Three years after he survived a 1991 helicopter crash that seriously injured him, actor Kirk Douglas, a frequent visitor to Israel over the years, decided to visit the Jewish state again. He wanted to see the Western Wall Tunnel during a trip where he would dedicate two playgrounds he donated in Jerusalem.
His tour guide there, U.S.-born Tova Saul, arranged to end the tunnel tour at the bedrock where, according to Jewish tradition, Abraham’s binding of Isaac took place.
“Here in the dark tunnel, touching the rock on Mount Moriah, I grew up,” Douglas, who died at 103 on Feb. 5, wrote in his autobiography, “Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning.” “Three years after the helicopter crash, which rattled my complacency, I had come full circle.”
Douglas would frequently say that the visit to the Western Wall Tunnel strengthened and intensified his Jewish identity, and helped answer the question of why he had survived. “I came to believe that I was spared because I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish,” he wrote.
Raised in an immigrant Jewish family, he had little connection with his religious roots while growing up and becoming a Hollywood star, but embarked on an intensive regime of Torah study in the years after the crash and celebrated a second bar mitzvah at 83.
Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, was Douglas’ Torah study partner for 25 years. He wrote in a New York Times appreciation that Douglas was always aware of his Jewish background although he changed his original name, Issur Danielovich, to the “gentile-sounding” Kirk Douglas after college graduation.
“People did not know he was Jewish and would say vile things about Jews blithely to his face,” said the rabbi, who officiated at Douglas’ funeral.
“Issur was with me all the time,” Douglas wrote in the autobiography.
Over a career that spanned 87 films — including 73 big-screen features and 14 on television — the blond, blue-eyed actor, dimpled chin thrust forward, was often cast as the toughest guy around, vanquishing hordes of Romans, Vikings, and assorted bad guys.
Nominated three times for an Academy Award, recipient of an Oscar for lifetime achievement and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Douglas evolved from an egocentric and promiscuous young man into a multitalented actor, director, author, and philanthropist who gave to many Jewish and Israeli causes.
He was also the author of 11 books, ranging from personal memoirs and a Holocaust-themed novel for young readers to a collection of poetry dedicated to his wife.
“Most stars of his stature are shaped out of mythic clay,” the director Steven Spielberg said in presenting Douglas with the lifetime achievement Oscar in 1996. “Kirk Douglas never chose that. He doesn’t have a single character that makes him unique. Instead he has a singular honesty, a drive to be inimitable.”
Born in the upstate New York town of Amsterdam to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Douglas had six sisters. His father owned a junk shop and his mother worked as a baker.
A chance to escape came shortly after his bar mitzvah, when the Sons of Israel Synagogue offered to underwrite his rabbinical studies; he firmly declined, declaring that he would become an actor. He held fast to that ambition while attending Saint Lawrence University on a wrestling scholarship and during World War II service in the U.S. Navy.
His acting career took off in 1949 when he portrayed Midge Kelly, a ferocious and amoral boxer in “Champion.” During the 1950s and ’60s, Douglas ranked consistently as one of Hollywood’s top male stars for his single-minded focus on his craft, while also squeezing in Broadway and television appearances.
In 1953, he starred as a Holocaust survivor in “The Juggler,” the first Hollywood feature to be filmed in Israel.
He opened the decade of the 1960s with “Spartacus,” perhaps his most enduring movie, in which he played the leader of a slave rebellion in ancient Rome.
One of his most memorable roles was David “Mickey” Marcus, in “Cast a Giant Shadow.” Marcus was the Brooklyn-born U.S. Army veteran who played a major role in shaping the nascent Israeli army in the 1948 War of Independence and was killed by friendly fire six hours before the June 11, 1948, cease-fire went into effect.
Douglas distinguished himself for insisting that writer Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted as a communist for a decade but continued to write under a pseudonym, be credited onscreen despite dire warnings that such a provocation would end his own Hollywood career.
With increasing fame and fortune, he showed little interest in Jewish practice, though there were exceptions. “I always fasted on Yom Kippur,” he told a reporter. “I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy making love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”
Neither of his two wives — the late actress Diana Dill and Anne Buydens, whom he married in 1954 — were Jewish, and none of his children were raised in the faith. But his oldest son, actor-director Michael Douglas, has reconnected with Judaism and won the 2015 Genesis Prize, a $1 million award recognizing Jews of great accomplishment who exhibit Jewish values.
In 2014, at Douglas’ 50th wedding anniversary, Buydens startled the guests by announcing that she had converted to Judaism. “Kirk has been married to two shiksas and it’s about time he married a nice Jewish girl,” she proclaimed.
The couple have established nearly 400 playgrounds in poorer sections of Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, and a theater facing the Western Wall featuring films on the history of Judaism and Jerusalem.
In 1996, Douglas suffered a stroke that left him speechless. He fell into a deep depression that nearly led him to take his own life. A few months later, he made his first public appearance to accept the Oscars’ lifetime achievement award.
Through rigorous speech therapy, Douglas taught himself to speak again – slowly, with a slight slur. He later published a book about the experience titled “My Stroke of Luck.”
Along with his wife and son Michael, Douglas is survived by sons Peter and Joel Douglas, seven grandchildren — Cameron, Dylan, Carys Zeta, Kelsey, Jason, Tyler, and Ryan — and a sister, Ida Sahr.
Wolpe, who helped Douglas recite the Hebrew vidui final confession at his bedside, said in The Times article that Douglas, at 90, called to the rabbi after a Torah study session, “Hurry back, Rabbi. There is a lot to learn, and the sun is setting.”