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Jewish Journal

Kirk Douglas’ Greatest Role

Cover Story


by Tom Tugend

September 18, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Douglas in "Cast a Giant Shadow."

After surviving a 1991 helicopter crash, Douglas,80, has taken a greater interest in Judaism.


Kirk Douglas' Greatest Role

The legendary actor rediscovers and redefines his Jewish side

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

When Kirk Douglas was in his mid-70s, he started to study theTorah. The actor in him immediately detected a professionalrelevance.

"The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written," he says. "Ithas passion, incest, murder, adultery -- really everything."

It has been a long road back to Judaism for the veteran of 82movies, who began life as Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor,illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants, became college wrestler Isadore(Izzy) Demsky, and achieved great fame and success as actor KirkDouglas -- often starring as a Nordic-looking hero or antihero.

His trademark dimple chin jutting out -- for his first movie role,Paramount honchos wanted to obliterate the million-dollar dimplethrough plastic surgery -- Douglas reminisced about his life andfaith during a 75-minute interview in his art-filled, but relativelymodest, Beverly Hills home.

Today, Douglas is an 80-year-old man with an implanted pacemaker,who has been sorely tested in the past few years by severe injuriessustained in a 1991 helicopter crash and, more recently, by a stroke.But don't think that his glories lie behind him.

Having passed his biblically allotted life span of 70, Douglas islooking forward to his second bar mitzvah, in Israel, at age 83. Hisfifth and sixth books, the autobiographical "Climbing the Mountain:My Search for Meaning" and "The Broken Mirror," a Holocaust-themedstory for children, are coming out this month.

He is planning for his first collaboration with his oldest son,Michael Douglas, in the movie "A Song for David," which centers onthe relationship between a father, who rediscovers his Judaism in oldage, and his workaholic son. Waiting in the wings, "if Hashem willsit," is another joint film project, tentatively titled "Josiah'sCannon," also on a Jewish theme.

Then he has his carefully selected collection of modern, not yetfashionable painters and his pet charitable projects: Childrenplaygrounds for poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Israel; anAlzheimer's unit at the hospital for retired show-biz folks; AIDS andhomeless projects; the Access Theater for the Handicapped; and a $2million theater that's rising opposite the Western Wall, whereworshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism andJerusalem.

He has a date at the White House on Dec. 23, together with PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, to watch President Clinton light thefirst Chanukah candle, which will also symbolize the beginning ofIsrael's 50th anniversary year. Douglas hopes to revisit Israel,where he has made three films, next year.

Unfulfilled, as yet, is his ambition to climb Mount Sinai andgreet the sunrise at the pinnacle.

Finally, there is his family. His countless love affairs andone-night stands -- with movie queens and casual pickups alike --well behind him, Douglas speaks often and proudly of his 43-yearmarriage to his second wife, Anne, and of his four sons, Michael,Joel, Peter and Eric.

The first two sons are from his first marriage, to actress DianaDill; the two younger ones from his present marriage. Despite theirfather's dire warning, all four sons work in the film industry asactors and/or producers.

Douglas still remembers, with undiminished pain, growing upalongside six sisters with a loveless and unresponsive father, and hemakes it a point to show emotion and affection toward his ownchildren. "Whenever we meet, we embrace and kiss each other on themouth -- Russian style," he says.

Douglas has always been aware of his Jewishness. When he was 12,the Sons of Israel congregation in his native Amsterdam, N.Y.,offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Young Issurdeclined, informing his would-be benefactors that he planned tobecome an actor.

For most of his life, he has been an indifferent Jew, at best. Atone point in his college career, though a popular student bodypresident and champion wrestler, he tried to pass himself off as ahalf-Jew.

He dates his

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