Welcome to the Posts section of the official Kirk Douglas website. Its purpose is to let Kirk share his thoughts and activities with you, and to enable you to share your thoughts with him.
Below you’ll find links to the most recent "Reflections" and "Activities" posts.
Clicking the “Reflections” button to the left, you’ll be taken to a page where Kirk, a best-selling writer as well as a movie star, has posted his most recent thoughts and musings.
Clicking the “Activities” button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can learn about current and past goings-on in which Kirk is involved.
Clicking the "Kirk Douglas Theatre" button, you'll get the latest news about productions at the theatre, named to honor Kirk Douglas and established as the newest and most intimate of the Center Theatre Group's spaces, which include the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Theatres at the Los Angeles Music Center.
By clicking “Fan Mail,” you’ll have the opportunity to share your thoughts with Kirk.
Kirk Doulgas's new book, written with his wife Anne, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood will be available on May 2, 2017. This link will enable you to pre-order a copy, and have part of the proceeds go to the work of The Douglas Foundation.
Film legend Kirk Douglas and Anne Buydens, his wife of nearly sixty-three years, look back on a lifetime filled with drama both on and off the screen. Sharing priceless correspondence with each other as well as the celebrities and world leaders they called friends, Kirk and Anne is a candid portrayal of the pleasures and pitfalls of a Hollywood life lived in the public eye.
Compiled from Anne's private archive of letters and photographs, this is an intimate glimpse into the Douglases' courtship and marriage set against the backdrop of Kirk's screen triumphs, including The Vikings, Lust For Life, Paths of Glory, and Spartacus. The letters themselves, as well as Kirk and Anne's vivid descriptions of their experiences, reveal remarkable insight and anecdotes about the legendary figures they knew so well, including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, the Kennedys, and the Reagans. Filled with photos from film sets, private moments, and public events, Kirk and Anne details the adventurous, oftentimes comic, and poignant reality behind the glamour of a Hollywood life-as only a couple of sixty-two years (and counting) could tell it.
How Kirk Douglas Inspired Resistance To Trump’s Brand Of McCarthyism
- Created on Wednesday, 21 December 2016
- Written by David Palumbo-Liu
--Huffington Post December 15, 2016
One of Hollywood’s finest actors, Kirk Douglas, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. There much to celebrate—in his rich career Douglas garnered three Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What is less known, but demands remembering now more than ever, is the role he played in fighting the McCarthyist blacklist of Hollywood writers, most dramatically when he insisted that one of them, Dalton Trumbo, be given full screen credit for writing the screenplay for one of Douglas’ most famous films, Spartacus.
When the film Trumbo was released last year, Douglas took that opportunity to warn us that blacklists can always appear again, and that it is incumbent upon members of a democracy to fight them:
“As actors it is easy for us to play the hero. We get to fight the bad guys and stand up for justice. In real life, the choices are not always so clear. The Hollywood Blacklist, recreated powerfully on screen in Trumbo, was a time I remember well. The choices were hard. The consequences were painful and very real. During the blacklist, I had friends who went into exile when no one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair. My young co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was unable to work for twelve years after she refused to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I was threatened that using a Blacklisted writer for Spartacus — my friend Dalton Trumbo — would mark me as a “Commie-lover” and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle. I am so proud of my fellow actors who use their public influence to speak out against injustice. At 98 years old, I have learned one lesson from history: It very often repeats itself. I hope that Trumbo, a fine film, will remind all of us that the Blacklist was a terrible time in our country, but that we must learn from it so that it will never happen again.”
Back then the American Legion, outraged that Douglas had given a Communist sympathizer screen credit, set up a picket line to block entrance to the film’s screening. On February 4, 1961, President John F. Kennedy crossed the picket line to attend the screening of Spartacus.
This presidential act of solidarity helped end the blacklist. Today we face, as Kirk Douglas warned we might, another challenge, but with an entirely different sort of person coming into the Presidency.
Trumbo and others were put into prison for refusing to testify against others. In so doing they were resisting what they felt were unconstitutional demands—these men and women refused to inform on their friends, to spread the mass hysteria aimed against those who held different beliefs.
One of the most memorable scenes in Spartacus comes at the end, when the Roman soldiers are closing in on the hero, who is the leader of a slave rebellion. Captured by the Romans, a group of slaves are asked to identify Spartacus, and in exchange for giving him up they are promised leniency. But instead of betraying him, they each declare, “I am Spartacus!” Trumbo the screenwriter was clearly gesturing toward the real-life situation of not only blacklisted Hollywood writers, but also of all others facing McCarthyite persecution. In crediting Trumbo with the screenplay, Douglas was in effect making the same kind of statement of solidarity in his own actions, which President Kennedy then followed in kind.
Today we are faced with a blacklist against professors who are suspected of harboring “liberal” beliefs and the registry of Muslims proposed by the President-Elect, who has also warned the press that it should be careful about how it presents the news of his presidency. And just now, in one of the most egregious acts yet, the National Park Service, prompted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, has filed a “massive omnibus blocking permit“ for many of Washington, DC’s most famous political locations for days and weeks before and after the inauguration on 20 January. So much for the Million Woman March on Washington and any other sort of demonstration. This is a clear abridgment of the First Amendment, which includes “the right of the people to peaceably assemble.” It is the only time in our nation’s history such a broad and flagrant denial of a right to protest has been issued. Who knows what other kinds of acts of surveillance and censorship might appear in the future?
While organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union are planning to challenge the registry in court it is crucial to see how everyday people are stepping up, taking a page from Spartacus in their mode of resistance. One effort is the “Register Us“ campaign, whose website declares: “Donald Trump wants to require all Muslims to register in a government database. We must stand together to protect our neighbors and our most fundamental rights. Let’s all pledge to register as Muslim today.”
Similarly, many professors across the country are insisting that they be included in the ProfessorWatch website. One group at the University of Notre Dame addresses their petition to ProfessorWatch thus,
“We make this request because we note that you currently list on your site several of our colleagues, such as Professor Gary Gutting, whose work is distinguished by its commitment to reasoned, fact-based civil discourse examining questions of tolerance, equality, and justice. We further note that nearly all faculty colleagues at other institutions listed on your site, the philosophers, historians, theologians, ethicists, feminists, rhetoricians, and others, have similarly devoted their professional lives to the unyielding pursuit of truth, to the critical examination of assumptions that underlie social and political policy, and to honoring this country’s commitments to the premise that all people are created equal and deserving of respect. This is the sort of company we wish to keep.”
And now a second petition is being circulated by the largest national organization of academics, the American Association of University Professors, where faculty are adding their names in support of the Notre Dame professors.
And finally, it has just been announced that the US Department of Energy has resisted the President-Elect’s request to hand over names of individuals who work on climate change: “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department,” said spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder.
Just as holding communist views was not illegal during the McCarthyite era, today it is of course not illegal to hold “liberal” views, nor is it illegal to be a Muslim, nor is it illegal to work on a scientific project that Donald Trump feels is invalid. But at a time when the President-Elect has chosen to informally but effectively conduct policy via Twitter, when facts are buried in falsehoods, when the distinction between what is legal and what is not legal is blurred, actions urged upon us by the government and others can easily ask us to transgress our own laws and rights. It is, therefore, all the more important to resist any and all efforts to turn us into instruments for witch hunts of minorities of various natures and those who hold unpopular positions. Last year Kirk Douglas had no idea how quickly his concern about history repeating itself could happen. We need to emulate not only the character he played in one of his greatest roles, but also the role he played in real life in fighting against prejudice and persecution, and fighting for all our rights and freedoms.
Inside Kirk Douglas's intimate 100th birthday celebration
- Created on Sunday, 11 December 2016
- Written by Associated Press
--Associated Press December 10, 2016
Kirk Douglas knows how to make an entrance. With boxing gloves in every centerpiece and the theme from "Rocky" blaring over the speakers, Douglas, one of the golden age of Hollywood's last living legends, walked confidently into the Sunset Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel Friday afternoon to celebrate his 100th birthday at an intimate gathering of friends and family.
Flanked by Anne Douglas, his wife of over 62 years, his son Michael Douglas, his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones and his grandchildren, Kirk Douglas looked out over the crowd of about 150 people, including Don Rickles, Jeffrey Katzenberg, his Rabbi and many of his closest friends and smiled. Not only was he surrounded by friendly faces, he knew, as promised by his doctor years ago, that if he lived to 100, he would get to have a glass of vodka.
But before the vodka was presented in a comically large martini glass, Kirk Douglas got to sit and listen to words from his loved ones as images from his many classic film credits such as "Spartacus," "Lust for Life," "Paths of Glory" and others played on a screen behind him.
Michael Douglas kicked off the proceedings, saying that it's not just about age, but about the life he's lived and what he's accomplished.
"One of the things that I find most incredible about dad is the third act of his life," said Michael Douglas. "After all he accomplished in his professional career and what he's given for his country, at the point in his life where he's faced adversity, losing a son, having a helicopter crash, having a stroke, and what he's accomplished in this third act in his life, I find quite extraordinary."
Kirk Douglas kept his remarks brief.
"I wonder who he was talking about? He said some nice things about someone I don't know," Kirk Douglas said, joking that Michael Douglas was chosen to organize the proceedings because "he has the most money."
Kirk Douglas also thanked everyone for coming and marveled at seeing most of his family in the crowd.
Zeta-Jones then lit the 12 candles on the cake.
"I'm so glad there's not 100!" she exclaimed, before leading the room to sing "Happy Birthday" with a string quartet accompaniment.
It was only the start of the afternoon, which included remarks from a few of his seven grandchildren, his Rabbi and his doctor. Charley King's Bluebell Events oversaw the afternoon tea where each table was designated not by numbers but by Kirk Douglas's films. The birthday boy was seated at the "Lonely Are the Brave" table, which is his favorite film.
Don Rickles lightened the reverent and respectful mood, quipping to the crowd from his seat that he wanted to go home.
He poked fun at Kirk Douglas's good looks and physique saying that he had to hear the "I'm Spartacus crap" every day, and how Burt Lancaster used to advise him that Kirk Douglas "doesn't know what he's talking about."
Rickles did get a bit choked up by the end
"You are an outstanding man because you've been blessed with warmth and love and class, and ... ah, forget it, you're all of that and more," He said. "May god give you strength and may you be with us for 100 more. If that's his wish, so be it, if not, I know in heaven you'll be in charge."
Off to the side, actress and dancer Neile Adams, who was Steve McQueen's first wife, recalled Douglas's mischievous side.
"Kirk was terrible when he was a young man! You could not sit beside him without his hand crawling up your leg. When Steve would leave the room suddenly he'd be on me," she said with a hearty laugh. "But he was cute."
She recalled his resilience, when a few years ago he had both of his knees replaced. Michael Douglas, she said, tried to encourage him to just do one and get a chair. Kirk Douglas, however, had a different idea and it didn't involve a wheelchair.
"You'll never see Spartacus in a (expletive) chair!" Adams remembered him saying.
Later in the afternoon, Katzenberg reflected on the generosity of the Douglas's, who are famous for their charitable giving.
"You have remained and will always remain my hero," Katzenberg said. "I will remind you of your words that you gave to me and I try to give to other people all the time which is 'you haven't learned how to live until you learn how to give.'"
Steven Spielberg, who arrived late, and on crutches having recently broken his foot on set came with a very specific message.
"I wanted to come here and say I've been shooting movies and television shows for now 47 years and I've worked with the best of them and you're the only movie star I ever met," Spielberg said. "There is something that you have that no one else ever had ... When you watch Kirk's performance in anything, in anything he's ever done, you cannot take your eyes off of him. It's not possible to look away from him."
He called it an optimistic ferocity and it's something he challenges all his actors to achieve in his films.
"You're a miracle man," he said.
And, even after 100 years to show for it, he's still fighting.
KIRK DOUGLAS, A HUNDRED YEARS OLD
- Created on Friday, 09 December 2016
- Written by Anthony Lane
--The New Yorker December 9, 2016
Many happy returns to Kirk Douglas, who is a hundred years old today. How should the occasion be celebrated? The most obvious method would be to leap joyfully, from oar to oar, along the flank of a longship; that is how Douglas announced his homecoming in “The Vikings” (1958), making the happiest of returns to his people. If you miss your footing and tumble into the water, so much the better. The trouble is that not all of us have a fjord at hand. Maybe we should just line up to greet the great man, as his colleagues did in “The Arrangement” (1969), welcoming him back to the office with an eager handshake and a tray of drinks, but be warned: that scene ends with Douglas slumping into a chair, throwing up his hands, and saying, “Bullshit.”
Centenarians of the cinema are a rare breed. The last big name to hit three figures was Bob Hope (1903-2003), and you don’t need to be an admirer of either man to note the connection. A couple of stills will do the job, confirming that the key to longevity, in Hollywood, has nothing to do with morals, marriages, exercise regimes, or green vegetables. It’s a maxillary matter, as simple as that. You take a breath, say a prayer, stick your neck out, and chin your way to a hundred.
The cleft in the Douglas chin is, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the most popular natural rift in America. The geology of the guy is open to public view, demanding recognition; one glance at that dimple is enough, like a single syllable of Jimmy Stewart’s voice. Fans of the Asterix comic-strip books, set during the Roman occupation of Gaul, will point you to “Asterix and Obelix All at Sea” (1996), which is dedicated partly to Douglas, and in which the heroic figure of Spartakis is drawn directly from him; what’s wonderful is that this cartoon version, with its stiff hedge of blond hair and its promontory of jaw, is almost no exaggeration at all.
If that sounds improbable, check out the first forty seconds of “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), and the list of things that the camera finds on its travels: desert scrub, a dying fire, then boots, denims, shirt, cigarette, and the lower half of a sunburned face. We know who this is. What follows, on the other hand, throws us off track. Douglas sits up, tips back the brim of his hat to reveal all, then stares into the sky, where three jets leave vapor trails across the heavens—long white scars against deep gray, since the film is a fine example of late monochrome. What the hell is a cowboy doing with jets overhead? Shouldn’t they be arrows, or circling vultures? But that is the nub of the story: this fellow is the last of a breed, defiantly homeless, snipping wire fences on the principle that nobody should be hemmed in, and riding on through. He saddles his beautiful palomino, and we expect an open prairie, but he winds up in a bright new kitchen, agleam with mod cons, where Gena Rowlands makes him ham and eggs. He fits in like a clown in a monastery. Even more unnerving is the movie’s end, as the hero and his mount are knocked down, on a rainy road, by a truck ferrying toilets.
“Lonely Are the Brave” was one of Douglas’s favorite projects, and you can see why; not just because he was center stage—where else is a star supposed to hang out, for God’s sake?—but because the stage stretched from the old world to the new, and he was not someone who liked to be assigned, let alone confined, to a regular period or place. He was quite at ease in the O.K. Corral, or the Roman arena, clad in cast-iron underpants and on-the-shoulder chain mail, but drop him into the here and now and he would show you how to wear a good suit as if it were armor-plated. Look at the broad double-breasted number that he sports in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), descending the stairs to meet Lana Turner, who has dropped round in full battle-dress, including a floor-length jewelled gown and a cloud of white fur. His snarl is like the jab of a trident. “Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while. Maybe everybody does,” he tells her, and adds, “Who gave you the right to dig into me and turn me inside out and decide what I’m like?” Whatever you say, Mr. Douglas.
He was born Issur Danielovitch, in Amsterdam, New York. It was quite a family: three sisters, then the boy, then three more sisters. No wonder his life thronged with women. His father, Herschel, born in Russia in 1884, had come to American around 1908; he took the lowliest of jobs, gathering stuff that even the poor had thrown away. Hence the title of Douglas’s autobiography, published in 1988: “The Ragman’s Son.” It’s an exhausting read. All the fights and the fallouts, the wrestling bouts, the litany of carnal conquests and contractual flareups: the carnival of immodesty starts early and never subsides. He remembers hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac, and asks, “Is that any way for a God to act? Don’t you think he’s taking advantage of his position? Don’t you think he’s cruel?” There is even a glint of menace in his complaint: “I also didn’t like the way God treated Moses.” So that’s why Kirk Douglas is still going strong, at a hundred. God’s afraid to meet him.
The author’s memories of childhood, unlike a few of his West Coast anecdotes, have the brunt of the believable. “I stole food. I reached under a neighbor’s chicken for the warm egg, cracked it open, swallowed it whole in secret.” And don’t forget the twelve-block walk to Hebrew school: “I had to run the gauntlet, because every street had a gang and they would always be waiting to catch the Jew boy.” If that’s the kind of bruising you grow up with, then struggling to get the name of Dalton Trumbo—banned by the blacklist—into the credits of “Spartacus,” as Douglas did, is hardly a battle at all.
Then there was Mrs. Livingston. She was Issur’s teacher, who introduced the lad to romantic poetry, took a shine to him, and invited him home “to help her with some English papers one evening.” Byron would have approved, although even he might have suggested, now and then, that Douglas the Don Juan pause his pen. The recitation of amours is unflagging, and it certainly gives you a historical shock to realize there is a man—if not quite a gentleman—alive today who can inform you of what it was like to make out with Joan Crawford. (“We never got past the foyer,” he writes. “There we were on the rug.”) I prefer the elegant euphemisms: “Ann Sothern played my wife. We rehearsed the relationship offstage.” And I would trade all such revelations for that poised encounter, in “Man Without a Star” (1955), when Jeanne Crain, seated politely at a desk, with a ledger open in front of her, inquires of Douglas, “What do you want?” In response, he takes a pen, and scratches the word “You” in rough letters across the page. They kiss. “I’m going to have a lot of trouble with you,” he says, and spins her chair around in glee. “You’re so right,” she says. The honors are even.
What rises from the pages of “The Ragman’s Son” is the unmistakable whiff of certainty. The transformation from Issur Danielovitch to Izzy Demsky to Kirk Douglas seems ordained, unavoidable, and brazenly luckless. He had to happen. If your first movie is “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946)—seeing off Richard Widmark and Montgomery Clift to snag the role, which pairs you with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin—then you are unlikely to be plagued by the demons of self-doubt. You brush them off like flies. Even stronger was Douglas’s third outing, in “Out of the Past” (1947), where he plays a gangster who would very much like his moll back, plus the forty thousand bucks she took with her. Love is not the issue. “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them,” he admits. One of the virtues of Kirkery is the brio, oddly unjealous, with which he squares off against other actors; stealing a scene, perhaps, but always content to share the loot. In this case, he had Robert Mitchum. “Cigarette?,” one man asks. “Smoking,” the other replies, showing him what already smolders in his hand. A word, a gesture, and they’re done. Actors like this can make a gunfight out of Lucky Strikes.
So much mythologizing energy is expended on those who flamed and crashed in their youth, from Rudolph Valentino to Heath Ledger, that we sometimes neglect the power of the long burn. The bewildering thing about Douglas is that, when you gaze back at his career, it seems to have been fireworks all the way. He entered movies not watching his step, still less with the shy trepidation of a novice, but like somebody spoiling for a fight. Is it any surprise that audiences, freshly released from the toils of the Second World War, should have sensed that momentum, stuck with it, and revelled in the hopefulness of its forward thrust? By the time that Douglas played a boxer, in “Champion,” in 1949 (he trained with an ex-welterweight named Mushy Callahan), his name preceded the title onscreen, and we were forced to wait awhile, viewing him only from behind as he padded through the tunnel’s gloom and entered the glare of the ring. Finally he turned and unleashed the grin. We looked up at him from below, as if we were already down on the canvas and taking the count. He didn’t even have to throw a punch.
Ah, the smile of Kirk: one of the steeliest blades in cinema, unrusted by the years. It was still there when he reunited with his friend Burt Lancaster, in the slight but elegiac “Tough Guys” (1986). They had acted together many times, beginning with “I Walk Alone” (1948); they had even sung and danced together, at the 1958 Academy Awards, performing “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated.” What binds the two of them—and you could make it three, by adding Charlton Heston—is that, in each case, the smile was somehow more frightening than the roars of rage. The most remorseless smiler of our age is Tom Cruise, yet he is careful never to forgo a winning geniality, whereas Douglas and Lancaster, in their pomp, bared their teeth as they did the undulation of their muscles. If Douglas had played Quint, in “Jaws,” the shark would have rolled its black eyes, backed off, and swum away.
Not that Douglas, in his movies, was a mere bully; that is no guarantee of fame. As far as punishment goes, his characters may dish it out, but fate tends to dish it right back, and, indeed, the registration of pain can grow startling to the point of masochism, as anyone who flinched from his Vincent Van Gogh, in “Lust for Life” (1956), can testify. Best of all is his Colonel Dax, in “Paths of Glory,” released the following year, and directed by Stanley Kubrick—“a talented shit,” in Douglas’s opinion. He plays a French colonel in the First World War, tasked first with leading a fruitless attack on an impregnable German position and then with defending his men against charges of cowardice; what shakes him is not an artillery barrage but the indifference of the top brass, and what lends the performance its grip is that you can never be sure when, and how, he will lose his soldierly cool. Thus, he disarms us, one evening, lounging on his bunk, jacket unbuttoned, and tugging off his boots. The mood is mild. In comes a sergeant, whom Dax suspects of treating the lower ranks unfairly, and whom he then orders, by way of a bitter lesson, to take charge of a firing squad:
“You draw your revolver out, you walk forward and put a bullet through each man’s head.”
“Sir, I request that I be excused from this duty.”
“Request denied. You got the job. It’s all yours.”
Look at Douglas, just before he delivers that last line. His whole being tautens; the chin is implacable; justice is served. Was that emotional rawness too much for Kubrick, who liked everything to be cooked just right? He was summoned by Douglas again, to take the helm of “Spartacus,” in 1960, but not until Jack Nicholson was called upon for “The Shining,” two decades on, would Kubrick entrust a film to an actor of such bridling intensity. And you have to wonder, in turn, how Douglas and his dramatic demeanor—at once masterful and eruptive, commanding the space of a movie yet prey to the dictates of his own heart and guts—would fare in times like ours. Could anyone now get away with the sublime insolence of Chuck Tatum, the reporter played by Douglas in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951)? Newly landed at a quiet provincial newspaper, he strikes a match by holding it against the cylinder of a typewriter and pressing the carriage return. Later, the same trick is repeated, but this time someone else presses the key on Chuck’s behalf. He has the place in his thrall.
The miracle, by my reckoning, is how much of Douglas’s achievement does not seem dated; how thoroughly it answers, in fact, to a resilient notion of what a leading man is for. Likable is fine, credible always helps, but watchable is everything: he must be a lure to the eyes. And with that magnetic pull comes an attitude—the particular angle, so to speak, at which an actor confronts the world. In Douglas’s case, he leans forward, as if forever grasping the prow of a Viking ship, breasting the waves and building up an appetite for experience. “Now that you’ve got a big hit, you’ve become a real son of a bitch,” the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said to him, in the wake of “Champion.” To which Douglas replied, “You’re wrong, Hedda. I was always a son of a bitch. You just never noticed before.” Life is hard, as Issur Danielovitch discovered, but if you go at it, fists at the ready, with whetted words to match, you may just come out on top. And even if you don’t, you can still be left standing at the end, a hundred years on; that is a kind of triumph in itself. The old poem says, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Not yet.
Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993.
Sharing biblical stories and 100 years of life lessons with Kirk Douglas
- Created on Friday, 09 December 2016
- Written by Rabbi David Wolpe
--Los Angeles Times December 9, 2016
We were in the middle of the Book of Esther, where the new queen is being prepared by the eunuchs of the court for a fateful meeting with the king. “I’ve got the movie,” Kirk Douglas said, eyes sparkling as he imagined a scene playing out.
“What’s the movie?” I asked.
“Well, I play one the of the court eunuchs,” he said. “I dress her and undress her. Only I’m not really a eunuch!”
For the last 20 years I have studied Bible once a week with Douglas. In those years he lost his youngest son to a drug overdose, endured the heartbreak of seeing his grandson imprisoned for dealing drugs, watched his son Michael win a lifetime achievement award (“What does that make me? Winner of some posthumous prize?”), marked 50 years with his wife, Anne, and struggled with his legacy and mortality. On Friday he turned 100.
It is difficult to imagine what it means to live a century, world-famous for most of it. His relatively modest Beverly Hills house is filled with gifts from other world-famous people. I admired an ornate hand mirror on my first visit. “Oh, Anwar Sadat gave that to me,” he said, offhandedly. Once you’ve partied with Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, you aren’t easily excited.
I asked him once if he remembered Jackie Robinson. “Do I remember him? Do I remember him?” he scoffed. “Rabbi, I was 4 years old when women got the vote.” When on a hot day I said how much I appreciated air conditioning and guessed that as a kid he’d probably relied on a block of ice and a fan, he fixed me with a half-comic glare and said, “Who had a fan?”
Douglas was a notoriously pugnacious star who projected a burning, internal anger on the screen. I still see glimpses of that smoldering ire as he reads certain sections of the Bible or discusses political events when we meet; it was not entirely acting. A doctor who treated many Hollywood stars confided to me that Douglas was among his toughest patients. “He once punched a hole in my wall because he had a cold,” he told me. “As if germs had some nerve inconveniencing Kirk Douglas.” He could also be openhanded and brave on behalf of the underdog. His orneriness was part of what enabled him to insist that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo get sole screen credit for “Spartacus” in 1960.
Those sharp edges have softened over time. “I don’t know if studying made him nicer or he was nicer so he studied,” his son Michael told me several years ago. “But you are seeing him at his kindest.”
Several years ago he and Anne sold much of their precious art collection to fund a foundation that has built more than 400 school playgrounds all over California. They have attended, together, the opening of every single one. They have given away tens of millions, notably to schools and the Motion Picture Home for the Aged.
Douglas has survived a heart attack, a stroke and a helicopter crash. He reads the Bible for its stories of struggle, and feels an affinity for the more troubled characters. When my book on King David was optioned by Warner Bros., he lamented being too old to play him in the movie. David, he told me, was his kind of complicated character, noble, strong and sinful. Douglas often recounts something a rabbi told him when he first began to study Judaism: that he loved being Jewish because it was so dramatic.
Facing his mortality, Douglas told me about sitting with his mother at the end of her life some 75 years ago. She held his hand and told him not to be afraid, that everyone dies. He had an extremely contentious relationship with his father, but he adored his mother and she adored him. “When my boy walks,” he remembers her telling her friends, “the earth trembles.”
Now when he walks, he trembles. He complains, but mostly with amazement that he is 100.
Several years ago I asked why he was studying the Bible at this stage of his life. It is the best book of stories in the world, he replied, then added, “At this point it is all about God, people and charity, and I have my doubts about God, but none about charity and people.”
Studying Judaism for years has softened him, but not dampened his drive to know more, and do more. It has turned him outward to the world. That same day as I was leaving he walked me to the door and said, “Come back soon. The sun is setting and there is still a lot to learn.”
Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple and the author of eight books, including “David: The Divided Heart,” which is being developed into a movie.