As Tom Hanks walked off the stage at the recent Oscars, he could be heard proclaiming, almost as a line he casually cast away, “I am Spartacus!”
That was the classy and clever Hanks’s impressionistic way of paying tribute to a protean presence of 20th Century cinema, a rugged star who epitomizes old Hollywood: Issur Danielovitch—better known as Kirk Douglas. The fabled actor had passed away four days before the awards ceremony.
Mr. Douglas’s 70-plus other big-screen movies notwithstanding, the one that casts a giant shadow over them all is the 1960 sword-and-sandal spectacle Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame). Mr. Douglas produced as well as starred in the historically fact-based story of a Greek gladiator who leads a rebellion of slaves against the tyrannical regime of ancient Rome.
When a Roman general threatens to crucify a gaggle of ex-slaves unless they betray Spartacus by handing him over, one by one the loyal men stonewall the effort, with each declaring, “I am Spartacus!” until those words cascade into a defiant chorus of self-sacrifice. The phrase lately has been memefied into an expression of unity among a group of people prone to resistance.
As impactful as his screen portrayals were, off-screen Kirk Douglas’s strength of character also left its indelible mark. He too demonstrated self-sacrifice and resistance in the face of oppression.
A Show of Defiance and Integrity
Despite the blacklisting of prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the McCarthy-crazed 1950s, which banished him from working in Hollywood, Kirk Douglas put his reputaiton and career on the line by not only hiring Mr. Trumbo to write Spartacus, but by proudly showing his name in the credits for all to see. Other blacklisted writers were forced to find work to feed their families by writing clandestinely under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas’s singular gesture of defiance and integrity helped make the blacklist irrelevant.
There are many other examples of how Mr. Douglas, whose lust for life was palpable in every performance, proved himself a champion of doing the right thing during his 103 years on Earth.
When he received a lifetime achievement award in 1996, the presenter, Steven Spielberg, said, “courage remains Kirk Douglas’s personal and professional hallmark.”
Fighting back against a debilitating stroke earlier that same year, he taught himself to speak again, and even appeared in one more film.
$100 Million to Charity
Along with his wife of some 70 years, Bryna, the couple in their lifetime donated more than $100 million to charities in the U.S. and Israel, according to the Jewish Ledger.
The publication also recounts how, despite having anglicized his name as a young man from Issur Danielovitch to Kirk Douglas, the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian-Jewish immigrants enthusiastically embraced his faith later in life.
It might be said that he got religion following a near-fatal mid-air crash in 1991 between a helicopter he was in and a stunt plane, which, writes Jewish Ledger, “compressed his spine by three inches. While lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pain, he started pondering the meaning of life.”
In his memoir, one of 11 books authored by Kirk Douglas—including a book of poetry at age 98, entitled Life Could Be Verse—he wrote, “I came to believe I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish.”
‘Today, I Am a Man’
That epiphany led to his studying Torah, and even becoming a bar mitzvah for a second time (the Jewish version of a confirmation), 70 years after his first one at age 13.
What a “movie spectacle” of a different sort it must have been for the 200 Hollywood luminaries at the religious ritual to hear 83-year-old Kirk Douglas say, “Today, I am a man.”
At their 50th wedding anniversary, in 2014, reports Jewish Ledger, Bryna Douglas “startled the guests by announcing she had converted to Judaism. ‘It’s about time he married a nice Jewish girl,’ she proclaimed.”
Earlier in his career, he was quoted as saying, he would fast on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, even while making a movie. “And let me tell you,” he’s reported as saying, “it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”
A Star-Making Turn
Kirk Douglas of course is responsible, in a manner of speaking, for the acting career of Michael Douglas, his son. Much less obvious is the large role he played in what became a career-defining part for another film legend, Jack Nicholson.
In the 1960s, Mr. Douglas starred on Broadway in a stage version of Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which the actor had acquired the theatrical rights.
A dozen years later, Michael Douglas developed the property into a movie, but by then his father was too old to play the lead role of Randle P. McMurphy. The film was a huge success, becoming only the second in Oscar annals to sweep all five major awards, including best actor for Jack Nicholson’s star-making turn as Mr. McMurphy.
The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.
R.I.P., Issur Danielovitch. You too, Kirk Douglas.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 914.275.6887.