February 7, 2002
Actor Kirk Douglas reflects on triumph, tragedies and Torah in his new book.
"My Stroke of Luck" by Kirk Douglas (William Morrow, $22.95)
Five years ago, Kirk Douglas, the legendary tough guy of 84 movies, decided to end his life.
A stroke had left him speechless -- an actor's worst nightmare. A painful compressed spine reminded him constantly of an earlier helicopter crash. A pacemaker was implanted in his chest and his knees were giving out.
In a deep depression, he spent his days "in a black cave far down below the surface of the earth." One day, he took a gun from his desk drawer, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth -- and bumped it painfully against his teeth.
He said "Ow!" and pulled the gun out. Then "I began to laugh. A toothache delayed my death. I laughed hysterically," he recalls. Then another thought struck him -- a suicide would be such a mess for the housekeeper to clean up. He put the gun away.
Douglas describes the episode in his new book, "My Stroke of Luck." His latest literary effort illustrates both the actor's despair and the saving humor that helped pull him through.
In a recent interview in his art-filled but relatively modest Beverly Hills home, the 85-year-old Douglas spoke about the book, his life and his return to Judaism, before embarking on a two-month book tour of the United States and Europe.
The actor has taught himself to speak again -- slowly but distinctly. His famous dimpled chin still juts out, and with a mane of long white hair he could pass for the movie version of a Viking or biblical patriarch.
Asked about the book's title, with its seemingly ironic double meaning, Douglas responds that he means it when he talks about "a stroke of luck."
"For all the stroke stole from me, it has given me even more," he says earnestly. "It has led me to a great adventure and changed me into a different person -- and one I like better than the person I was before."
Douglas' earlier persona, during a long Hollywood career, was notorious for its egocentricity -- even in a town of mammoth egos -- his epic womanizing and his self-chosen role as a loner without real friends.
He firmly believes, and details in his book, that these traits and his lifestyle, as much as the later physical disabilities, led to his deep depression.
Douglas credits his new outlook, and survival, to the love of his wife, Anne, and four sons; his immersion in Torah study, and the gratification of reaching out and helping others.
His new attitude was affirmed and symbolized by his second bar mitzvah, celebrated on his 83rd birthday. In his speech to an audience of Hollywood celebrities, Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) declared, "Today I am a man ... but it takes time to really become a man and assume your responsibilities in this troubled world."
After studying with a considerable number of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis ("I know more rabbis than Jews," he writes), Douglas has evolved his own brand of somewhat irreverent theology that mixes spirituality, with an actor's appreciation of the great dramatic scripts inherent in the Torah, and a touch of humor.
An example of the latter is cited in the book when Douglas recalls his decades as a non-practicing Jew. However, he writes, "I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked in movies, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it's not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach."
Douglas' good deeds have found expression by underwriting several playgrounds in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer's hospital unit, AIDS and homeless projects and a $2 million theater now rising opposite the Western Wall, where worshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism and Jerusalem.
The veteran actor looks forward to starring with his son, Michael, and grandson, Cameron, in a film this year. "It's about a dysfunctional family," he says, "but then every movie nowadays seems to be about dysfunctional families."
At the end of "My Stroke of Luck," written in Douglas's characteristic colloquial and anecdotal style, the author appends six rules in an "Operator's Manual" for coping with a stroke, or, for that matter, with life.
Among the rules:
When things go bad, always remember it could be worse.
Never, never, give up. Keep working on your speech and your life.
Pray. Not for God to cure you, but to help you help yourself.
Turner Classic Movies will screen 22 of the best Kirk Douglas movies on four successive Mondays in February.