Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich Demsky to Bryna and Herschel Danielovich, Jewish immigrants from modern-day Belarus, in Amsterdam, New York, on December 9, 1916. Herschel was a horse trader-turned ragman. “Izzy” became a Hollywood legend.
With his steel trap grin, laser-beam stare, and jutting chin — site of the most famous dimple in movies — Kirk Douglas was a gladiatorial force on screen even before Spartacus (1960) actualized his warrior rebel mystique. Of all the great male stars of Hollywood’s golden era, Douglas was the one who would turn whatever conflict he was in into a corrida. His carriage alone bespoke a cornered toreador — or a mauled Bantam rooster.
Whereas his friend Burt Lancaster oozed easy-going power, Douglas seethed with barely bitten-back fury. Outraged, he became a flurry of staccato movements and hectoring speeches. Internalizing their anger, Douglas’s characters often manifested their spiritual wounds physically, like stigmata.
Douglas himself is well nigh indestructible. In 1997, I traveled to his Hollywood home to interview him. He had suffered a stroke the year before, but had learned to articulate himself fully. By the time I interviewed him again in 1999, he had written a self-help book-cum-memoir called My Stroke of Luck and had returned to acting. He has had three more books published since and still blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post.
The quotes below first appeared in the January 2000 issue of Interview magazine.
“I think almost every part you play reflects a fraction of your personality. I myself am not as courageous as Spartacus, but as an actor you are an instrument and you use things within you to portray a character. In Diamonds (1999), that is me. I don’t think I ever played a character that was so much what I am, a man going through a stroke.”
“I was filled with such melancholia after my stroke that I had to get through a period when I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. But then I thought, ‘Maybe God is testing me and I must pass the test. I must make my handicap work for me.’ Suddenly I was functioning, being an actor, as I have been all my life. It was the same when I got my golf game back up to 18 holes — you no longer feel like a cripple.”
“I don’t think my interest in it would have come about if I hadn’t been heavily reminded of mortality [after a helicopter-plane collision that killed two men]. When my stroke came, I thought, ‘What is God doing to me? What good is an actor who can’t walk and who can’t talk? Will he become a public speaker?’ [laughs] But I think everybody has to come to terms with some spiritual growth.”
“In my case, I was born a Jew, but I neglected it for sixty years, and then it was suddenly reawakened and I became a strong Jew, yet in a secular way. I didn’t embrace all the tenets of orthodoxy. One rabbi said to me, ‘Kirk, I think you are a Jew because you think it is dramatic.’ That wasn’t far from the truth because it is dramatic being part of a race that’s been dispersed all over the world.”
“I like women. Apart from their sexuality, women in general are very interesting. They are stronger than us; they have more intuitive sense. And I’ve known for some time that the feminine side of me gives me my creative side.”
“That’s difficult because there are several I liked for different reasons: Lust for Life (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Seven Days in May (1964) with my good friend Burt Lancaster, and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) just because it’s very difficult to make a good picture about picture-making. If I had to choose one, it would be Lonely Are the Brave (1962), which was a simple story with Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau. I liked the character I portrayed — he was a nice guy. He was fearless and he had a wonderful relationship with his horse.”
“We are all sinners, but God always gives us a second chance. I’m a sinner who’s trying to overcome my sins and be a better person. I don’t like goody-goodies. If I thought a man never committed a sin in his life, I don’t think I’d want to talk to him.”
“I’ve thought about this. How many times was I shot and killed in the movies? Some actors don’t like to die. Very often the movie dies, but they don’t. But, yes, I have argued with God and gotten angry with God, and I think it’s permissible to do that. The only thing that is not permissible is to ignore God. It must be something in my makeup that drove me to play those roles. I probably gravitated to the villain more than the hero because virtue is not photogenic. A man with flaws is more interesting.”
“I’ve always told my four sons that they didn’t have my advantages because I was born in poverty and had nowhere to go but up. That’s why I’m so proud of my sons, especially Michael. Of course, I was divorced from [Michael and Joel’s] mother. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with my ex-wife and her husband.”
“Michael and I were not always that close. For years there was a certain distance between us, but in the last ten years we have gotten very close, maybe because he’s older and has a son himself. I think he has achieved much more than I have. And I feel I have done a lot — I don’t want you to accuse me of modesty.”
“My mother was a saint. I often think about my mother when I light the Torah candles. These two people came together, my mother and my father, and they were antipodal — is that a word? Opposite poles. My father, ‘The Bull,’ was the tough guy in town, and I had some of his physical strength, perhaps, but my mother gave me her soul. I hate to speak about these things because I don’t mean it in a sanctimonious way. But, really, she gave me a meaning to life, in not being afraid to be tender or caring. I had enough elements of my father’s brutishness, but I never realized until much later in life what my mother meant to me.”
“Listen, someone said to me, ‘What are the things that you are most proud of in your life?’ And I say the thing I am most proud of is that I broke the blacklist. At the time everyone said, ‘Kirk, are you crazy? Were you drunk’ [Douglas announced publicly that he was hiring Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted screenwriters of the Hollywood Ten, to write Spartacus].
“I still feel strong and virile. When I played all those [arrogant, cocky] men, I didn’t have the spiritual strength that I have now. Whatever stage you are at in life, you should embrace it and try to be a better person. You have to love yourself and respect yourself and then offer that love and respect to others.”