(...) He was heartened when son Michael came to him recently and told him he agreed that life needed to be lived “based on helping other people”. “That goes back to when I was a very small boy and we lived in a little house by the railroad track,” Douglas explains slowly: “We were very poor. My father had left and my mother had to raise and feed me and my six sisters. We barely had enough. But very often there would be a knock on the door and there would be a dishevelled hobo asking for food. I was frightened. I was just a little kid. But my mother was not frightened and she always found something to give him. And she said ‘Issur’ — that was my name — ‘even a beggar must give to another beggar who’s worse off than he is’. And that encouraged me to do my philanthropy. My wife feels the same way.”
Through his Douglas Foundation, he recently donated $50 million to the Motion Picture Home which provides assistance to industry members.
In Jerusalem, his latest accomplishment has been to build a theatre near the Wailing Wall for aspiring actors, similar to one he established in Los Angeles.
Tell him there is a reward for these mitzvahs and he shrugs it off. “I think being generous and doing things to help other people is a selfish act because it makes you feel so good. That is the reward.”
Douglas’s parents were illiterate Russian Jews. He was their only son. From a very early age, little Issur Danielovich, was hell-bent on becoming an actor. The local community wanted to raise money to send him to a yeshivah, “but I was frightened because I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I just always wanted to be an actor.”
There was never any doubt that the movies would win out over the synagogue. Douglas won a wrestling scholarship to university and worked as a wrestler in summer carnivals.
A second scholarship, from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, moved him closer to his dream and he soon made his Broadway debut in 1940, as a singing-telegram boy in the play, Spring Again.
War intervened and he enlisted in the US Navy where he served as communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.
Despite his preference for theatre, in 1946, fate intervened in the form of Hal Wallis who cast him in the classic film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He hung on to his famous chin dimple (barely, the studio wanted to remove it) and won plaudits for his work.
His eighth film, Champion, in which he played a boxer, made him a star and netted him his first Academy Award
nomination. After that he varied his performances and was never easily typecast, although his “tough” image largely dominated his career, despite a mix of gentler, romantic roles.
Over 50 years he was one of Hollywood’s most prominent actors. Many of his films have become classics, among them Gunfight at the OK Corral, Paths of Glory and Lonely Are the Brave (his favourite). He has won three Oscar nominations — for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust For Life, a biopic of the artist Vincent Van Gogh “He should have won the Oscar for that”, the film’s director Vincente Minnelli said and Douglas thought he deserved it too.
In 1996, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his outstanding contribution to films.
It is a contribution that has travelled far and wide. Although he never took an official role, he has flown around the world as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department.
“Being a movie star was a great credential,” he grins. And it is true that it has given him a unique entrée to the elite of the world. In 1980 he flew in the first private jet from Jerusalem to Cairo and met President Sadat. Back home, he testified before Congress about the shocking abuse of the elderly. For all his efforts, he was awarded the highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom.
At 95, Kirk Douglas is still something of a powerhouse. “I can walk, I can talk and I can see,” he beams. “So I must be doing something right.”