Kirk Douglas, Iconic Jewish Movie Star, Dies at 103

Greyscale portrait of actor Kirk Douglas in white shirt, tie, and sports coat.
Portrait of Jewish American actor Kirk Douglas as he poses with his hands in his pockets, 1950. Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images via JTA.

Kirk Douglas, the legendary actor who portrayed legions of tough guys in the course of his 87 films and embraced his Jewish heritage later in life, died Feb. 5 at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 103.

Thrice nominated for an Academy Award and a recipient of an Oscar for lifetime achievement and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Douglas also was the author of 11 books, ranging from personal memoirs and a Holocaust-themed novel for young readers to a collection of poetry dedicated to his wife.

Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in the upstate New York town of Amsterdam, the son of an illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrant who supported his six daughters and one son as a rag picker and junk man. A chance to escape came shortly after his bar mitzvah, when the Sons of Israel Synagogue offered to underwrite his rabbinical studies. Douglas firmly declined, declaring that he would become an actor. He held fast to that ambition while attending Saint Lawrence University on a wrestling scholarship and during World War II service in the U.S. Navy.

His first movie role came in 1946, but it was during the 1950s and ’60s that he ranked consistently as one of Hollywood’s top male stars for his single-minded focus on his craft, while also squeezing in Broadway and television appearances. In the 1950s, he starred in 23 movies, earning best actor Oscar nominations for “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Lust for Life.” He opened the decade of the 1960s with “Spartacus,” perhaps his most enduring movie, in which he played the leader of a slave rebellion in ancient Rome. Douglas also distinguished himself by insisting that writer Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted as a communist for a decade but continued to write under a pseudonym, be credited onscreen despite dire warnings that such a provocation would end his own Hollywood career. Douglas was honored for that stance in 2011 by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

With increasing fame and fortune, Douglas showed little interest in Jewish practice, though there were exceptions.

“I always fasted on Yom Kippur,” he told a reporter. “I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

In his later years, Douglas would come to embrace his Jewishness, a shift he dates to a near-fatal collision in 1991 between his helicopter and a stunt plane in which two younger men died. The crash compressed his spine by three inches. While lying in a hospital bed with excruciating back pain, he started pondering the meaning of his life.

“I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” he said.

Douglas embarked on an intensive regime of Torah study with a number of young rabbis and celebrated a second bar mitzvah at age 83, telling the Hollywood luminaries crammed into the 200-seat chapel at Sinai Temple for the occasion: “Today, I am a man.”

Along with his second wife, Anne Buydens (who announced her conversion to Judaism, long after they were wed, in 2014), Douglas gave over $100 million to charitable causes in the United States and Israel. The couple established nearly 400 playgrounds in poorer sections of Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, and a theater facing the Western Wall featuring films on the history of Judaism and Jerusalem.

Along with his wife and son Michael, Douglas is survived by sons Peter and Joel Douglas, seven grandchildren, and sister Ida Sahr of Schenectady, New York.

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