Spartacus’s Last Mission
Daily Express, 26 October 2012
His name alone can conjure up Hollywood’s golden age, when the stars really were stars. With his athletic physique, chiselled jaw and famously dimpled chin, Kirk Douglas was one of the silver screen’s most iconic action heroes and a sex symbol to rival any of today’s A-listers. At the age of 95 he is one of the last few Hollywood greats still standing.
But he isn’t one to live off tales of past triumphs or spend his time gazing fondly on his Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and his Honorary Oscar. As distinguished as his film-making career has been, there is another legacy Douglas is eager to leave behind – one which he considers of far greater importance than his acting. He has become Hollywood’s most generous philanthropist, giving away his millions to a myriad causes aimed at helping the poor and disadvantaged.
Through the Douglas Foundation, the charity he set up with his wife Anne, he recently pledged a massive $50 million to several non-profit organizations. They include an Alzheimer’s unit at a home for retired film industry workers, a Los Angeles shelter for homeless women, and St. Lawrence University in New York (his alma mater), so that it can extend its scholarship program for ethnic minority students.
Previously he and Anne refurbished and equipped more than 400 run-down, dangerous playgrounds in L.A. And he regularly talks to pupils at the Kirk Douglas High School in Northridge, California, which assists teenagers intending to drop out of school to complete their education – as an additional inducement, he personally gives a $500 cheque to each pupil who graduates.
How fitting that Douglas’s most celebrated movie role was that of the rebel Spartacus, who fought to lead the hopeless to a better life.
We are used to big-name Hollywood actors intent on ‘making a difference’ to people’s lives. Often it’s by sticking their noses into politics, which they generally do from a position of stunning naiveté. At its extreme we had the case of Jane Fonda in her ‘Hanoi Jane’ phase during the Viet Nam War, when she paid a courtesy call on the enemy and denounced her own country. (Lord Haw-Haw was hanged for that kind of thing.) More recently there was the spectacle of Sean Penn, cosying up to the Argentine President and making fatuous utterances about Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands.
Such crass Hollywood posturing is in sharp contrast to Douglas’s genuine contribution to the common good. Politically he leans towards the left, but he has remarked: ‘If you’re a Democrat or if you’re a Republican, always do what’s good for your country. I, the product of immigrants, realize what this country has done for me.’ This simple statement goes to the heart of what drives his remarkable generosity: his well-remembered origins as the son of penniless Jewish refugees from Russia.
Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 in upstate New York. As a boy he sold snacks to mill workers and delivered newspapers to earn enough money to buy milk and bread. He found living in a family of six sisters to be stifling: ‘I was dying to get out,’ he said. ‘It lit a fire under me.’ He discovered a love of acting while at high school, but had to work at more than 40 different jobs before he could earn his living an actor. He battled his way to fame and riches, but never forgot his tough background and the lessons they taught him.
‘I am not the hero of my life story,’ he once said. ‘The heroes are my mother and father. They scraped together enough money to sail steerage class to America to give their family a better life. All my life I heard my mother say “America, such a wonderful land”. When she saw me work my way through college and go into the field that I love, acting, I would constantly hear that phrase. Finally, after years of being so wrapped up in myself and my career, I realized what my mother was saying: America is a land of opportunity and promise. A place where everyone has a chance.’
Many left-leaning Hollywood actors – Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris and Dustin Hoffman spring to mind – spend a lot of their time publicly criticizing America, whose many advantages they take for granted. Not so Kirk Douglas, who recognizes how much he owes it and wants to give something back.
But over the past two decades his philanthropy has been spurred by other crucial life experiences. In 1991 (already wearing a pacemaker for his heart) a near-fatal helicopter crash left him with severe back pain. Then, five years later, a major stroke deprived him of the ability to walk and speak and triggered a deep depression. He later wrote: ‘After my stroke the thought that I would never make another movie echoed in my brain. I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. But when I lay there feeling sorry for myself, my wife would say, “Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy”. That helped.’
He worked hard to regain his mobility and his speech. But best of all, he found an antidote to his despair: ‘Depression is the greatest obstacle of old age. You lose so many friends, you get lonely and think too much about yourself. Try to think of others, try to help them. I felt better if I did something for other people. That satisfaction is priceless. In my golden years I’ve learned that you can’t know how to live until you know how to give.’
Another consequence of his stroke was that, after decades of being preoccupied with his career and enjoying the glamorous lifestyle typical of a Hollywood star – along with the infidelities which that generally entails – he rediscovered his religious roots and embraced Judaism. Always a supporter of Israel, with his customary impartiality Douglas sponsored playgrounds and community centres in both Jewish and Arab areas of Jerusalem.
At the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2000 the city’s mayor, Ehud Olmert, honoured Douglas with an award for his philanthropy and ‘love for the city’. Douglas told an adoring audience that his stroke had given him a renewed commitment to Judaism and that he felt very close to Israel. ‘Maybe I’ll move here someday,’ he quipped. The festival included a screening of his film Diamonds, which marked his return to the cinema. In it he played the part of a Jewish boxer recovering from a stroke.
The previous year, after studying with a rabbi, he’d had his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. ‘What an event!’ he recalled in his 2007 memoir Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving and Learning. ‘It happened at the Sinai Temple in Beverley Hills. So many people came to witness this grey-haired man say a young boy’s prayer: Larry King, Karl Malden, my son Michael, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Red Buttons, Don Rickles, Roddy McDowall…Most of the people present didn’t understand the service, but they all understood the speech I made: “I promise to be a good boy”.’
I think we can all agree that he has kept that promise, and then some.