February 28, 2020

A Screenwriter Remembers Kirk Douglas

“The Bad and The Beautiful”Photo from Hulton Archive/Getty Images; “Paths of Glory” Archive Photos Photo from Archive Photos/Getty Images; “Spartacus” Photo from Archive Photos/Getty Images

At the beginning of his legendary career, Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, was almost typecast as a well-meaning but ineffectual husband, in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) and “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949). His performances in these films are more than competent. But his career really took off when he played bitter, cynical men motivated by rage: “Champion” (1949), “Ace in the Hole,” (1951), “The Bad and the Beautiful,” (1952), “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Spartacus (1960) and his favorite film, “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962).

Douglas was never a conventional leading man. Although handsome as a fairy tale prince, he wielded his masculine beauty like a weapon. There was none of the gruff charm that made Clark Gable the “King of Hollywood”; nor was Douglas an elegant, urbane gentleman like William Powell or Cary Grant.

He excelled at playing, in his own words, “sons of bitches.”

Douglas, who died at age 103 on Feb. 5 in Beverly Hills, always felt like an outsider. And his fine memoir, “The Ragman’s Son,” published in 1988, touchingly reveals a chronically damaged self-image. The only son of illiterate Jewish Russian immigrants, Douglas was terrified of Herschel, his distant, hard-drinking, often violent father. But, like so many Hollywood stars, Douglas was deeply attached to his gentle, long-suffering mother Bryna. In fact, Douglas named his film company Bryna Productions.

Raised in Amsterdam, N.Y., about 28 miles northwest of Albany, Douglas describes the city as “WASP town.” For traditional Jews from the Ukraine, this new world was blessedly free in spite of the anti-Semitism that was common.

The rage that is at the heart of actor Kirk Douglas has its genesis in his difficult childhood.

In his senior year of high school, young Issur was looking forward to attending the school prom:

… I had never been to a school dance in the evening because I didn’t have the clothes or the money. I was a pretty good dancer, especially with a step called the glide and dip. But senior year, I decided to save up and go to the Senior Prom. It was a big event to me, my first prom.

The rage that is at the heart of actor Kirk Douglas has its genesis in his difficult childhood.

There was a girl, Ann Brown. She was pretty and always wore nice clean dresses. She lived on Market Hill, the rich part of town. I danced with her sometimes during lunch hour. I felt she liked me. I invited her to go with me. She said yes! I was ecstatic, counted my pennies to make sure I had enough for the ticket and a nice corsage. I was going to press my suit carefully.

The next day I came to school very happy. I saw her, my date for the prom, and waved. She didn’t wave back. That’s strange, I thought. I guess she didn’t see me. During lunch hour when people were dancing, I couldn’t quite seem to get her attention. I didn’t understand. I ran up to her and she turned away. Finally, I trapped her in the corridor.

“What’s wrong?”

She started to stutter, then finally said, “I can’t go to the prom with you.”

My heart sank. I was bewildered. She had seemed so happy about it the day before. “Why?”

She wouldn’t answer. I insisted. “Why? Have I done something?”

“No.” Long pause. “My father won’t let me.”

I said, “I’m sure the prom won’t be very late. I’ll get you home whenever he’d like.”

“No, no,” she said. “It’s not that.”

“Well what is it?”

“Because you’re a Jew and your father’s a ragman!” She ran away.

I just stood there with my mouth open. Certainly it was not new to me to be persecuted for being a Jew. But somehow I didn’t associate it with this nice, freshly scrubbed American girl with her well-pressed dresses. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that she came from a wealthy family and her father was a college graduate. I had always thought that people who hated Jews were like my immigrant neighbors who had come from a tough background with no education.

The night of the prom arrived. I had already told many people that I was going, and I was expected to go, because I was on the dance committee. But I didn’t go.

To deal with the pain and rejection, young Issur — already fascinated by the make-believe world of theater — escaped reality by retreating into a protective shell, into comforting dreams and pleasant fantasies.

Thus was born the actor Kirk Douglas.

Rest in peace.

Robert J. Avrech is an American author and screenwriter. This article is reprinted with permission.