It wasn’t that long ago that we celebrated the 100th birthday of Herman Wouk, an American literary icon. On Friday, December 9th, another icon joins the ranks of centenarians. On that date, Issur Danielovitch-commonly known as Kirk Douglas- turns 100.
Born in Amsterdam, New York to Yiddish speaking immigrants, Douglas and his six sisters were raised in poverty. As Douglas says “My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. … 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. And I was the ragman’s son.”
A good student and athlete, Douglas managed to get himself accepted to St. Lawrence University where he was on the wrestling team. He supported himself by doing a variety of jobs and one summer even wrestled in a carnival.
After college, Douglas tried several careers but was bitten by the acting bug which had infected him when he received applause for reciting a poem in kindergarten. He recalled that “Acting is the most direct way of escaping reality, and in my case it was a means of escaping a drab and dismal background. His early professional acting career began on the stage after a stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his film debut in 1946. A 70 year acting career and over 90 movies included 3 Academy Award nominations (The Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life), as well as other professional recognition. He received an Oscar for lifetime achievement after his 1996 stroke.
Douglas is known for serious drama, westerns and war movies. Number 17 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie stars of classic Hollywood, many of Douglas’s films are today considered classics.
Included in his work are at least four films of Jewish interest: The Juggler (1953), the first Hollywood feature film to be shot in Israel, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor; Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), a biography of Colonel Mickey Marcus; Victory at Entebbe (1976), a TV movie about the famed Entebbe raid to rescue hostages; and Remembrance of Love, a Holocaust drama of survival and lost love (1982). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lT8dIh0geZQ
In 1991, Douglas almost died in a helicopter crash; in 1996, he suffered a serious stroke that impaired his ability to speak. In typical Douglas fashion, he was determined to regain his speech and underwent intensive therapy. These events led him to reexamine his roots and re-identify with the Judaism in which he was raised. He said “Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y. 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.”
Douglas has been an activist for much of his life. He is proud of his part in breaking the Hollywood blacklist. When Spartacus (1960) was released, Dalton Trumbo, who won two uncredited Academy Awards for Roman Holiday and The Brave One while blacklisted, was given credit as the screenwriter. Douglas said of his action “I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist. I was scared to death, but I insisted on doing it.” In 1981, Douglas received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter for his goodwill efforts as an ambassador for the U.S. Information Agency. Upon giving the award, Carter said that Douglas has “done this in a sacrificial way, almost invariably without fanfare and without claiming any personal credit or acclaim for himself.” In subsequent years he testified before Congress about abuse of the elderly.
Douglas is the author of 10 fiction and non-fiction books, most of which have received positive notices. Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood, written with his wife Anne, is slated to be published in 2017. Through his writing, he has documented his personal life, his career, and his return to Judaism. He’s also possibly the oldest celebrity blogger in the world.
Along with Anne, his wife of more than 60 years, he contributes generously to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes especially in the fields of health and education.
A great birthday bash will be held on Friday. On hand, in addition to family and friends will be Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai temple in LA. Rabbi Wolpe has guided Douglas in weekly Torah study and also officiated at Douglas’s second bar mitzvah when the actor was 83. Torah is a suitable topic of sturdy for this veteran actor for as Douglas quipped, “The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written. It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything.”