A Leading Man’s Wisdom
Kirk Douglas reflects on faith, life, death and the immortality of the Jewish people.
Interview by Rabbi David Wolpe
Kirk Douglas is about to turn 92. Each week, his rabbi, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, visits his Beverly Hills estate, where, in the quiet of the actor’s luxurious one-story house, amid manicured grounds and flowerbeds, they talk Judaism and life. On a recent late summer day, at Moment’s request, Wolpe brought along a recorder to document his conversation with the man who left behind the Orthodox Judaism of his youth to become an actor and forged a career, as he once famously put it, of “playing sons of bitches.”
Born Issur Danielovitch in 1916, Douglas grew up in poverty in Amsterdam, New York. Blond, blue-eyed, with a wrestler’s physique and trademark cleft chin, he got his start on the New York stage and his big break in Hollywood when a former drama school classmate and friend, Lauren Bacall, brought him to the attention of director Hal B. Wallis. Douglas’ film debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers launched a career that personified Hollywood’s golden era. From callous boxer Midge Kelly in Champion to anguished artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, Douglas portrayed a dynamic range of characters in films that included Spartacus, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Paths of Glory and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Douglas also played a leading role in Hollywood’s darkest drama. As executive producer as well as the star of Spartacus, directed in 1960 by Stanley Kubrick, Douglas made the politically courageous decision to give credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who had refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted. Trumbo was the first of the Ten to write under his own name again, and the film’s success helped draw the final curtain on the entertainment industry’s anti-communist witch hunt.
The two-time Academy Award nominee and winner of an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of work, suffered a stroke in 1996 that impaired his speech. He remains active as a philanthropist, writer (his 10th book, Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning, appears in paperback this fall) and Jew. Here, in a Moment exclusive, Kirk Douglas tells David Wolpe why, as the years have gone by, life has brought him closer to Judaism.
David Wolpe: What did Judaism mean for your parents, and what was it like growing up in a small New York town?
Kirk Douglas: My parents were Russian immigrants. My father was not very religious but my mother was. I always remember her sitting on Shabbat. It was the only time I saw her just sitting and not working.
Like most Jewish boys, I went to cheder, which was a very difficult chore at that time because I had to pass a gauntlet of gangs who would shout “dirty Jews!”
Was that the first time you experienced anti-Semitism?
Yes, I think so, but I fought back.
Is that why you became a wrestler?
I became a wrestler because I always wanted to be like my father, who was very strong and very pugnacious. He would always defend himself.
What drove you away from Judaism?
When I was at cheder, I had a big argument with God because I was very angry with Him about the sacrifice of Isaac. I put myself in Isaac’s position, and I could picture that terrible scene where he gathered wood for his own sacrifice. As a kid, that scene bothered me a lot.
What happened when you auditioned for the Yiddish theater?
They looked at me, and they said, “Listen, if we need the part of a Nazi, we’ll call you.”
Really? That’s hilarious!
Yes! They didn’t think I looked Jewish enough.
Were you discouraged or upset?
Not really. I soon got a job working on Broadway, and I was all right.
What was it like for Jewish actors in Hollywood when you first came here?
Well, when you think of it, all the studios were owned by Jews. When movies started, they were looked down upon. The Jews, throughout history, whenever they saw a void, they filled it. Just like with banking, the Jews saw the potential of movies. One of the earliest movies that I ever saw was with Al Jolson.
Did you ever get to meet Al Jolson?
Not really, just a “hello.” At that time, I was just a young actor.
Was there solidarity among Jewish actors?
I don’t think so.
They were just actors?
Of course, they say that everybody with a Jewish name changed his name. When my parents came from Russia, their name was Danielovitch. My father had a brother who was going under the name of Demsky, so then it became Demsky. Of course, then I changed my name to Kirk Douglas. But at that time, it was not just Jewish actors who changed their names. Everyone did it.
You’ve told me that you always fasted on Yom Kippur. Why?
You know, the Day of Atonement almost scared me. The Book of Life is about who should live, who should die. Even when I worked on Yom Kippur—which I wouldn’t do now—I didn’t eat. Of course, my focus...You try making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach!
I think people might still give it a try...
Could you tell me about the helicopter crash in 1991?
I was writing a book in Fillmore, California, where my editor was living. And a friend of mine, Noel Blanc, Mel Blanc’s son, said that he was taking a helicopter flying lesson and would pick me up. Well, I thought that was a wonderful idea. I have, to this day, guilty feelings because in the small plane that we hit when we took off, two young people were killed instantly. One of them was getting ready to go to his senior prom. I always have a feeling that it was our fault, even though I was just a passenger in the backseat.
It wasn’t your fault...
Well, in my mind it is, even now, when I think of it...
You know, I once spoke to a surgeon who was there when you were brought in after the helicopter crash, and he said that you had burns all over your body and were really in a terrible shape.
You see, I don’t remember that. I know that Jack Valenti, who recently died and was a dear friend of mine, described me as being black all over. I do remember that my nose was banged up and being wheeled into a medical helicopter. The doctor onboard was a young woman, and I remember thinking, “She is very pretty.” So I thought I must be OK.
That’s almost like the Lenny Bruce routine about being in the ambulance!
That’s what guys are! You have a heart attack in the ambulance, you make a play for the nurse. Did the crash change your relationship to Judaism or God?
At first, I thought, “You know, I have gone through many things, is God pissed off at me?” But then I thought that maybe God wants me to be around, maybe there is something that I have to do. So I became interested in Judaism. I have much more awareness now of being a Jew and of believing in God.
Lighting the candles on Shabbat is a beautiful ceremony. It is the time to thank God for what He has given you and to take a moment each week for self-inventory. My wife Anne converted to Judaism and your wife taught her the prayer phonetically, so she now knows a prayer in Hebrew for lighting the candles.
You had a second bar mitzvah when you were 83. Why did you decide to do that?
Good question. I’ve always identified with the underdog. What I like about the Jews is that we have always been the underdog and still survived throughout the ages. As Mark Twain once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away...the Jew saw them all and beat them all...All things are mortal but the Jew.” The Jews just keep on going.
But it bothers me how much conflict there is among Jews. We had five crazy rabbis embracing the leader of Iran. I don’t think most Jews agree with that. We have Jews who still cling to the old theory (also shared by some Muslims) that women are not equal to men. Times have changed; most progressive Jewish sects treat women equally. They can sit together in synagogue, they may become rabbis and equality is maintained.
Once, when I was making a movie in France, I was learning the language, and I was pretty good. And people asked, “Well, what are you?” And I’d say, “I’m an American Jew.” And my wife said, “They’re not asking for your religion!” Well, I don’t know. I always answer “American Jew,” so there is no mistaking what I am.
Did you get any good presents for your second bar mitzvah?
The nicest present was that my sons were there and so many friends. You were wonderful and have always been a part of important occasions—my second...
All the second rounds!
The second wedding, the second bar mitzvah.
And soon, the second hundred years. What’s your favorite story in the Torah?
The story of David fascinates me. David became such an important figure and said that “The Lord is my shepherd,” but he was a bastard! He saw the naked Bathsheba and had sex with her. When she became pregnant, he tried to get the husband back from the army. And when the husband said, “No, I want to be with my men,” he put him in the frontline, and he was killed.
I am also fascinated by the story of Joseph before his brothers sold him to Egypt. Now, I would have punched him in the nose because when he was being brought up, he was his father’s favorite and he would tell his brothers about the dream in which he had everyone bowing to him. I mean, come on!
It would have been a much better solution to punch him in the nose than to sell him into slavery.
But then when he went to Egypt, he repaid his brothers with kindness.
It doesn’t matter to me if the stories in the Bible are true or not. I think the essence of all of these stories is that they teach you something. The lesson is that you can do bad things in life, and you can do good things in life. Life is a mixture, and then you can weigh the scales.
How did you cope with the loss of your son Eric in 2004 and what advice would you give to other people who’ve had that experience?
That tragedy exists very often—someone dies from an overdose. And the immediate reaction is: What did I do wrong? And counselors try to pacify you with the three Cs: You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it. You can’t cure it. People try to help you and say “take some pills.” But there is no closure. I think that it’s just something that you have to learn to live with and learn to accept as a part of life.
What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?
What do I think about when I wake up in the morning? I think of what I have to do during that day. I wish I had some profound answer to give you.
Do you think movies today handle Jewish themes differently than in the past?
I think they shy away from Jewish themes more today than they did. Of course, Steven Spielberg doesn’t.
What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t yet accomplished?
I will be 92 in December, as the Muslims say, insallah, God willing. I would like to do a one-man show. My stroke was a difficult thing to deal with because my first thought was that I would never be able to make another movie. I thought: What does an actor do who can’t talk? He waits for silent pictures to come back! So, I would like to accomplish that before I die.
Anything else you want to say to the readers of Moment Magazine?
For me, it’s traumatic to be a Jew, and I feel a bond with all Jews. I relish all that the Jews have accomplished, the contributions they’ve made. I feel proud to be a Jew.
It is important to give back, to do something for humanity. For the last few years, I’ve been living by the code of “you can’t know how to live unless you learn how to give.” Anyone who has been as lucky as I have should give back. And I try to do that.