Kirk Douglas

On this date in 1916, actor Kirk Douglas (né Issur Danielovitch Demsky) was born in Amsterdam, N.Y., the youngest child and only son in a family of seven children. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who were both illiterate. He told People magazine (Oct. 3, 1988) that he grew up in a community afflicted with “a tremendous hatred of Jews” and that he was regularly attacked by Christian students. When he came home bloody, his mother told him, “As a Jew, you will have to be twice as good to get ahead in life.”

When he was 12, the Sons of Israel congregation offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi but he declined, already knowing he wanted to become an actor. He entered St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. on a wrestling scholarship and after graduating in 1938 studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his Broadway debut as a singing Western Union boy in “Spring Again” (1941). He changed his name to Kirk Douglas, enlisted in the Navy and served as a communications officer with an anti-submarine unit.

His film debut was in 1946 in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” playing Barbara Stanwyck’s alcoholic husband. He would appear in over 90 films during his career. The first of his three Best Actor Oscar nominations was for “Champion” (1949), followed by “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and “Lust for Life” (playing Vincent Van Gogh, 1956). He received an Honorary Oscar in 1996 for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community. Many saw his role as a Thracian slave in “Spartacus” (1960) as career defining.

He also was the film’s executive producer. Douglas later said it was perhaps his proudest professional accomplishment to have hired the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write the script. Between 1970 and 2008 he made nearly 40 movies with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and appeared on numerous TV shows. He also wrote 11 books, including The Ragman’s Son (1988), the first of several autobiographies. In that he wrote “Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up” and that over the years “I tried to forget that I was a Jew.”

That same year (Oct. 3, 1988) he told People magazine: “When a dog dies, does he go to heaven? Why should we think we’re so special that we cannot just die? No, you only go around once and just hope you get the brass ring. The rest is ego.”

But after a 1991 helicopter crash in which he was severely injured and two others died, he started to reassess his Jewishness, writing about it in Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (1997). Part of the attraction besides spirituality was theatricality: “The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written. It has passion, incest, murder, adultery — really everything.” (Jewish Journal, Sept. 18, 1997.)

He married actress Diana Dill, a native of Bermuda, in 1943. They had two sons, actor Michael Douglas (b. 1944) and producer Joel Douglas (b. 1947), before divorcing in 1951. In 1954 he married movie producer Anne Buydens, a German native. They had two sons, Peter (b. 1955), and Eric (b. 1958), an actor who died in 2004 from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Anne converted to Judaism before they renewed their wedding vows in 2004 and Douglas had a second bar mitzvah at age 83.

A severe stroke in 1996 affected his ability to speak, which gradually but not totally returned. His penultimate film role was in “It Runs in the Family” (2003), which also starred his son Michael, Michael’s son Cameron and Kirk’s first wife Diana. In 2016 he celebrated his 100th birthday at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He died at home in Beverly Hills at age 103. D. 2020. 

Douglas in 1963 at age 47; public domain photo.

Freedom From Religion Foundation