Hollywood gladiator Kirk Douglas has his eyes set on a third barmitzvah
The film legend explains his view of Judaism and why, at 95, he is planning yet another coming-of-age ceremony
Kirk Douglas in Spartacus
‘When you have a stroke you must talk slowly to be understood,” Kirk Douglas is saying, “and I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly people listen. They think I’m going to say something important!
“Well, I do have something important to say because I have been working in Hollywood over 60 years and I’ve made over 85 pictures, but the thing I’m most proud of is breaking the blacklist.”
We are sitting in the actor’s den in his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by piles of oversized art books. African masks mingle with wall hangings and metal sculptures; the bookcases lining one wall are stacked floor to ceiling. On the wall hang a few Toulouse Lautrecs, the first art he ever bought. There used to be Picassos and Miros too, but he sold them to fund his wife’s charity campaign to renovate the 400 ageing playgrounds in Los Angeles.
It has been over 50 years since the infamous McCarthy witchhunt and the preceding blacklist which ousted so many writers and performers from their jobs because of a hysterical fear of communism. It is a period that Douglas still feels passionate about and it has led him to write his latest book, his 10th, Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.
On this boiling hot day, Douglas is looking cool and relaxed; by his side, his two faithful labradors, black-haired Banshee and snowy white Danny (short for Danielovich, Douglas’s birth surname).
“I was living in a terrible time when people were being accused of being communists, and they attacked the movie industry, especially the writers,” he recalls. “People couldn’t work if they were on the blacklist. The studios banned them. It was the most onerous period in movie history. I don’t think we have ever had a period so dark as that. People committed suicide, people died, people suffered. It wiped out lives.”
When he made Spartacus, he hired writer Dalton Trumbo, one of ‘the Hollywood 10” who had been jailed for refusing to testify whether they were communists, but Trumbo was on the blacklist and had to work under a pseudonym.
“When the film was finished I felt terrible not to give him true credit,” Douglas says. “It was so wrong. I agonised. People said: ‘Kirk, if you use his right name you’ll never work in this town again’. But 50 years ago
I was very stubborn. In the end I did it. I used his name on the screen. I was scared to death but I insisted on doing it.
“One columnist attacked me and I was lambasted,” he recollects the public vitriol. “She called the picture filth and encouraged people not to go and see it. Such venom! She saw this as if we were spreading communism! But in the end the sky didn’t fall in and life went on. The blacklist was broken.”
Spartacus became a massive success. The film starred Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Douglas, who also was producer — it was a rare occurrence in those days for an actor to be an independent film producer. At the time — 1960 — Spartacus was the most expensive film ever made.
Originally, Olivier wanted to play the role of Spartacus, the slave who fought the Romans for years before being captured and crucified, but, says Douglas, “we thought he was too, I don’t want to use the word effete, but too intellectual and too gentle.”
He breaks off to kiss goodbye to wife Anne who is off to see the opthomologist. They have been married 58 years and are still “a couple in love”. When he and Anne renewed their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary Anne converted to Judaism — “she said I deserved to marry a nice Jewish girl”, says Douglas. Now it is she instead of him who performs the Friday night ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles.
“When we light the candles we have a little service and say in Hebrew a small prayer where we’re thanking God for everything we have. I like that. I think that is a prayer that everybody should say.”
Twelve years ago, Douglas had a second barmitzvah. “I thought it was something I should do at 83 because of all that had happened to me. Now I’m going to be barmitzvah’d for the third time in December. That’s if I live to be 96! I’m 95 now and you say I’m in good shape, so everything looks promising.”
Three barmitzvahs. Surely a record. Douglas laughs. “My rabbi says I’ll be in the Guinness Book of Records”
After his first barmitzvah he moved away from religion for many years, greatly affected, he says, by the story of Abraham and Isaac. “I resented that it was said God ordered Abraham to kill his son. Only much later did I realise that it was a metaphor.
“I was not a very good Jew. I never practised what Judaism tells you to do, to teach your kids all about Judaism.”
His first wife, actress Diana Dill with whom he had two sons, Michael and Joel, was not Jewish. Neither was his second, German-born Anne Buydens, with whom he had sons Peter and Eric.
“My four sons all knew I was a Jew but they were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be. The only thing important to me was that they be good people who help other people because all religion should try to make you a better person and a more caring person. Whenever religion does that for you, it’s a good religion.
“In general I am against religion because they do so much harm. There are things even in the Jewish religion that I hate and things that I like. But I’m proud to be a Jew.
He was heartened when son Michael came to him recently and told him he agreed that life needed to be lived “based on helping other people”.
“That goes back to when I was a very small boy and we lived in a little house by the railroad track,” Douglas explains slowly. “We were very poor. My father had left and my mother had to raise and feed me and my six sisters. We barely had enough. But very often there would be a knock on the door and there would be a dishevelled hobo asking for food. I was frightened. I was just a little kid. But my mother was not frightened and she always found something to give him. And she said ‘Issur’ — that was my name — ‘even a beggar must give to another beggar who’s worse off than he is’. And that encouraged me to do my philanthropy. My wife feels the same way.”
Through his Douglas Foundation, he recently donated $50 million to the Motion Picture Home which provides assistance to industry members. In Jerusalem, his latest accomplishment has been to build a theatre near the Wailing Wall for aspiring actors, similar to one he established in Los Angeles.
Tell him there os a reward for these mitzvahs and he shrugs it off. “I think being generous and doing things to help other people is a selfish act because it makes you feel so good. That is the reward.”
Douglas’s parents were illiterate Russian Jews who dren. he was their only son. From a very early age, little Issur Danielovich, was hell-bent on becoming an actor. The local community wanted to raise money to send him to a yeshivah, “but I was frightened because I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I just always wanted to be an actor.”
There was never any doubt that the movies would win out over the synagogue. Douglas won a wrestling scholarship to university and worked as a wrestler in summer carnivals. A second scholarship, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, moved him closer to his dream and he soon made his Broadway debut in 1940, as a singing-telegram boy in the play, Spring Again.
War intervened and he enlisted in the US Navy where he served as communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.
Despite his preference for theatre, in 1946, fate intervened in the form of Hal Wallis who cast him in the classic film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He hung on to his famous chin dimple (barely, the studio wanted to remove it) and won plaudits for his work.
His eighth film, Champion, in which he played a boxer, made him a star and netted him his first Academy Award
nomination. After that he varied his performances and was never easily typecast, although his “tough” image largely dominated his career, despite a mix of gentler, romantic roles.
Over 50 years he was one of Hollywood’s most prominent actors. Many of his films have become classics, among them Gunfight at the OK Corral, Paths of Glory and Lonely Are the Brave (his favourite). He has won three Oscar nominations — for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust For Life, a biopic of the artist Vincent Van Gogh “He should have won the Oscar for that”, the film’s director Vincente Minnelli said and Douglas thought he deserved it too. In 1996, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his outstanding contribution to films.
It is a contribution that has travelled far and wide. Although he never took an official role, he has flown around the world as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department.
“Being a movie star was a great credential,” he grins. And it is true that it has given him a unique entrée to the elite of the world. In 1980 he flew in the first private jet from Jerusalem to Cairo and met President Sadat. Back home, he testified before Congress about the shocking abuse of the elderly. For all his efforts, he was awarded the highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom.
At 95, Kirk Douglas is still something of a powerhouse. “I can walk, I can talk and I can see,” he beams. “So I must be doing something right.”