For the JC issue December 9 2016
In possibly his most entertaining Jewish joke ever, the film star Kirk Douglas turned to his wife Anne and marvelled that every pillowcase in their hotel bedroom had his initials already embroidered there. Anne guffawed: because, of course, they were in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
For accuracy, of course, the linen should have been initialled “ID”, standing for Issur Danielovitch, the name with which the actor, writer, producer and director was born — 100 years ago, on December 9 1916.
It was not a promising beginning: the young Issy Demsky, as he became known, was the only boy in a family of seven, and he found his six sisters’ presence “stifling’. Yiddish was spoken at home in Amsterdam, New York, and his father, Harry — who had immigrated from Belarus — was a ragman “buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes”. It was, Douglas noted years later, the lowest rung of a poverty-stricken society.
But Issy Demsky was a bright boy — not just at school, but at Hebrew classes. He recalled: “Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi.
Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it.
“But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.”
After his barmitzvah, the future Kirk Douglas and Judaism parted company — only for him to re-embrace his Jewish identity in his old age, after a catastrophic 1991 helicopter crash in which two people died.
He didn’t reject Judaism altogether, he explains. “Of course, I always knew I was a Jew. I even auditioned to join a Yiddish theatre in New York. They looked at my blond hair and blue eyes and said: “If we have a part for a Nazi, we’ll call you.” He didn’t mention his most famous characteristic, the dimpled cleft in his chin which was inherited by his actor son, Michael.
And at the beginning of his acting career, one of his closest friends was Betty Jane Persky, who also ditched the name with which she was born, to become Lauren Bacall. The pair were classmates at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where Douglas had a special scholarship.
Everything was interrupted when America entered the Second World War in 1941. Douglas had enlisted in the US Navy and was medically discharged in 1944 with war injuries. In 1943 he had married another AADA classmate, Diana Dill, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Joel. The couple divorced in 1951 and Douglas later married the producer, Anne Buydens, with whom he had two more sons, Eric and Peter. Eric died of a drugs overdose in 2004.
As one of the first young men home, Douglas soon found theatre work — and has often said that he never intended to go into films. But Lauren Bacall heard that director Hal Wallis was looking for someone to act with Barbara Stanwyck in his 1946 film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and recommended her former classmate.
This was the beginning of a remarkable, 60-year-long career — all the more remarkable for the fact that Kirk Douglas, star of so many iconic films, from Spartacus to the Van Gogh biopic, Lust for Life, or the quintessential journalism movie, Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole — has never won an Oscar. He has, it is true, been nominated three times, but his only Academy Award is an honorary one, given, perhaps, more by embarrassment by an Academy which failed to recognise his singular talents while he was in his prime.
One of Douglas’s serious claims to fame is his off-camera role in helping to destroy the notorious Hollywood blacklist. The much-quoted film, Spartacus, with its central scene of slave after slave declaring “I’m Spartacus!” in order to protect the slave-gladiator played by Douglas, was written by the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Douglas ensured that Trumbo, previously reduced to hiding behind pseudonyms, got an official on-screen credit for the film, thus rendering the aim of the blacklist, that of outing supposed Communists, null and void.
Unlike contemporaries in what is now known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, Douglas kept a sharp eye on developments on stage as well as in film. In 1963, he bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, turned it into a play and starred in it on Broadway, for several months. Then he gave the whole project to his son Michael Douglas, who turned it into an Oscar-winning film. He also broke some of the suffocating studio contracts early in his career, forming his own movie company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother.
Douglas’s old age has been marked by an extraordinary return to his Jewish roots — he had a second barmitzvah, and his wife, Anne, even converted to Judaism. He had a debilitating stroke in 1996 which would have felled lesser men, but the man whose acting was marked for its fierce concentration and determination, learned to speak again, and began writing novels and children’s books. He also began to study Torah, and revisited Israel, where he had made Cast A Giant Shadow, the story of the American, Colonel Mickey Marcus, who fought for Israel in the 1948 War of Independence.
Over the years Douglas has made dozens of tough-guy and cowboy films, starring with other Hollywood greats such as Burt Lancaster, John Wayne and Yul Brynner. (He thinks he has made more than 90 films). But it is a safe bet that no other movie idol did what Douglas did, fasting on Yom Kippur even while on film set. He says: “Throughout my life, when I was moving farther and farther from Judaism, I always clung to a single thread – Yom Kippur. On that one day I fasted. I might be shooting it out with Burt Lancaster or John Wayne but I always fasted.
“There was something frightening to me about that book in which is written — who shall live and who shall die – who will survive a helicopter crash, like me, and who will be killed”. Douglas, then, is Hollywood’s great survivor at an astonishing 100 years old.