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The untold truth of Kirk Douglas

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On February 5, 2020, legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away at the age of 103. Famous for roles like Spartacus, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Lust for Life, in which he played painter Vincent van Gogh, he was also the father of fellow star Michael Douglas. Although the elder Douglas has been in the spotlight for most of his life, there are still plenty of things you likely don’t know about the renowned figure and family man.

« The biggest lie is the lie we tell ourselves in the distorted visions we have of ourselves, blocking out some sections, enhancing others, » Kirk wrote in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son (via Hullabaloo). « What remains are not the cold facts of life, but how we perceive them. That’s really who we are. » When it comes to who Douglas really was, it becomes clear that he was much more than what you saw on the screen. This is the untold truth of the man who came from humble beginnings and rose to become one of the most iconic stars in Hollywood.

Issur Danielovitch didn’t have quite the ring to it

Kirk Douglas may have had one of the most notable names in the entertainment industry, but it’s not the one that he was originally given by his mother and father. « Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch [on December 9, 1916] in upstate New York, the son of poor and illiterate Russian [Jewish] immigrants Herschel and Bryna, who later went by Harry and Bertha, » according to People. « Their first name change came when they moved to America and took up the surname Demsky, after Herschel’s brother, who was already working in America. » Their only son also altered his name to suit his new home, becoming Izzy Demsky.

However, Douglas obviously didn’t stick with Izzy. People explains that since his name was considered to be « too unwieldy and too Semitic for Hollywood at the time, » he instead opted for Kirk Douglas, the name he would be known by throughout his acting career. However, later in life, the star admitted, « I wish I had kept it. It’s more interesting to keep your original name. But can you imagine that name on a marquee? »

Although Douglas decided to go by another name during his professional days, his grandson Cameron Douglas, chose to honor the actor’s original name when he welcomed a baby girl into the world and called her Lua Izzy. Surely little Lua, who seemed quite fond of her great-grandpa, will be proud to carry on the family name.

Kirk Douglas came from ‘the poorest family’

Thanks to a lifetime of movie stardom, Kirk Douglas was worth a considerable amount of money at the time of his death — somewhere in the $60 to $80 million range. This was a far cry from where he came from. Douglas was born into an impoverished family that included seven children (Douglas had six sisters) and in 2017, he told The Wall Street Journal, « We were the poorest family on a street of poor families. » Noting that his father struggled to make money because there were « no jobs for Jews, » he explained: « Growing up, we never had enough food. When I was hungry, I stole food. »

Douglas also spoke about his humble upbringing in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, a title which refers to his father’s job in Amsterdam, New York. « 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, » the actor wrote (via the Jewish Virtual Library). He also discussed what his father’s job meant for the family, writing, « The ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son. »

While it might not have been an easy life, Douglas told The Wall Street Journal that hard work, combined with the « personality and charm [he] developed as a way to survive, » made him the man he became.

Lauren Bacall ‘had a wild crush’ on Kirk Douglas

When Kirk Douglas met Lauren Bacall, they were both students and she was still going by the name Betty Joan Perske, which is what he called her throughout their years of friendship. The actress later admitted that she « had a wild crush on Kirk » when they were younger, but what he remembered was her caring ways.

« I met Betty when she was 17 and I was 24. We were both studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, » Douglas wrote in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. « I was on my own in New York with meager funds. That winter, Betty saw me shivering in my thin overcoat. She didn’t say anything, but she talked her uncle into giving me one of his two thick coats. I wore it for three years. That sort of unassuming kindness was one of her most endearing characteristics. »

Bacall even helped Douglas land his first significant film role. After he nabbed the lead in a theater production, his friend made sure to talk him up to an industry connection. « Shortly after the play opened, Betty attended a cocktail party for the famous producer Hal Wallis, » Douglas wrote. Bacall mentioned to Wallis that he should catch Douglas’ performance. « He actually listened to her … and soon after I was on my way to Hollywood with a meaty role. » What are friends for if not to launch you on the path to Hollywood stardom?

Kirk Douglas chased submarines in the Navy

Kirk Douglas wasn’t always a movie star. At one point in his life, he was a military man. Serving in the Navy from 1942 to 1944 during World War II, he made his way up to Lieutenant Junior Grade and was a part of the Submarine Chasers unit.

According to Variety, Douglas was honorably discharged after being « hit with amoebic dysentery. » The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that this ailment « is transmitted in areas where poor sanitation allows contamination of drinking water and food with faeces. » Oh. Ew.

The situation likely came about because of the rough conditions on board the boat that Douglas served on, which is why he advocated for better amenities while opening up about the experience in a November 1943 Times-Picayune interview (via Nola.com), saying, « Our small ship is crowded for space. With about 70 men aboard … [they] get frightfully dirty. Ships our size used to have washing machines aboard, but since the machines are (made) of critical material, the Navy doesn’t provide us with them anymore. It’s a sorry sight, hard on morale. » Hard on the body as well — as the amoebic dysentery seems to have proven.

Two horrific crashes nearly killed Kirk Douglas

Life on a Navy ship surely wasn’t easy, but it was a plane crash and a helicopter crash that each nearly took Kirk Douglas’ life. The first near-death incident happened in 1958 while the actor was living beside actress Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, producer Mike Todd. Douglas later told People, « Mike asked me to go on his private plane with him … I was very excited. » However, Douglas’ wife wasn’t as keen and after a « big argument, » the star ended up staying home. Still silently stewing over the fight, Douglas turned on the radio only to hear that Todd’s plane had crashed and everyone on board had been killed. « Why was I spared? I was so grateful, » Douglas told the mag, adding, « My wife has saved my life many times. »

Douglas had another « close brush with death » in 1991, according to Variety, « after he was injured in the collision of a helicopter, in which he was a passenger, and a stunt plane. » USA Today explains that the « actor was 74 and … flying with his pilot friend, cartoon voice artist Noel Blanc. » When the helicopter they were in flew into the path of a plane, the two men on board the other aircraft, 47-year-old Lee Manelski and 18-year-old David Tomlinson, were killed. Again, Douglas was left asking, « Why did they die? Why was I alive? » 

Kirk Douglas was married for over 65 years

The fact that Kirk Douglas credits his wife, Anne Buydens, with saving his life on multiple occasions may be one of the reasons they spent 66 years of marriage together.

Douglas was first married to his first wife, Diana Dill, from 1943 to 1951 and together they had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and producer Joel Douglas. Following Kirk and Diana’s divorce, he met Anne, who was a publicist at the time « while working in Europe on such films as The Juggler and Ulysses, » according to Variety. However, People noted that it wasn’t an ideal time for the pair to meet since « he was secretly engaged to actress Pier Angeli and [Anne] had married a Belgian friend for safety reasons during World War II. » In the end, love prevailed and the couple married in 1954 before having two sons of their own, actor and producer Peter Douglas and actor Eric Douglas, who passed away in 2004.

In 2015, Kirk told People how he and his longtime love kept things running as smoothly as possible, saying, « We solve our disagreements with a kiss. » Considering that seemed to work for them for well over six decades, they might have been on to something with that sweet tactic.

A multilingual love affair

Kirk Douglas was famous for smoothly delivering his lines on screen, but it might have been even more impressive to see him regularly use his multilingual skills in his films. That’s right, Douglas wasn’t just fluent in English and he wasn’t merely bilingual or trilingual either. He could speak at least four different languages!

« [Douglas’] family was Jewish and spoke Yiddish at home, » People noted. And according to The Times of Israel, the star, who was self-taught, « learned French in his 30s and German in his 40s. » Why, you may ask, would he learn the latter two languages? Likely for love.

Douglas’ wife, Anne Buydens, was born in Germany and fled to Belgium during World War II before heading over to Paris, where, The Sun explained, « her fluent knowledge of several languages kept her busy subtitling films. » If she was able to speak both German and French (as well as English, presumably), we can see why her husband would want to as well.

Breaking the Hollywood blacklist was Kirk Douglas’ proudest acheivement

In the 1940s and 50s, during the Cold War, those who worked in the entertainment industry were being locked out of jobs for being suspected of having communist sympathies or ties. It was deemed the Hollywood blacklist and it destroyed many lives, which was something that Kirk Douglas witnessed and refused to accept.

Speaking with The JC, Douglas said « the writers » were particular targets. He added, « People couldn’t work if they were on the blacklist. The studios banned them. It was the most onerous period in movie history. I don’t think we have ever had a period so dark as that. People committed suicide, people died, people suffered. It wiped out lives. »

Douglas decided to fight back. Variety explains that the actor went against the blacklist by demanding that « Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood 10) be credited for his screenplay on the film Spartacus. » According to Encyclopedia Britannica, The Hollywood 10 was a group that was jailed after resisting questioning by Congress about their alleged communist ties. Douglas later stated, « I think one of the most important things in my career was the breaking of the blacklist. » Others clearly agreed, like the American Civil Liberties Union, which honored Douglas with a Bill of Rights Award for his « courage and conviction » in the matter. Douglas was also later given the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and honored by the Writers Guild of America for his blacklist-breaking action.

Kirk Douglas spent millions of dollars supporting worthy causes

« You haven’t learned how to live until you’ve learned how to give, » Kirk Douglas once said, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and he certainly knew what he was talking about. The actor and his wife, Anne Buydens (or later, Anne Douglas), were incredibly generous over the years and helped out many worthy causes.

Back in 2012, the couple gave « a total of $50 million in pledges to five nonprofit organizations through the Douglas Foundation, founded by the couple in 1964. They also sponsored more than 240 playgrounds around Southern California, » according to Variety. And that’s not all!

The philanthropic pair « donated millions for the construction of the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion at the Motion Picture & Television Fund for residents with Alzheimer’s » while also supporting various other groups and initiatives that now carry the family’s names, including the Anne Douglas Center for Women at the Los Angeles Mission, the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, and the Kirk Douglas Scholarship fund at Douglas’ former school St. Lawrence University. It’s obvious that Douglas lived up to his words and indeed knew how to give.

Of course one Bar Mitzvah wasn’t enough for Kirk Douglas

Later in his life, Kirk Douglas was very open about being Jewish and even re-embraced his faith by having a second Bar Mitzvah when he was well over the age of 13 years old. In fact, the actor was over 80.

« The 200-seat chapel at Sinai Temple was crammed with Hollywood luminaries of yesterday and today, when Rabbi David Wolpe called Issur ben Heshel to the Torah for his bar mitzvah reading and speech, » the Jewish Journal reported in December 1999. « ‘Today, I am a man,’ intoned 83-year-old actor Kirk Douglas in the prescribed fashion, adding, from the perspective of a long and rich life, ‘But it takes time to really become a man and assume your responsibilities in this troubled world.' »

While it might be unexpected to have a Bar Mitzvah at 83, that’s the age when a person is considered to be 13 again « following the traditional allotted life span of 70 years. » Douglas later told The JC in 2012, « I thought it was something I should do at 83 because of all that had happened to me. » He also revealed that he was planning to do it again at 96, saying, « I’m going to be barmitzvah’d for the third time in December. … My rabbi says I’ll be in the Guinness Book of Records. » Mazel tov!

Kirk Douglas never won an Oscar

Kirk Douglas was one of the most iconic actors to ever work in Hollywood, which is why it’s so hard to believe that he never won an Academy Award. Although he was nominated three times for Best Actor — for his roles in 1949’s Champion, 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and 1956’s Lust for Life — he never managed to nab the prestigious statue.

However, in 1996, the Academy decided to honor Douglas with an honorary Oscar in recognition of his « 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community. » Receiving the honor just two months after suffering the stroke that hindered his ability to speak and forced him to relearn to talk, he addressed the audience of his peers, according to People, saying, « I see my four sons. They are proud of the old man. And I am proud, too. Proud to be a part of Hollywood for 50 years. »

Douglas then added, « But this is for my wife, Anne. I love you. And tonight I love all of you. And I thank all of you for 50 wonderful years. Thank you, thank you, thank you. » Goodbye, Mr. Douglas. R.I.P.

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