Kirk Douglas: his on-screen Jewish legacy

The iconic American movie star passed away on Wednesday at age 103.

Actor Michael Douglas poses with his father Kirk Douglas and son Cameron Douglas during the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 6, 2018 (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Actor Michael Douglas poses with his father Kirk Douglas and son Cameron Douglas during the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 6, 2018
Kirk Douglas, who died on Wednesday at 103, was a Jew who Anglicized his name and became one of Hollywood’s top movie stars, then found his way back to Judaism relatively late in life, embracing it with a vengeance after he survived a helicopter crash.
But his Jewishness helped guide him throughout his career.
He was born Issur Danielovitch in an era when even the most all-American actors were required to change their names to shorter, catchier monikers. A mainstream career with a Jewish name was simply not an option, and even before he headed for Hollywood, he changed his name.
While in acting school, he briefly dated a young Jewish woman who would also become a Hollywood legend using a non-Jewish-sounding name, Lauren Bacall.
Douglas’s career was a huge success story, and he starred in dozens of major Hollywood movies, including Spartacus (1960), the film for which he was best known, in which he played the leader of a slave rebellion against the Romans. Douglas fought for, and lost, the title role in Ben-Hur, another Hollywood epic in which the Romans were the villains, this one about a Jew who suffers persecution and vows revenge. The title role in Ben-Hur went to the decidedly not-Jewish star Charlton Heston.
Douglas then pushed to be cast in Spartacus, which was a career-defining role in a hit movie. But perhaps he was drawn to it partly because of its anti-Roman sentiment, although it wasn’t a Jewish story. Ironically, Spartacus also featured another Jewish-American actor, Tony Curtis, who was born Bernard Schwartz and who also pushed his ethnicity far into the background.
The ascendance of a Jewish actor to stardom could be seen as a triumph, particularly since it was so much at odds with the stereotype of Jews as small and weak.
More often than not, in contemporary movies, Douglas portrayed characters with surnames such as Kelly, O’Connor, McLeod and Morgan – macho men who couldn’t have been less Jewish. Ironically, even when he acted for great Jewish directors, such as Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole (1951) or Stanley Kubrick, with whom he made Spartacus and the anti-war film, Paths of Glory (1957), he played generic tough guys.
He even portrayed several real-life American heroes, including Doc Holliday in the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and World War II hero Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who was accused of antisemitism, in the 1966 epic, Is Paris Burning?
But Douglas played Jews when he could. In 1953, he starred in The Juggler, the story of a concentration-camp survivor trying to adjust to life in Israel. The film was an early example of location shooting, and the exteriors were filmed in Israel. The tormented hero, who tells an immigration officer at Haifa Port that he is a juggler, and then, asked what else he can do, he replies: “I can wash dishes, sweep barracks, clean toilets. I can also smile while being beaten by fists, feet, straps and long rubber hoses. I can be used as a guinea pig for new drugs and old poisons. All of which we learned as guests of the Nazis.”
Douglas eventually got to play a real-life contemporary Jewish hero – at a time when Hollywood was just beginning to acknowledge that such a thing existed – in the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow. He portrayed Mickey Marcus, the real-life US World War II veteran who became one of nascent Israel’s first generals and who organized the Hagana into the crack fighting force it needed to be to win the War of Independence. Marcus is credited with honing the Israelis’ military strategy and building Burma Road, which allowed Jewish forces to break the blockade of Jerusalem just before the UN ceasefire went into effect. Tragically, Marcus was killed by an IDF soldier in Abu Ghosh who mistook him for an Arab just before fighting ceased.
Hollywood did its best to make the story accessible, portraying Marcus as equally brave and brash, using his American know-how to whip the motley Jewish militia into a modern army. He is torn between his sexy blonde wife at home, played by Angie Dickinson, and Madga, the sexy brunette Jewish fighter who throws herself at him. The film is burnished by the participation of three other major stars: John Wayne as a US general who at first tries to stop Marcus from going to Palestine; Frank Sinatra as a US pilot who risks his life to help Marcus; and Yul Brynner as a Jewish officer named Asher Gonen.
The film includes rousing scenes, not only of battles and commanders strategizing but also one in which Jewish refugees who have disembarked from an illegal immigrant ship onto an Israeli beach quickly strip down to their underwear to pretend to be beachgoers. They stand their ground facing British soldiers who are ordered to shoot them, and the soldiers refuse to pull the triggers, defying their commander.
Many leading lights of the Israeli film industry took part, including Topol, best known for starring in Fiddler on the Roof, and producer Micha Shagrir, who had a bit part.
The tagline of the film was, “Outnumbered - unarmed - unprepared - they stunned the world with their incredible victory!”
Douglas’s career lost momentum in the 1970s, but he continued taking roles in Jewish-themed projects, including as the role of Hershel Vilnofsky, the father of one of the hostages, in Victory at Entebbe (1976).
Jews who came along later and went into the movie industry were able to do so on their own terms. Barbra Streisand didn’t get a nose job or pretend to be anything other than the Brooklyn girl she was. Woody Allen changed his name from Allan Stewart Konigsberg but always played identifiably Jewish characters, starting with his earliest roles, even if they, like him, were culturally Jewish rather than religiously observant.
Today, stars such as Jesse Eisenberg and Natalie Portman are open about and proud of their Jewish heritage. And for today’s Jewish performers, their Judaism is more than a slogan. For her first project as director, Portman chose to make a Hebrew-language version of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Israeli Gal Gadot, currently one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, is using her clout to develop Jewish-themed projects such as a series based on the life of Jewish screen goddess Hedy Lamarr.
Times have changed, and surely the ascendance of Issur Danielovitch to the pinnacle of mainstream Hollywood success helped them change.