Issur Danielovitch Demsky, who changed his name to Kirk Douglas and gave movie fans immortal performances in films such as Spartacus and Champion, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 103, from natural causes, surrounded by family.
His son, Michael, said in a statement on Instagram: “To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”
Douglas was born in Amsterdam, New York, to Bryna and Herschel Danielovitch, who immigrated from Chavusy in the Mogilev Region, in today’s Belarus. The family spoke Yiddish at home. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and changed his name legally to Kirk Douglas before enlisting in the US Navy during World War 2.
In his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas describes his childhood years of poverty in upstate New York, with his parents and six sisters:
“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.”
Little Izzy Demsky sold snacks to mill workers to earn money to buy milk and bread to help his family. He also delivered newspapers. He said he had more than forty different jobs before becoming an actor. Life in Amsterdam, NY, was hard: “I was dying to get out,” Douglas wrote. “In a sense, it lit a fire under me.”
He acted in high school plays, and dreamed about becoming a professional actor. He borrowed money to enroll at St. Lawrence University, a loan he paid back working as gardener and janitor. He also wrestled in a carnival in the summer breaks. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1939.
The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City gave Douglas a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske, a.k.a. Lauren Bacall, who later wrote that she “had a wild crush on Kirk.” Another classmate was Diana Dill, who bacame Douglas’s first wife on November 2, 1943. They had two sons, Michael in 1944 and Joel in 1947, and divorced in 1951.
After the war, Douglas found work in radio, theater and commercials in NY City. He got his first big break in 1943 when he replaced Richard Widmark in Kiss and Tell on Broadway. In 1946, his friend Lauren Bacall recommended Douglas to producer Hal B. Wallis, who picked him for his film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with Barbara Stanwyck. Douglas played a young, insecure and jealous man, dominated by his ruthless wife, drowning his sorrows in alcohol. His biographer, Tony Thomas, wrote: “His style and his personality came across on the screen, something that does not always happen, even with the finest actors. Douglas had, and has, a distinctly individual manner. He radiates a certain inexplicable quality, and it is this, as much as talent, that accounts for his success in films.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Douglas became a major box-office star, playing opposite some of the leading actresses of that era. He became comfortable riding horses and playing gunslingers, and appeared in many westerns. Douglas also played military men, in Top Secret Affair (1957), Town Without Pity (1961), The Hook (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Heroes of Telemark (1965), In Harm’s Way (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Is Paris Burning (1966), The Final Countdown (1980) and Saturn 3 (1980). He played Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), directed by Vincente Minnelli.
In Cast a Giant Shadow, a 1966 big-budget action film based on the life of US Colonel Mickey Marcus, who becomes “Michael Stone” and trains Israeli fighters in the 1948 War of Independence. Douglas played the title role, alongside Senta Berger, Yul Brynner, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Angie Dickinson.
In February 1991, Douglas survived a helicopter collision in which two people were killed. The near-death experience led him, eventually, back to his Jewish roots. In a 2000 interview, he said:
“Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, NY. Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares – wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.”
Douglas pointed out that his films The Juggler (1953), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Remembrance of Love (1982), were about “a Jew who doesn’t think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness.”
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.