On the silver screen: Yahrzeit for Izzy: Remembering Kirk Douglas, part I

By Bill Simons

This is Izzy’s first yahrzeit. He died a year ago on February 5, 2020, the 10th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar. For his children and family, the tradition is to light a memorial candle. And for those of us who knew Izzy at a distance as Kirk Douglas, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the legacy of a significant Jewish-American life. During a journey that spanned 103 years, Douglas achieved fame, wealth and significance as an actor, producer, author, social activist, philanthropist and founder of a performing dynasty, most notably represented by son Michael. 

He was born Issur Danielovith in 1916 to Jewish parents, impoverished Russian immigrants, in Amsterdam, NY. The family shortened their surname to Demsky, and everyone called the boy Izzy. Yiddish was the language of the home. An only son, Izzy had six sisters. Herschel, the father, eking out a meager living as a ragman, descended into physically abusive alcoholism. As he worked odd jobs helping the family make ends meet, Izzy endured taunts and beatings from antisemitic gangs. Despite the grim circumstances, his mother, Bryna, encouraged Izzy to believe in himself. So, too, did his high school English teacher: Mrs. Livingston introduced Izzy to poetry, drama and romance. 
A good student and outstanding wrestler, Izzy worked his way through St. Lawrence College. He enlisted in the Navy prior to Pearl Harbor, served as a gunnery and communications officer in the Pacific during World War II, and suffered injuries due to the accidental discharge of a depth charge. 

After the war, Douglas resumed his dream of becoming an actor. Acting offered figurative and literal escape from his Dickensian coming of age. In that time and that place, it was politic to change his name from the Jewish-identifier Izzy Demsky to Kirk Douglas. His Jewish identity followed a certain arc. A bar mitzvah at 13, the young Izzy resented the demands of religious study. Although associated with Jewish projects in middle age, Douglas drifted away from religious observance. During the last decades of his long life, Douglas’ Jewish identity intensified, evidenced by Torah study, strong support for Israel, a second bar mitzvah and conversion of his wife, Anne, to Judaism. 

It is as an actor that Douglas is best known. Between 1946 and 2008, he appeared in more than 90 films, the featured star in most of them. Douglas’ acting style was memorable and mesmerizing, but not subtle. An intense, manic hypermasculinity animated his screen personae. The cinematic Douglas fought fiercely, suffered profoundly and exulted in the pleasures provided by wine, women and food. Although compact at 5’9”, 175 pounds, Douglas possessed a powerful masculinity and energetic athleticism that he impressed upon the characters he portrayed. Possessed of a strong, commanding, urgent voice and ruggedly good looking with light brown hair, clenched teeth, cleft chin, strong column-like neck, broad shoulders and tapered waist, he provided an easy mark for impressionists. 

Insecurities fueled by the lingering resonances of childhood deprivation, ferocious ambition and a combative template meant that Douglas was not always easy to live or work with. His frequent co-star and frenemy Burt Lancaster asserted, “Kirk would be the first person to tell you he’s a very difficult man – and I would be the second.” Despite his demanding personality, Douglas was a major box office attraction, and he made a number of acclaimed and important films. 

For his riveting performance as the 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956), Douglas received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Leading Man category. Douglas captured the brilliant, tortured passion of van Gogh, dramatizing the artist’s sublime use of light and color in landscape and portraiture, as well as the depression and psychosis that led van Gogh to severe his own ear and to subsequently commit suicide. To inhabit van Gogh’s personae, Douglas, possessed of a remarkable facial resemblance to the artist, remained in character off-screen. “Lust for Life” contributed to a major revival of interest in van Gogh’s paintings. 

In “Paths of Glory” (1957), a powerful, realistic anti-war film, French soldiers are caught in the futile carnage of trench warfare during World War I. As French Colonel Dax, Douglas is ordered to lead his men in an impossible assault on an impregnable German position. To cover up his own failure, a general orchestrates the court martial of three soldiers under the pretext of cowardice. Dax, an attorney before the war, defends the soldiers in a trial corrupted to make the accused scapegoats for the failed operation. An unjustifiable guilty verdict is followed by the execution of the three soldiers. Douglas’ Dax projects a moral outrage not easily forgotten. 

Ironically, “Lonely are the Brave” (1962), a relatively small modern cowboy drama, ranked as Douglas’ favorite film. For a city boy, he rode well atop a horse. During Douglas’ boyhood, antisemites set fire to the stable that housed the draft horse that pulled his father’s rag wagon, burning the horse to death. In “Lonely are the Brave,” Douglas’ character (Jack Burns), a rugged individualist who battles against the encroachments of civilization, is traumatized when his beloved horse (Whiskey), crossing a major highway, fatally collides with an 18-wheel truck. 

Given the attempted Washington, DC, coup on January 6, 2021, “Seven Days in May” (1964) is a particularly relevant film. The political thriller marked a collaboration between Douglas and screenwriter – and Binghamton native – Rod Serling. “Seven Days in May” underlines that the greatest peril to democracy comes from demagogues in positions of power. As Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, Douglas plays a key role in thwarting a plot to replace the democratically-elected president with a military regime. The film ends with an exhortation for democracy to remain vigilant: “The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong.”

Part II of this Kirk Douglas series will examine “Spartacus,” his most famous movie within its Cold War context, as well as the Jewish themes and content in several of his major films.

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.