As film legend and Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas celebrates his 94th birthday today, he remains an active family man, committed activist and habitual blogger.
After surviving a grim helicopter crash in 1993 and a speech-altering stroke in 1996, Douglas is commemorating today’s occasion with a sense of surprise.
Via e-mail Tuesday he told The Daily Gazette: “I can’t believe it, on December 9th, I will be 94.”
The winner of the 1996 Honorary Academy Award, Douglas had his breakthrough performance in the 1946 film “Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor during his career. He rose from humble beginnings as the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants on the East End in Amsterdam. Now, in California, the acting icon has reinvented himself as
an avid blogger, where he regularly allows people glimpses into his life.
Born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, he was the only boy among the seven children of Herschel and Bryana.
Douglas said that almost 90 years ago he remembers living in Amsterdam and thinking that Schenectady was a very big neighbor.
“I dreamed of sometime getting there,” said Douglas, who recounted hitchhiking to Schenectady when he was 12 years old. “I arrived there, [and] I thought, ‘Wow, what a big place!’ ”
His visit was short, as he was afraid to stay too long and soon hitchhiked back.
Douglas said lately he doesn’t travel to Schenectady often, because when they have family reunions they’re held in Albany, where his sister Fritzi lives. He does have one sister, Ida Sahr, who lives in Schenectady with her husband, Hy; their daughter Marilyn Gordon lives in the city with her husband, Larry.
“I have pleasant memories of Schenectady,” said Douglas, whose family moved to the area in 1937. “Maybe in my 94th year I will try to visit the big city of Schenectady on my way to see my hometown.”
In Amsterdam, Douglas lived in a house close to the railroad tracks and often had homeless people show up at his door begging for food, he says on his blog.
“As a child, I was frightened by this disheveled person who stood on the street,” he wrote. “My mother was never afraid, and although we didn’t have much food, she always managed to find something to give them.”
Hard times, luck
Growing up, he was treated like a nobody in Amsterdam and faced constant discrimination, which he detailed in his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son.”
“Even on Eagle Street … where all the families were struggling, the ragman was at the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son,” wrote Douglas. He described an environment where Jews were barred from working in the mills and beatings from street gangs were a regular occurrence on the way home from Hebrew school.
He also recounted a painful prom in high school, when his date ditched him because he was a Jew.
It was at Amsterdam High School, though, where Douglas got a chance to change his life, as he thrived under the stewardship of English teacher Louise Livingston, who served as his confidant and encouraged him to send away for college and drama school catalogs.
With this encouragement and that of his high school drama teacher Margaret Schuyler, Douglas strived to fulfill a dream of acting that took hold in kindergarten when his reading of a poem elicited applause from his classmates. “I liked that sound,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Working his way through St. Lawrence University in northern New York, Douglas wrestled on the college team and served as president of the student body. Sixty years after graduating he established a scholarship fund for minority students, which was designed to pay for four years of financial support.
This was one of many philanthropic gestures made by Douglas, who would eventually form the Douglas Foundation in 1964 with his second wife. The foundation, which was aimed at helping those people in Southern California counties who were unable to help themselves, continues today under the guardianship of his son Peter.
After his graduation from St. Lawrence in 1939, Douglas began at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, a stint cut short when the United States entered World War II and he enlisted in the Navy. He completed midshipmen’s school at Notre Dame University and served 18 months before a medical discharge in 1944.
While in the service, Douglas married Diana Dill, whom he had sworn to marry after seeing the Bermudian actress on the cover of Life magazine. The couple had two children, Michael and Joel, before divorcing in 1951.
Prior to his breakthrough into film, Douglas gained local notoriety through his stage appearances with the summer stock company at the Tamarack playhouse, which is where he opted for his new name after graduating from college.
It was while he was working on the stage in New York City after the war that actress and acting classmate Lauren Bacall helped Douglas get an audition for the launching pad for his career: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”
Douglas continued to act in films, including “Act of Love” in 1953, when he met the film’s publicist, Anne Buydens. The two were married in 1954 and had two boys together, Peter and Eric.
In 1955, Douglas made a rare move for actors of that era and formed his own production company. Named after his mother, its most famous project was the 1960 film that Douglas starred in, “Spartacus.”
For 20 years he continued to dominate the silver screen, before making a transition into television movies during the 1980s.
Starting with his autobiography in 1988, Douglas continued to try his hand at writing, as he penned two novels and a handful of non-fiction works, including the 2007 memoir “Let’s Face It.”
Today, Douglas continues to write regular posts, albeit with a little help. In a recent post he described the dynamic this way, “I don’t write them. I dictate them to my assistant Grace because since my stroke my writing is illegible.”
Lately he’s been focused on the growing polarity in our national politics, which led him to offer his 2 cents on the controversial Bush tax cuts.
“We all have to pay to run a country,” he wrote. “I remember when I first started making movies. They paid me a lot of money. At that time, the tax was 90 percent. I didn’t complain then, and I don’t complain now.”
Douglas also shares positive news, like the encouraging health of his son Michael, who has been battling throat cancer. A week ago Douglas revealed that his son was doing fine, which came a month after he shared with his readers that he’d surprised Michael’s family by showing up at their house in a clown costume.
Looking back on his life and his career, Douglas contends that he realized all the promise of a country that his mother revered.
In July he wrote: “We were poor and still we managed to survive. My mother was always so appreciative that her son, me, worked his way through college, served in the Navy, and had a career in motion pictures. So many times she repeated, ‘America, such a wonderful land.’ ”
Two years earlier Douglas examined the lessons he had learned through old age in an essay for “Newsweek” magazine, in which he echoed his mother’s sentiments.
Then at the age of 91, he concluded with a quote from Robert Browning, “The best is yet to be.”
Douglas is currently planning a family reunion with sons Joel and Peter.