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.
Actor Kirk Douglas Draws Parallel Between Trump, Hitler in Op-Ed
- Created on Monday, 26 September 2016
- Written by Menachem Rephun
--JP Updates September 23, 2016
In a Huffington Post op-ed Monday, actor Kirk Douglas drew an analogy between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. The 99 year old actor, known for films such as Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and others, is only a few months shy of his 100th birthday.
“I have always been deeply proud to be an American,” Douglas wrote in the piece. “In the time I have left, I pray that will never change. In our democracy, the decision to remain free is ours to make.”
Though he refrained from mentioning the GOP nominee by name, Douglas cited a recent speech in which the candidate advocated “ideological” screening tests for immigrants. According to Douglas, Trump’s words, “Could have been spoken in 1933.”
Whatever one might think about the validity of such parallels, Douglas is not the first to draw them. The candidate has unsettled Holocaust survivors, such Irene Weiss.
In a January article in The Guardian, Weiss, a Czech-born Auschwitz survivor, was quoted as saying she is “exceptionally concerned about demagogues. They touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”
In the August speech which disturbed Douglas, Trump said it is America’s “right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here…[including] new screening tests for all applicants that include an ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values…”
“These are not the American values that we fought in WWII to protect,” Douglas wrote. The actor observed that Hitler, like Trump, was viewed as clownish and not taken seriously before his rise to power.
“I have lived a long, good life,” Douglas wrote. “I will not be here to see the consequences if this evil takes root in our country. But your children and mine will be.”
The Road Ahead
- Created on Thursday, 22 September 2016
- Written by Kirk Douglas
--Huffington Post September 19, 2016
I am in my 100th year. When I was born in 1916 in Amsterdam, New York, Woodrow Wilson was our president.
My parents, who could not speak or write English, were emigrants from Russia. They were part of a wave of more than two million Jews that fled the Czar’s murderous pogroms at the beginning of the 20th Century. They sought a better life for their family in a magical country where, they believed, the streets were literally paved with gold.
What they did not realize until after they arrived was that those beautiful words carved into the Statute of Liberty in New York Harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” did not apply equally to allnew Americans. Russians, Poles, Italians, Irish and, particularly Catholics and Jews, felt the stigma of being treated as aliens, as foreigners who would never become “real Americans.”
They say there is nothing new under the sun. Since I was born, our planet has traveled around it one hundred times. With each orbit, I’ve watched our country and our world evolve in ways that would have been unimaginable to my parents – and continue to amaze me with each passing year.
In my lifetime, American women won the right to vote, and one is finally the candidate of a major political party. An Irish-American Catholic became president. Perhaps, most incredibly, an African-American is our president today.
The longer I’ve lived, the less I’ve been surprised by the inevitability of change, and how I’ve rejoiced that so many of the changes I’ve seen have been good.
Yet, I’ve also lived through the horrors of a Great Depression and two World Wars, the second of which was started by a man who promised that he would restore his country it to its former greatness.
I was 16 when that man came to power in 1933. For almost a decade before his rise he was laughed at ― not taken seriously. He was seen as a buffoon who couldn’t possibly deceive an educated, civilized population with his nationalistic, hateful rhetoric.
The “experts” dismissed him as a joke. They were wrong.
A few weeks ago we heard words spoken in Arizona that my wife, Anne, who grew up in Germany, said chilled her to the bone. They could also have been spoken in 1933:
“We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. It is our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here…[including] new screening tests for all applicants that include an ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values…”
These are not the American values that we fought in World War II to protect.
Until now, I believed I had finally seen everything under the sun. But this was the kind of fear-mongering I have never before witnessed from a major U.S. presidential candidate in my lifetime.
I have lived a long, good life. I will not be here to see the consequences if this evil takes root in our country. But your children and mine will be. And their children. And their children’s children.
All of us still yearn to remain free. It is what we stand for as a country. I have always been deeply proud to be an American. In the time I have left, I pray that will never change. In our democracy, the decision to remain free is ours to make.
My 100th birthday is exactly one month and one day after the next presidential election. I’d like to celebrate it by blowing out the candles on my cake, then whistling “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
As my beloved friend Lauren Bacall once said, “You know how to whistle don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Remembering My Longtime Friend, Nancy Reagan
- Created on Tuesday, 15 March 2016
- Written by Kirk Douglas
--Huffington Post 3/11/2016
Earlier today, my friend Nancy Reagan joined her husband in their adjoining gravesites at the Reagan Library. United in death as they had been throughout their long and happy marriage, Nancy and ronnie were two film actors who played out their lives on a much more exciting world stage than Hollywood.
I am a registered Democrat, but Anne and I first became close to the Reagans when our children were classmates at the Thomas Dye School. My wife and Nancy were in the same carpool. Ron, Jr. and our son Eric were the kind of pals who played together after school and spent weekends at each other's homes.
One day, Anne got a jolting call from Nancy. She said, "Come pick up this boy at once." We couldn't imagine what Eric had done wrong. Nancy explained. Our son had seen a Goldwater bumper sticker on their family car and yelled "BOO Goldwater" -- a sentiment I confess he picked up from me. She had zero tolerance for such behavior.
Throughout their long friendship, Anne and Nancy had regular lunch dates, a custom that moved from the Bel Air Hotel to 668 St. Cloud this last year. When her dear friend, Merv Griffin, was alive, we would all dine regularly, providing the laughter Nancy so much treasured as the President's Alzheimer's progressed.
Nancy met this challenge as gallantly as she had faced up to his being shot while in office. Shortly after the assassination attempt, I was at the White House for an American Cancer Society ceremony. Nancy asked me to stay and have coffee with her. She knew I had supported Jimmy Carter in her husband's first Presidential campaign, but she was no longer the uncompromising person who had ejected my son from her house.
"How are you coping?" I asked her. Nancy had kept such a brave face before the public. "Oh, Kirk, she replied, "it's something you live with all the time." Far worse, I believe, was watching her beloved husband slip away in the fog of Alzheimer's until eventually he forgot her name. She was very interested in Harry's Haven, the Alzheimer's care unit Anne and I had built at the Motion Picture and Television home in Woodland Hills, California. We had recognized how difficult the disease was for families and tried to provide a warm and inviting atmosphere for their visits.
I was also immensely impressed by her devotion to the Reagan Library and her willingness to take a stand on a controversial issue like stem cell research. Despite the disapproval of many Republican leaders, she lobbied Congress as only an experienced Washington hand with a large bank account of good will could do. I remember her telling us that she had called Merv Griffin while he was receiving an honor in New York to announce, via speaker phone, that the bill had passed.
Among my fondest memories of Nancy are the many wonderful occasions when I got to dance with her. She moved expertly. With her as my partner, I almost felt like Fred Astaire. I know Nancy believed strongly in an afterlife where she would be reunited with Ronnie. I want to believe it's true, if only because that's what I hope for Anne and me. In my imagined paradise, I can envision Nancy in the President's arms, dancing in perfect harmony.
Why I Felt Like a Failure When I Didn't Make It on Broadway
- Created on Friday, 06 November 2015
- Written by Kirk Douglas
--Huffington Post November 5, 2015
In 1963, I made my last stab at being a hit on Broadway. I bought the rights to Ken Kesey's book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was a first novel, not yet the bestseller it would eventually become. I was crazy about the book -- maybe not the best phrase to use given the subject matter.
I hired Dale Wasserman to write the play. Dale wrote the first draft of my film,The Vikings; but, like me, his first love was theatre. Later, he wrote Man of La Mancha. That was a huge hit, much more successful than the movie. Cuckoo's Nest on Broadway was not the smash I anticipated after receiving rave reviews in New Haven. I did, however, keep it running for six months. On the other hand, the film version won a number of Oscars -- for Jack Nicholson, for Louise Fletcher, and for a young producer named Michael Douglas.
I wanted to be an actor since I stepped in front of an audience to recite "The Red Robin of Spring" when I was in kindergarten. Something happened when I heard applause. I loved it. I still do.
In high school and St. Lawrence University, I won drama awards which further fueled my theatrical ambitions. Getting a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan was a dream come true.
I had talent, my teachers said, but -- more important -- I had chutzpah. That quality alone got me admitted to St. Lawrence, after talking my way into the Dean's office, showing him my dossier of high school honors, and announcing I had $164 I could put toward tuition. It got me into my first play, Spring Again, singing a telegram to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It was produced by Katherine Cornell and her husband Guthrie McClintock, the first couple of Broadway. That Thanksgiving I was invited to their house and drank champagne and ate caviar. The Thanksgiving before, I was in line at the Salvation Army for my free turkey meal.
I wish I could say that was the beginning of an auspicious theatrical career, with my name ablaze on a prestigious marquee, but it wasn't. After I was honorably discharged from the Navy, it was back to small parts in plays that flopped. Then I got a big break! George Abbott invited me to audition before Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for On the Town. I sang a corny old music hall song, I'm "Red Hot Henry Brown (the hottest man in town)", and got the part, later played by Gene Kelly in the movie. I was petrified and came down with a psychosomatic illness -- my voice got smaller and smaller as I rehearsed the songs, until it totally disappeared. And so did my big opportunity. John Battles replaced me, and my voice came back.
Finally, in June 1945, I played the Unknown Soldier of World War I in The Wind Is Ninety and got my first good reviews. The Hollywood producer Hal Wallis came to see it, urged by my friend Betty Bacall, who made such a sensation as Lauren Bacall in her 1944 screen debut, To Have and Have Not. And that's how I found myself on a train headed to Hollywood to play Barbara Stanwyck's weak drunkard husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. I was on my way to becoming a movie star -- only because I hadn't become a star on the Great White Way.
Here's why I felt like a failure: On the stage, I am flesh and blood, not a shadow on the screen. The eye of the movie camera is an evil eye. When you act in front of it, that cyclops keeps taking from you until you feel empty. On the stage, you give something to the audience, more comes back. When the curtain comes down in a theatre, you have a feeling of exhilaration -- something's been completed, fulfilled. It's so different from an exhausting day of shooting at the studio. You come home tired, drained. Making a movie is like making a mosaic -- laboriously putting little pieces together, jumping from one part of the picture to another, never seeing the whole, whereas in a play, the momentum of the continuity works with you, takes you along. Doing a play is like dancing to music. Making a movie is like dancing in wet cement.
I finally found out how to get my my name in lights -- permanently. Buy the theatre! Eleven years ago, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City opened in a remodelled Art Deco movie house that had played my first films. It is part of the award-winning Center Theatre Group (CTG) which includes the Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the downtown Music Center. A few productions that originated in "my theatre" have gone on from there to Broadway stardom.
I even got to star on its stage at the age of 92 in my autobiographical one-man show, Before I Forget. I loved doing it. For a second I flirted with bringing it to Broadway, but nonagenarian solo acts don't inspire long-range ticket sales.
But at least I went out a hit!
Kirk Douglas: I Was Almost on the Plane That Killed Elizabeth Taylor's Husband Mike Todd
- Created on Friday, 31 July 2015
- Written by Michael Miller
--People July 31, 2015
On- and offscreen, Kirk Douglas has always been known as a tough guy.
The athletic former high school wrestler cemented that reputation playing roles like Scrappy Michael "Midge" Kelly in 1949's Champion, and later as the titular role in 1960's Spartacus.
But the 98-year-old legend has also lived through his fair share of real-life scrapes over the years.
In 1991, he narrowly survived a helicopter crash, which killed two people and left him and three others in the hospital. Then several years later, he managed to recover from a severe stroke that threatened to permanently damage his voice in 1996.
After those brushes with death, it's easy to see why Douglas found religion later in life. But in realm of divine intervention, one of his lesser-known escapes from catastrophe trumps all the rest.
Back in 1958, Douglas and his wife Anne were living next door to Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Academy Award-winning producer Mike Todd, in Palm Springs.
"Mike asked me to go on his private plane with him and we were going to stop and see Harry Truman and then go on to New York," the actor tells PEOPLE, adding, "I was very excited."
Anne Buydens, with whom Douglas has been married for 61 years, had a bad feeling about trip. "When I told my wife [about the plane ride], she said 'I don't want you to go,' " Douglas remembers. "We had a big argument," he says, and sure enough, his wife won out.
Mad at his wife and disappointed about missing the flight, Douglas says he remembers, "We were driving and not talking to each other, so we turned the radio on."
When the radio clicked on, the announcer relayed the shocking news that Mike Todd's private plane, the Lucky Liz (named after Taylor), had crashed, killing everyone on board.
The twin-engine plane was overloaded, and suffered an engine failure while flying in icy conditions at too high of an altitude, the Civil Aeronautics Board later concluded in their accident report.
Douglas wasn't the only celebrity who narrowly escaped the crash. Taylor was also set to fly with her husband that day, but Todd refused to take her along because she was suffering from a high fever.
In a phone call made just hours before his death, the famed producer told a friend, "I just told [Taylor]: 'Dammit, you're staying home with that virus and that's final,' " The Milwaukee Sentinel reported at the time.
Possibly in the same phone call, Todd pleaded with Douglas and another friend to join the flight for a game of gin rummy, insisting that the plane was safe.
"Ah c'mon," he reportedly said, joking, "It's a good, safe plane. I wouldn't let it crash. I'm taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn't let anything happen to her."
After hearing of her husband's death, still heavily sedated and in a feverish haze, Taylor repeated over and over again, "I can't believe it's Mike," according to the Sentinel.
When Douglas heard the news, he and Anne immediately pulled their car over to the side of the road.
"Why was I spared? I was so grateful," Douglas tells PEOPLE. "My wife has saved my life many times."
The Spartacus actor also credits his wife with forcing him into intensive speech therapy, when there seemed to be little hope of him regaining his voice after his stroke.
After two months of hard work, Douglas was able to thank the audience for his honorary Academy Award that March. He later recounted his experience recovering from the ordeal in his memoir, My Stroke of Luck.
Douglas has continued his writing, focusing now on his passion for poetry. For his 98th birthday in December 2014, he released Life Could Be Verse, a collection of poetry, prose and photographs he accumulated throughout his extraordinary life.
An Open Letter to All Those Who Would Be President
- Created on Wednesday, 15 July 2015
- Written by Kirk Douglas
--Huffington Post July 13, 2015
If you want my vote in November of 2016, I am asking you to do something right now.
America has never formally acknowledged and apologized for the unspeakable evil of slavery. So I am asking Republicans and Democrats alike to apologize to the American people. Our continued refusal to apologize for slavery still shames and divides our nation. It is past the time to heal.
IN MEMORIAM: DIANA DILL January 22, 1923 – July 3, 2015
- Created on Monday, 06 July 2015
- Written by Kirk Douglas
It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my first wife, Diana Dill. Diana was one of my closest friends and together we had two sons, Michael, born in 1945, and Joel, born in 1947.
Anne and I, and our son Peter, offer our sincere condolences and send our love to Michael, Joel, and Diana’s husband Donald Webster. We all feel Diana’s loss deeply. She was a wonderful woman and a terrific actress.
Diana Douglas, Actress and First Wife of Kirk Douglas, Dies at 92
- Created on Monday, 06 July 2015
- Written by Associated Press
--New York Times July 6, 2015
Diana Douglas, an actress for six decades and a model who was Kirk Douglas’s first wife and Michael Douglas’s mother, has died in Los Angeles. She was 92.
The cause was cancer, according to Michael Douglas’s production company, Furthur Films, citing Ms. Douglas’s husband, Donald A. Webster. Sources vary as to whether she died on Friday or Saturday.
Born Diana Love Dill on Jan 22, 1923, in Bermuda, where her father was the attorney general, Ms. Douglas moved to New York and met Kirk Douglas while they were both studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She later went to California on a $200-a-week contract with Warner Bros. against Mr. Douglas’s advice that she try for Broadway instead.
She went on to have a long career as an actress and model, appearing in dozens of movies, including the 1987 Steve Martin film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” On television, she had recurring roles in “The Waltons,” “Dynasty” and “The Paper Chase,” and appeared in “ER” and “The West Wing.” She also did stage roles, including some on Broadway.
In May 1943, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine, modeling spring fashions.
She married Kirk Douglas that November and went on to have two sons, Michael and Joel, before the couple divorced in 1951.
“We had brought to marriage such different concepts of what it constituted, what was expected due,” she wrote in her memoir, “In the Wings and Beyond.” The two remained on amicable terms. She even appeared with him in several movies, including her last film, “It Runs in the Family” (2003), which also starred Michael Douglas and one of her grandsons, Cameron.