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Christopher Briscoe photographed Kirk Douglas over the past 20 years

The passing of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas carried a special poignancy for longtime Ashland photographer Christopher Briscoe, who photographed the famous star — and his son Michael Douglas — over the past 20 years, including at a riotous 60th wedding anniversary party in 2014.

Briscoe hooked up with the Douglas clan 20 years ago while working with clients in Santa Barbara, California, and shooting family photos for his friend Peter Douglas, the star’s son. While lunching with the star’s wife, Anne, he listened to a tale of how she met her future husband on the set of the 1960 smash hit “Spartacus,” where he played a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum.

Briscoe met the star soon after his serious 1996 stroke, and “he had a problem with his speech but he was always funny, had a great wit, such a riot, no delay in his awareness,” said Briscoe.

“At his 60th wedding anniversary in 2014 he had people stand up to roast him. His old friend Don Rickles, the comedian, couldn’t stand (he was 90), so Kirk went behind him and lifted him. Don ripped into him so hard, we were all falling out of our chairs. I have pictures of them.”

Briscoe was also invited to be the photographer at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the star-studded centennial birthday of Douglas in 2016.

Behind his sometimes rageful masculine screen act, Douglas, the son of poor Russian immigrant Jews, comported himself with irrepressible humor and humility that secured his stardom in “Lust for Life” (Vincent Van Gogh bio), “Spartacus” and “Seven Days in May,” a 1964 spy thriller about corrupt generals attempting a coup on the U.S. president — and Douglas playing the whistleblower.

“That guy was really something else,” says Briscoe. “In 1960, he broke the McCarthy blacklist, using a banned writer for ‘Spartacus’ and naming him on-screen. A producer wanted to leave off the name, but Kirk stood up to the Hollywood elite and said if the writer wasn’t named, he wouldn’t do the movie.”

Douglas wrote a dozen books, with his final tome, “Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Life, Love and What Really Matters,” illustrated by Briscoe’s photos. Douglas traveled as a goodwill ambassador, promoting democracy, and met many world leaders, with Briscoe photographing some, including one with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

For his meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Douglas was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Douglas remembered names of regular folk and wrote thank you letters, including one to Briscoe that hangs on his studio wall. It says, “During the years, I have seen thousands of family pictures. I tell you sincerely that none compares to (yours). They are wonderful. You are a great artist.”

The last time Briscoe saw the Douglas family, Catherine Zeta-Jones, wife of Michael Douglas, told him her house is “adorned” by his photographs.

Upon the passing of Kirk Douglas, Briscoe posted on Facebook, “Spartacus has died — such sad news. ... He was always so kind to me. ... Kirk was awarded the Medal of Freedom. He deserved it.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Photo courtesy of Christopher BriscoeKirk Douglas send a letter to Christopher Briscoe in May 2007 to thank him for all the photos he took over the years.
Photo courtesy of Christopher BriscoeMichael Douglas kisses his father Kirk Douglas at Kirk's 60th wedding anniversary party.