150 pounds. He seemed totally strung out,” his friend Baird Jones told The Daily News.
Apparently, the two were supposed to go to a few art galleries around the city, but Eric only made it to one before getting in a fight with the cab driver. Eric wanted to get back into acting, and Jones didn’t know how to be supportive. “It was hard to see who would give him an audition.”
Eric’s body was found a few days later in 2004 by a maid who had come to clean his Manhattan apartment. The autopsy report said that Eric had passed away from an accidental drug overdose. He had alcohol, painkillers, and tranquilizers in his system at the time of his death.
The Douglas family was “very shocked and saddened” by Eric’s sudden passing. The youngest Douglas reportedly made numerous attempts to get sober, but nothing seemed to work. “In the end, he must’ve been in a lot of pain,” his friend Michael Sands told The Los Angeles Times. “He didn’t know when to stop.”