Kirk Douglas was born as Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, on the Mohawk River, the son of Bryna and Herschel Danielovitch. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the US Navy in World War II.
He wrote in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son: “My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes…. Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
Douglas served as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare aboard USS PC-1137, and was medically discharged in 1944 for war injuries sustained from the accidental dropping of a depth charge. He married actress Diana Dill in 1943 and they had two sons, Michael in 1944 and Joel in 1947, before they divorced in 1951.
Douglas wanted to play on the stage, but his friend, Lauren Bacall, helped him get his first film role in Hal B. Wallis’ 1946 movie, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1947, Douglas starred in Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Douglas was a major box-office star, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era. In 1951, Douglas starred as a newspaper reporter in director Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which was a box office failure because, as some reviewers put it, it was “ruthless and cynical … a distorted study of corruption, mob psychology and the free press.”
In 1960, Douglas played the title role in his career defining movie Spartacus, with an all-star cast. As the executive producer, he raised $12 million for the production, which made it one of the most expensive films at the time.
Between 1970 and 2008, Douglas made nearly 40 movies and appeared on various television shows. In 1988, Douglas starred in a television adaptation of Inherit the Wind, opposite Jason Robards and Jean Simmons. The film won two Emmy Awards. In 2003, Michael and Joel Douglas produced It Runs in the Family, which along with Kirk starred various family members, including Michael, Michael’s son, and his wife from 50 years earlier, Diana Dill, playing his wife. In March 2009, Douglas did an autobiographical one-man show, Before I Forget, at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. The four performances were filmed and turned into a documentary that was first screened in January 2010.
Douglas has donated a number of playgrounds in Jerusalem, and donated the Kirk Douglas Theater at the Aish Center across from the Western Wall. Although his children had non-Jewish mothers, Douglas states that they were “aware culturally” of his “deep convictions,” and he never tried to influence their own religious decisions. Douglas’s wife, Anne, converted to Judaism before they renewed their wedding vows in 2004. Douglas celebrated a second Bar-Mitzvah ceremony in 1999, at age 83.
Douglas notes that the underlying theme of some of his films, including The Juggler (1953), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Remembrance of Love (1982), was about “a Jew who doesn’t think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness.” Douglas recalls his time in Israel in the state’s early years, and said he saw “extreme poverty and food being rationed,” but stressed it was “wonderful, finally, to be in the majority.”