Today is the 100th birthday of Kirk Douglas, one of the most famous and accomplished actors of our time. After barely surviving a helicopter crash in 1991 and then suffering a stroke in 1996, he has focused on renewing his spiritual and religious life. We wish him a happy birthday ad meah v'esrim (until 120).
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the son of Bryna "Bertha" and Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch. His parents were Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus, and the family spoke Yiddish at home.
His father's brother, who emigrated earlier, used the surname Demsky, which Douglas' family adopted in the United States. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the United States Navy during World War II.
In his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son, Douglas notes the hardships that he, along with six sisters and his parents, endured during their early years in Amsterdam, New York:
My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. ... Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman's son.Douglas became an international star through positive reception for his leading role as an unscrupulous boxing hero in Champion (1949), which brought him his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Other early films include Young Man with a Horn (1950), playing opposite Lauren Bacall and Doris Day; Ace in the Hole opposite Jan Sterling (1951); and Detective Story (1951). He received a second Oscar nomination for his dramatic role in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), opposite Lana Turner, and his third nomination for portraying Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). He is among the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1955, he established Bryna Productions (named for his mother), which began producing films as varied as Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). In those two films, he starred and collaborated with then relatively unknown director, Stanley Kubrick. Douglas helped break the Hollywood blacklist by having Dalton Trumbo write Spartacus with an official on-screen credit, although Trumbo's family claims he overstated his role. He produced and starred in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), considered a cult classic, and Seven Days in May (1964), opposite Burt Lancaster, with whom he made seven films. In 1963, he starred in the Broadway play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a story he purchased, which he later gave to his son Michael Douglas, who turned it into an Oscar-winning film.
As an actor and philanthropist, Douglas has received three Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As an author, he has written ten novels and memoirs. Currently, he is No. 17 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest male screen legends of classic Hollywood cinema, and the highest-ranked living person on the list.
Douglas starred as American soldier Mickey Marcus in the film Cast a Giant Shadow, with John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Yul Brynner. Marcus commanded units of the fledgling Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Here is a video clip from the film, followed by a video interview that Douglas gave to a Spanish language TV show in which he discussed his difficulties growing up Jewish amid anti-semitism.
Happy Birthday, Kirk!
(A SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS: THE VIDEO IS NOT VIEWABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE EMAIL THAT YOU GET EACH DAY. YOU MUST CLICK ON THE TITLE AT THE TOP OF THE EMAIL TO REACH THE JEWISH HUMOR CENTRAL WEBSITE, FROM WHICH YOU CLICK ON THE PLAY BUTTON IN THE VIDEO IMAGE TO START THE VIDEO.)