Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Kirk Douglas, Jewish ‘Ragman’s Son’ Turned Movie Star, Still Earning Accolades at 96

April 9, 2013 1:12 am 10 comments

Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Film historian Bob Birchard describes an anti-Jewish prejudice in American culture that existed well into the 20th century, not at the level of the Nazi desire to exterminate the Jews, but rather looking down upon Jews as inferior to the mainstream Protestant class that developed in the U.S. Famed actor Kirk Douglas was raised against that social backdrop.

“This [anti-semitism] came about because of the large number of Jewish immigrants that came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the perception that they were undereducated and undercapitalized and somehow lesser than the old Anglo-Saxon stock. I think that is reflected in Kirk Douglas’s persona,” Birchard told JNS.org.

The 96-year-old Douglas—who was born Issur Danielovitch in New York to poor, Yiddush-speaking Jewish immigrants from Gomel (now Belarus) and embraced Judaism late in life after surviving a helicopter crash—has appeared in 70 films and has been nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor three times, for “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and “Lust for Life,” over the course of a six-decade acting career. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. Listed by the American Film Institute lists as its 17th-greatest actor of all time, Douglas’s latest accolade came this February when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG).

According to Steven Poster, national president of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, when Douglas took the microphone at the ICG Publicists Award Luncheon, his vibrancy and youthful exuberance belied his 96 years.

“The ICG [at its ceremony this February] had just recognized a publicist member who is still active at 95 years old,” Poster told JNS.org. “The first thing Mr. Douglas said was, ‘I’d give anything to be 95 again. I’m 96.’ The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The depth of his career as an entertainer and the quality of the work that he did as one of America’s most important talents belies the fact that he has committed his life to his work in philanthropy and his involvement with his community.”

Growing up, Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and worked at more than 40 jobs before becoming an actor. He legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy during World War II.

Douglas’s 1988 biography, The Ragman’s Son, notes that his father was denied work in the carpet mills because he was Jewish.

“So 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 [New York’s] 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.”

Looking back on his career, Douglas has said the underlying theme of some of his films, including “The Juggler,” “Cast a Giant Shadow,” and “Remembrance of Love,” was “a Jew who doesn’t think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness.”

In February 1991, Douglas survived a helicopter crash in which two people died. This sparked a search for meaning that led him, after much study, to embrace the Jewish faith in which he was raised. He documented this spiritual journey in his 2001 book, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (2001). In The Ragman’s Son, he wrote, “Years back, I tried to forget that I was a Jew.”

But Douglas’s attitude changed after the helicopter crash, and he went on to say that coming to grips with what it means to be a Jew “has been a theme in my life.” He explained his personal transition in a 2000 interview with Aish.com.

“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 told Aish.com.

Although his children had a non-Jewish mother, Douglas has said in interviews that they were “aware culturally” of his “deep convictions,” and that he never tried to influence their own religious decisions. At the age of 83 in 1999, Douglas celebrated a second bar mitzvah ceremony.

Birchard—editor of the American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films and the author of several books including Cecile B. DeMille’s Hollywood and Silent-era Filmmaking in Santa Barbara—told JNS.org that Douglas “is interesting not only because of his presence as an actor onscreen but also for his role as a pioneering independent producer.”

“He’s produced a number of films that are classics, such as ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Paths of Glory,'” Birchard said. “He is one of the people who helped form a new approach to filmmaking. As the studio system began to break down in the 1950s, Douglas was among the pioneering independent producers who was able to cash in on his screen popularity in order to make films that might not otherwise have been made.”

Douglas is one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1996, he received the Academy Honorary Award for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community. He also played an important role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist (also known as the “Hollywood Ten,” a list formed in the mid-20th century of actors, directors, musicians, and other entertainment professionals who were denied employment in their field due to political beliefs or associations) by making sure that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name was mentioned in the opening and ending credits of “Spartacus.”

“Trumbo had been blacklisted in the early 1950s, and his only credits after 1953 were under another name because he couldn’t write under his own name,” Birchard said. “It was certainly a principled stand by Douglas. Douglas felt Trumbo wrote the script so he was entitled to the credit. There were a few other companies and producers, not many, who defied the blacklist before, but Trumbo was certainly one of the more important of the blacklisted Hollywood people and it essentially broke the back of the blacklist.”

10 Comments

  • I have seen a classic with this actor.

  • Kirk Douglas is still one of my favorite actors, after AlPacino and Robert DeNiro.

  • I know the man but know him short until now.

  • jacob mandelblum

    He reminds me of my beloved father (z’l’)….
    In his native Poland (then Russia), his father, who served 15 years in the Czarist army, rose to drill sergeant and wasn’t afterwards entitled to a street sweeper job because he was a Jew, deeply religious, wanted him to be a rabbi but father wanted to be an actor and ended up being neither…
    He had a formidable memory, able to make the Seder and recite the whole Hagadah of Passover from memory and, although he knew the small print, wasn’t religious and always made fun or the ultra-religious but had to concede that thanks to them, there was still “Yiddishkheit” in the world….

  • Along with many other Jews who have reached the heights of achievement in their life work

    Kirk Douglas (name notwithstanding) is a good Jewish boy, and like all our “kids”, we’re PROUD OF ‘IM!!

  • Wanna re-kindle your Jewish roots? One way is to do the Sar-El program (Google it). I did it first time for the “adventure” and the next ten times because I realized that being a Jew was more than just writing a check or spending three days a year in synagogue,

    A “seven-day whirlwind tour” of Israel is not seeing Israel. Sharing a lunch table with Israelis in a cafe, or having an Israeli explaining an interesting artifact to you in a museum, listening to three students chatting at a university — can be the best hour of your whole trip. By the way, most Israelis speak English…..and Hebrew and one or two other languages.

  • rashid Zaidi

    Great American icon. First a gentleman and never portrayed himself as a Jew. He was who he was. Did his roles that people remember to this day. respected people of other faiths. That has been his strength, Kudos to him and his equally brilliant son Michael Douglas.
    Be well, you both have done an awesome job at what you do.

  • Arlene Martell

    What a moving and inspiring article.
    Thank you, Arlene Martell

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →