The late Hollywood actor reconnected back to his Jewish faith later in life.
Featured photo via Wikimedia Commons
Kirk Douglas, the star of Spartacus, Vikings, Lust for Life, and countless other Hollywood films, has died this week at 103. Though widely known for his leading roles, I’ll remember him better for his early-career turns in many a film noir.
Emanating a prideful air of dignity ensconced in a ruthless air of streetwise grit, he brought shading to screen villains in works like I Walk Alone and the extraordinary Out of the Past. As Whit in the latter, he plays a crime boss who’s equal parts self-assured, petty and vindictive, driven by a need to recapture an old flame — Kathie, played by Jane Greer —who seems enamored, too, of Robert Mitchum’s Jeff. Bound by rivalry though radically different in affect and persona, the film’s love triangle hinges on the amibuity of each performance.
Across a range of well-coiffed, prideful but withdrawn characters, he embodied a similar rough brand of masculinity not often associated with Jewish actors, balancing contradictions that made antiheroes of leading roles and brought character and shading to what might have been simple parts.
Alongside the contradictory aspects he grappled with in roles throughout his career, he also contended with his Jewish-American one. Born Issur Danielovitch in 1916, he was raised in poverty by immigrant parents in upstate Amsterdam, New York. Declining an offer to pursue rabbinical studies early in life, he elected to gamble instead on the unlikely prospect of a career onscreen. Shortly after, he attended Sarah Lawrence University on a wrestling scholarship before serving in the Navy from 1942 through 1944.
As was generally thought necessary for a mainstream career for the time he lived in, Douglas legally changed his name before enlisting. His first Hollywood role came shortly after his return, opposite Barbara Stanwyck in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a sinuous gothic thriller which doubled as a highly visible debut.
His stature rose throughout the ’40s and ’50s, his first Oscar nomination coming with 1949’s Champion — also his breakthrough leading role. Harnessing a wiry physicality alongside his well-honed and wryly chipper inflections, his dynamism — already in evidence — was granted room to breathe.
At the height of his career, he rarely embodied his Jewish identity in a publicly visible way. Though he “fasted on Yom Kippur” per his own recollection while working, he rarely displayed that facet of his background onscreen. Like many American Jews, he had the privilege and ability to pass, integrating into a Hollywood mainstream that would likely have proved hostile to a clearer embrace of his identity or childhood faith.
Blond-hared, blue-eyed, and a perennial looker, he was able to move with relative freedom through an entertainment industry which often required not just actors but directors and technicians to take on names that elided any visible form of recent immigrant or non-Christian heritage. There were notable exceptions — such as 1953’s The Juggler, in which he played Hans Muller, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor struggling through postwar trauma after resettling in Israel. (A historical first, it was also the first Hollywood film shot there — though his 1966 starrer Cast a Giant Shadow was also set there).
His ambivalent stance towards Jewish identity shifted in 1991 following a near-death plane-and-helicopter collision, in which he sustained a spinal injury and several other passengers were injured or died. During a harrowing recovery, he re-embraced Judaism after years of repressing it in public, and — according to his memoir — alone.
In 1999, he celebrated a second bar mitzvah at 83. In 2004, his wife (now widow) Anne Buydens, converted to Judaism as well in 2004, after which they practiced Judaism together until his death. Embodying the tensions, contradictions and shifting dynamics of American Jewish identity over more than a century of life, Douglas’ relationship to Judaism seems now both strikingly individual and a product of his time.