September 23, 2019

Friends, family to fete Kirk Douglas on his 100th birthday

Kirk Douglas — actor, director, producer, author, philanthropist and Torah student — will celebrate his 100th birthday Dec. 9, and there is a special treat in store for the centenarian.

Douglas has been under strict medical orders to abstain from alcohol, but his cardiologist, Dr. P.K. Shah, promised the actor that if he made it to 100, he could have a glass of vodka. So at an afternoon tea party in Beverly Hills, Shah will be in attendance to personally administer the medication.

Some 150 other guests will fete Douglas, ranging from extended family, including his three sons and seven grandchildren, to old friends like director Steven Spielberg — who will be there with his wife, Kate Capshaw, and mother, Leah Adler — Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, Don and Barbara Rickles and other Hollywood luminaries.

Also on hand will be Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who has directed Douglas’ weekly Torah studies for many years. Wolpe also officiated at the actor’s second bar mitzvah, when Douglas — then 83 — declared, “Today, I am a man.”

Hosting the event will be Kirk Douglas’ son, Oscar-winner Michael Douglas, and his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also will welcome leaders of numerous charities and institutions in the United States and Israel, which have received approximately $118 million from Kirk and Anne Douglas.

Once complimented on such generosity, the actor explained, “You have to give back. … I came from abject poverty. I didn’t dream of being a millionaire. So you have to pay back.”

On Dec. 9, 1916, the future Kirk Douglas was born in the upstate New York town of Amsterdam as Issur Danielovitch, the son of an illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrant, who supported his family of six daughters and one son as a rag picker and junkman.

His rise from this low estate to one of Hollywood’s top male stars in the 1950s and ’60s is the stuff of American legend. In most of his 87 movies, the blond, blue-eyed boy who once laid tefillin every morning was now cast as the just about the toughest, roughest guy around.

But this is only part of the story. Douglas is the author of 11 books, including harsh childhood recollections, explaining the Holocaust to children, love verses to his wife, and tracing his recovery from a helicopter crash, stroke and attempted suicide.

He is now reading the proofs for his 12th book, co-authored with his wife and titled “Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood.”

With all these accomplishments, ask Douglas about his proudest recollection and he will point to his act of moral courage in breaking the Hollywood blacklist of alleged communists during the McCarthy red-hunting era. He did so by insisting that the name of writer Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted for a decade, be publicly credited for the “Spartacus” screenplay, despite warnings that such a provocation would end Douglas’ own Hollywood career.

Most of the old friends at the party are familiar with another of the actor’s talents: pithy observations on life, love and advice to future generations.

On the Bible: “The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written. It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything.”

On religious observance: “I don’t think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others.”

In his heyday, when Douglas was as famed for his egocentricity and womanizing as his screen roles, he spared little time and interest for his Jewish heritage. However, he observed, “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. 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.”

Kirk was upstaged by his second and current wife at the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004. The former Anne Buydens — who is now 97 —startled the assembled guests by announcing that she had converted to Judaism.

“Kirk has been married to two shiksas,” she declared. “It’s about time he married a nice Jewish girl.”

Douglas has always had a special spot in his heart for Israel, and in “The Juggler,” he starred in the first Hollywood feature to be shot in the Jewish state, returning later for “Cast a Giant Shadow” and “Remembrance of Love.”

Shortly before his 100th birthday, Douglas recalled a blessing he first pronounced on his 90th birthday.

“In the Jewish tradition, a birthday gives a person special powers, and if he issues a blessing, his blessing will come true,” he said.

“I bless all the people in the land of Israel that the current conflicts resolve themselves, that no more people die or are hurt and that you can continue your lives in peace.”