Jlife Magazine had the opportunity to interview veteran actor and longtime philanthropist, Kirk Douglas. Born to Jewish immigrant parents, Douglas got his start on Broadway, kept us on the edge of our seats in countless movies, and now, in his latest book plucks at our heartstrings with his poetry and candor. In his latest book, Life Could Be Verse, Douglas gives us a taste of his humble roots, his real life “flubs,” his 60 year marriage to Anne, and the nachus and sometimes sorrow he has experienced with his children and grandchildren. A compilation of Douglas’s poetry, history, and family photos, the book also makes it clear that, despite a severe stroke, Douglas is just as dynamic off the screen as he is on the screen—even at 98!
Where do you find your energy? You published your 11th book on your 98th birthday, and I’ve read pieces by you in the Huffington Post on such topics as Stroke Awareness Month, smoking, and, most recently, on your challenge to young people to start writing letters again. I am very lucky. Both my wife and I find energy from our involvement in the world around us. We are constantly learning new things. For example, we donated a surgical robot to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that looks like something from outer space. It is being used on children with urological problems. Dr. Paul Kokorowski, who directs the robotics program, helped us understand how such a large machine can perform miracles in the operating room. He has named it Spartacus, and I am very flattered.
Our Douglas Foundation was 50 years old in 2014, so we’ve been giving money away for a long time. But it’s very selfish. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you are helping others, especially when it involves children’s welfare. I don’t get out as much as I used to, but I always rally when it comes to our causes. This past October, the CTG/Kirk Douglas Theatre had a birthday party for its 10th anniversary. Anne and I cut the cake. In January, I was the first AFI Lifetime Achievement honoree to create an endowed Fellowship to the AFI Conservatory. In March, Anne and I welcomed President Fox of my Alma Mater, St. Lawrence University, and his wife to our home where he showed me the rendering of the new Kirk Douglas Hall. As long as I can write, whether its books or checks, I will have energy.
You have always been known for your fearlessness both on screen and in your personal life. What are you afraid of now? I start my book, “Life Could Be Verse” with these words:
“Most of my life was spent as an actor who never took the time to know who he really was. For years, I lived in a land of make-believe, slipping in and out of characters for ninety films. I have flubbed just as many scenes in my “real life” as I have in the “reel life” of my films. In 1996, I suffered a debilitating stroke that rendered me speechless… This caused me to take inventory of my life and ask questions like, ‘Who am I?’ At the age of 98, I am still looking.” I think I have found my true identity now, but—like everyone else—I’m complex and my whole is made up of all the parts of my past.
Can you tell our readers about your early life and influences, and what being a Jew means to you? When my family came to this country my father had a brother here using the name Demsky so we became Demskys. I was born Issur but that became Isadore, which became Izzy. Something had to be done. Luckily, my friends Karl and Mona Malden gave me the name Kirk Douglas while we were doing summer stock at the Tamarack Playhouse in upstate New York. However, the more I indulge in self-reflection, the more I seem to be coming back to the sensibility of Issur—helped no doubt by surviving a helicopter crash and a severe stroke.
I have always been spiritual and believed in “Do unto others,” but those two catastrophic events—and the waning of my acting career—allowed me the time and desire to explore my knowledge of Judaism. I wrote about that journey in my book, “Climbing the Mountain.” The man in that book is very different than the man who wrote my first autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” while I was still at the height of my career. But I think I was totally honest in both volumes.
I identify strongly as a Jew, but I never asked either of my wives to convert, nor did we foist our religions on our children, although I’m delighted that Michael considers himself Jewish and several of my grandchildren—including Michael’s son Dylan—have studied hard for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I myself have had two of them in my lifetime, when I was 13 and then at 83. Most religions share the same core principles, but too often, they have been perverted. Despite all of our 21st century advances, our world is more dangerous than ever because of the way fanatical terrorists pervert the tenets of their faith.
I have been studying the Bible with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, for many years. I even wrote a children’s book called “Young Heroes of the Bible” which was published around the time of my second Bar Mitzvah. And while I do not adhere strictly to all the holiday rituals, I have always taken pleasure in lighting my mother’s candlesticks on Fridays at sundown. In 2004, Anne took over the task when she converted to Judaism just before our 50th anniversary. I would never have asked it of her, but she said, “It’s time you married a nice Jewish girl.” Unlike our first marriage, presided over by a Justice of the Peace in Las Vegas, our second ceremony—complete with ketubah—was under the chupah with all of our friends and family celebrating with us.
What did you enjoy most about being a film star and a film producer? I loved doing my own stunts, but that was a mistake. I’ve had knee replacements and my back is a map of my daring. Because I was able to form my own production company (named after my mother Bryna) in the 1950s, I was able to make films that reflect my own beliefs even if I knew they might not be commercial successes—Paths of Glory, Seven Days in May, and my own favorite Lonely Are the Brave. But I am proudest of the role I played in breaking the notorious McCarthy era blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter of Spartacus when he was still being hired secretly under assumed names. And, yes, I finally wrote a book about those times in 2012: I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.
How are you feeling, and what are you looking forward to doing? I am in pretty good shape for someone born in 1916. I’m looking forward to being 100, and I don’t have long to wait. Meanwhile, I recently discovered that my wife has saved much of my correspondence over the decades. It is fascinating to read about the events of the times written to me by many of the people who were instrumental in shaping them. I am compiling these letters into my 12th and, most likely, final book. Which prompts me to muse whether letter-writing will be the lost art of the 21st century. Emails are quick and practical, but nothing has the impact and permanence of a letter, especially those in the writer’s own handwriting.
Grab a copy of Douglas’s latest book and enjoy the voice we did not get to see on the silver screen. Published by Health Communications, Inc. it is available online.
Lisa Grajewski, Psy.D. Is a licensed psychologist with JFFS and an adjunct instructor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has been a contributing writer for Jlife Magazine since 2004.
Did you know?
• Kirk Douglas received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter on January 17, 1981. This is the highest US honor a civilian can receive.
• He speaks German (fluently, but not accent-free) and also French.
• Kirk has celebrated his Bar Mitzvah twice. Firstly, at the typical 13 years of age, and secondly when he was 83 years old.
• Was President of the Class Of 1939, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. He graduated with a degree in English.
• He and Burt Lancaster acted together in 7 movies: Victory at Entebbe (1976), Tough Guys (1986), Seven Days in May (1964), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Devil’s Disciple (1959).
• Was famously quoted, “I’ve finally gotten away from Burt Lancaster. My luck has changed for the better. I’ve got nice-looking girls in my films now.”