September 23, 2019

Kirk Douglas’ Greatest Role

When Kirk Douglas was in his mid-70s, he started to study the Torah. The actor in him immediately detected a professional relevance.

“The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written,” he says. “It has passion, incest, murder, adultery — really everything.”

It has been a long road back to Judaism for the veteran of 82movies, who began life as Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor,illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants, became college wrestler Isadore(Izzy) Demsky, and achieved great fame and success as actor Kirk Douglas — often starring as a Nordic-looking hero or antihero.

His trademark dimple chin jutting out — for his first movie role,Paramount honchos wanted to obliterate the million-dollar dimple through plastic surgery — Douglas reminisced about his life andfaith during a 75-minute interview in his art-filled, but relatively modest, Beverly Hills home.

Today, Douglas is an 80-year-old man with an implanted pacemaker,who has been sorely tested in the past few years by severe injuries sustained in a 1991 helicopter crash and, more recently, by a stroke.But don’t think that his glories lie behind him.

Having passed his biblically allotted life span of 70, Douglas is looking forward to his second bar mitzvah, in Israel, at age 83. His fifth and sixth books, the autobiographical “Climbing the Mountain:My Search for Meaning” and “The Broken Mirror,” a Holocaust-themed story for children, are coming out this month.

He is planning for his first collaboration with his oldest son,Michael Douglas, in the movie “A Song for David,” which centers on the relationship between a father, who rediscovers his Judaism in old age, and his workaholic son. Waiting in the wings, “if Hashem wills it,” is another joint film project, tentatively titled “Josiah’s Cannon,” also on a Jewish theme.

Then he has his carefully selected collection of modern, not yet fashionable painters and his pet charitable projects: Children playgrounds for poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Israel; an Alzheimer’s unit at the hospital for retired show-biz folks; AIDS andhomeless projects; the Access Theater for the Handicapped; and a $2million theater that’s rising opposite the Western Wall, where worshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism and Jerusalem.

He has a date at the White House on Dec. 23, together with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to watch President Clinton light the first Chanukah candle, which will also symbolize the beginning of Israel’s 50th anniversary year. Douglas hopes to revisit Israel,where he has made three films, next year.

Unfulfilled, as yet, is his ambition to climb Mount Sinai and greet the sunrise at the pinnacle.

Finally, there is his family. His countless love affairs and one-night stands — with movie queens and casual pickups alike –well behind him, Douglas speaks often and proudly of his 43-yearmarriage to his second wife, Anne, and of his four sons, Michael,Joel, Peter and Eric.

The first two sons are from his first marriage, to actress Diana Dill; the two younger ones from his present marriage. Despite their father’s dire warning, all four sons work in the film industry as actors and/or producers.

Douglas still remembers, with undiminished pain, growing up alongside six sisters with a loveless and unresponsive father, and he makes it a point to show emotion and affection toward his own children. “Whenever we meet, we embrace and kiss each other on the mouth — Russian style,” he says.

Douglas has always been aware of his Jewishness. When he was 12, the Sons of Israel congregation in his native Amsterdam, N.Y.,offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Young Issur declined, informing his would-be benefactors that he planned to become an actor.

For most of his life, he has been an indifferent Jew, at best. Atone point in his college career, though a popular student body president and champion wrestler, he tried to pass himself off as a half-Jew.

He dates his