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