A Role Made to Order
He used to be known as Hollywood’s “Jewish goy,” a Jew so Nordic-looking he could, as they say, pass. For decades, Kirk Douglas, nee Issur Danielovitch, wasn’t one to go out of his way to correct the record.
Douglas’ one concession to observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was to fast--while he was at work, that is. You could almost hear Douglas’ stomach rumble when he made love to Lana Turner in “The Bad and the Beautiful.”
But these days Douglas doesn’t observe the Jewish High Holidays incognito. You wouldn’t figure Spartacus to be donning a yarmulke instead of a loincloth? Obviously, you don’t see what Rabbi Nachum Braverman sees.
“He said, ‘Kirk, I think you like being Jewish because it’s so dramatic,’ ” Douglas says of his Talmudic teacher in L.A. “I said, ‘You know, you have a point. To be a Jew, to be persecuted all over the world, to have been slaves in Egypt, you must admit it is dramatic.’ ”
The Hollywood icon is so convinced of Judaism’s theatrical appeal that when USC film students asked for his tips on screenwriting, he suggested they study the greatest script of all--the Bible. “If you look back in movie history, so many stories were based on the Bible,” he says. His son Michael’s movie “Disclosure”? Check out the story of Joseph and the wife of his master, Potifar.
But it wasn’t the possibility of more film projects that inspired Douglas to crack open the greatest story ever told. He embraced his religious roots after a midair collision six years ago that left him alive and two younger men dead. His search for an explanation culminated in his latest memoir, “Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning” (Simon & Schuster).
Which is why he is here now in his art-filled Beverly Hills living room, sharing the answers he found. Because after years of contemplation, Douglas concluded that God let him live so he could come to terms with his Jewish heritage. And that involved helping other people by offering his hard-earned lessons. With him is his editor and close friend Uriela Obst, who converted to Judaism as she helped Douglas research his fourth book and second memoir.
In addition to spiritual epiphanies, the ‘90s have also brought him fierce battles with severe back pain as well as the anguish of learning to speak again after his stroke a couple of years ago. Neither of which stop Douglas from chatting engagingly about his recent voyage with humor and surprising humility. Occasionally he will pause to make sure his audience is still along for the ride.
“The biggest thing that has happened with my stroke is my awareness of how we take speech for granted,” he says, the lingering effects of his stroke thickening his tongue like some strange accent. “Speech is a complicated process. Now I say my thoughts go fox trotting out and my speech is a wolf, and it doesn’t quite catch up to my thoughts. And that is frustrating.”
Later, he will teasingly promise another interview on the many “advantages” of having a stroke. Of course, his first reaction to his infirmity was far from philosophical. He was devastated. “An actor who made 80 movies suddenly can’t speak,” he says. “But it’s been an interesting challenge, because at least when you lose speech you have the time to think about what you want to say.”
In his chatty yet moving book, the tracks of Douglas’ struggle are poignantly clear: “Does God love nature more than man? Have you ever seen an ugly landscape? Never! . . . Maybe it’s because nature accepts whatever God gives--without complaining--that God seems to love nature more. I need your love, God. Help me to be like a tree. . . .”
The crash happened Feb. 13, 1991. Douglas was returning from Obst’s farm near the Santa Susana Mountains when the helicopter he was in collided with a small plane 50 feet above the Santa Paula airport. The men in the plane, U.S. aerobatics champion Lee Manelski, 46, and his student, David Tomlinson, 18, died.
Douglas sustained a compressed spine, which knocked him down 3 inches in height, but the deeper wound was to his worldview. He wondered why he had survived when younger men had not. He thanked God for his fate. “Then I caught myself,” he writes. “We all say, ‘Thank God,’ automatically when we have a narrow escape, but do we mean it? I’m not sure I did. I hadn’t thought about God for a long time. I ran away from him many, many years ago.”
As he lay steeped in pain in his bedroom, he contemplated the series of Marc Chagall biblical prints above his bed. He remembered his childhood in Amsterdam, N.Y., where he learned the meaning of the Yiddish expression “It’s tough to be a Jew.”
Izzy Demsky (the name his parents chose when they dropped “Danielovitch” to sound more American) was taunted by kids who accused him of killing Jesus. In college, would-be frat brothers abandoned him when they learned “Demsky” was not a Polish name.
Douglas himself would reply that he was only half Jewish when people told him he didn’t look Jewish. And when he went to New York to find his fortune as an actor, he eagerly stripped his identity of ethnicity by legally changing his name to Kirk Douglas. Karl Malden, born Mladen Sekulovich, had helped him brainstorm his new name, which sometimes backfired. When he tried to get work in New York’s Yiddish theater, he was dispatched with the tart, “If we have a part for a Nazi, we’ll call you.”
The memories of his youthful anti-Semitic tormentors are what helped him reassess his roots. He had been fascinated with Jesus as “the most famous Jew who ever lived” ever since he’d been accused of doing him in. As Douglas became more absorbed in religion, his editor, Obst, was becoming fascinated with Judaism. In 1993, she announced she was going to Israel for a month to work on an army base. Douglas asked her to scout out an opportunity for him to fund a park for children--one of many he has built there and in the U.S.
He went to Israel for the dedication and was delighted by his reception at the hotel. “They ushered us into our room, and I was amazed,” he writes. “They had put my initials--KD--on the towels, bathrobes, everything. I was moved and very flattered until [his wife] Anne said, ‘Honey, this is the King David Hotel.’ ”
At Obst’s suggestion, Douglas met with a young rabbi in Jerusalem who challenged his skepticism during a walk through the Jewish Quarter: “I said, ‘Look, rabbi, I want you to know that I am not much of a Jew. Judaism lost me at age 14.’ ” What he said in response staggered me. He pointed out that no rational adult would make a business decision based on what he knew at 14.”
Douglas celebrated the next Sabbath with the rabbi at his home, singing songs and eating dinner with the rabbi’s wife and five children. That night he felt he’d come home.
He wrote a parable of his religious reawakening in his new children’s book, “The Broken Mirror” (Simon & Schuster), realizing only later that the book reflected his life. The story, based in part on angel tales told by his pious mother, follows a German Jewish boy who loses his family in the Holocaust and his identity in a Catholic orphanage, only to find a new home when he wanders into a synagogue.
In “Climbing the Mountain,” Douglas writes sadly of people in Hollywood who have lost their spiritual way in the quest for fame and fortune. And he wonders whether he would have been a better father if he’d embraced his Judaism earlier. His four sons, he says, identify as Jews even though their mother is not Jewish. And he says his spiritual blossoming has helped draw the family closer than ever.
Indeed, at the ripe age of 80, Douglas seems at least as happy as a younger man at the peak of an Oscar-winning career, and not just because of the chorus line of honors he continues to win.
“Since the crash, since my stroke, I think I have become a better person,” he says, his blue eyes blazing. “I have become more giving of myself and what I have. So I think that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes you don’t know the reason, but there is a reason. Just like I think God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no.”