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Politicians, historian share their memories of movie legend and Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas

Politicians, historian share their memories of movie legend and Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas

Hollywood screen legend grew up on Eagle Street in Amsterdam
Politicians, historian share their memories of movie legend and Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo meet in Amsterdam on June 1, 1985, during a parade honoring Douglas.
Photographer: Daily Gazette File Photo

AMSTERDAM -- Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam's most famous native son, died Wednesday at the age of 103. 

Douglas is universally regarded as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and one of the true movie stars in the history of American cinema.

Mayor Michael Cinquanti said the city will fly the American flag as half staff Thursday to honor Douglas, a World War II veteran, who was born Issur Danielovitch on Dec. 9, 1916, the son of Russian Jews who emigrated to the U.S.

"It's a very sad day for our city," Cinquanti said. "It was always a wonderful thing to say that Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam. It's always been a great source of pride for our city."

Douglas grew up at 46 Eagle St., the last house on the dead street. An historic plaque was put at the corner of Eagle and East Main streets on Douglas' 102 birthday in 2018.

Cinquanti said it's amazing the house where Douglas grew up is still in Amsterdam. He said Douglas' career, in which he starred in more than 90 movies, has touched the lives of so many people from his home town and throughout the world.

"I'm glad that house is still there, because it gives us something that connects him to Amsterdam still," Cinquanti said. "Everybody always talks about ['Sparticus,'which was a great movie, but one of my favorites was 'Young Man with a Horn' and 'Champion' was another great one. Whenever a Kirk Douglas movie was on TV, I would watch it, because he was from Amsterdam, and because he was such a great actor."

Amsterdam native and local historian Bob Cudmore, who writes a history-themed column for The Daily Gazette, has written several columns explaining some of Douglas' connections to his hometown. He said his grandparents lived three doors up from Douglas' family on Eagle Street and his father and mother knew him and his siblings.

"He lived a very long life of course, but it was very sad to hear he had died, and it was shocking for some reason — I thought he was going to live forever," Cudmore said.

"It’s very upsetting, but we knew things were not good,” said Glenville resident Marilyn Gordon, Douglas’ niece. “I spoke to him a few weeks ago but he was declining. It’s the end of an era. He was the last one. He was an icon.”

Gordon’s mother is Ida Sahr, Douglas’ sister. Sahr, who lives in Schenectady, will turn 101 on Feb. 24.

“They skyped on his birthday, Dec. 9, and we sang happy birthday to him,” said Gordon. “He was a wonderful man and lived a wonderful life. And he was so much more than just a movie star. He fought against Joe McCarthy when the Hollywood writers were blacklisted. It’s sad, but he lived until 103, and it was a very good life."

Life and relationship to Amsterdam

Although he wrote in his autobiography that, "Life is like a B-picture script", his own rise from literal rags to riches was anything but.

He grew up on Eagle Street the son of Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch, who emigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 1908, and Bryna who came two years later in 1910.

He was the lone boy in a family with six girls. His father was a local "ragman," who struggled to make a living dealing in rags and refuse, and when Douglas wrote his autobiography in 1988 he named it "The Ragman's Son."

Douglas wrote of his father that he was “the toughest, strongest Jew” in Amsterdam.

Bob Cudmore said his grandfather Harry Cudmore was known to tell tales of Harry Danielovitch who cruised the hills of the city with a horse and wagon for rags and recyclables.

"He was a legendary strong man, drinker and brawler," Cudmore wrote in a column in 2016. "[My grandfather said] patrons sometimes suddenly scattered from the popular O’Shaughnessy’s Tavern because, 'Somebody said something about the Jews and Harry Demsky is cleaning out the place.'"

Douglas was known as Izzy Demsky while he was growing up and was a good student and graduated from Wilbur H. Lynch High School in Amsterdam in 1935.

Robert von Hasseln, president of the Historic Amsterdam League, told a story during the dedication of the Kirk Douglas's historic marker in 2018 that Douglas's given name is still scratched behind the stage at Wilbur H. Lynch Middle School.

Douglas wrote in his autobiography that he had his first of many affairs with women with his high school English teacher when he was only 14.

Douglas condemned his own behavior with women over the course of his life, admitting to many extra-marital affairs.

Cudmore said when "The Ragman's Son" was published in 1988 the revelation of the adult-student relationship rubbed some people in Amsterdam the wrong way. He said Douglas was also critical of some anti-Semetic people who had lived in Amsterdam during his youth.

"So there was kind of an anti-Kirk faction for awhile, but it really sort of played itself out," Cudmore said.

In 2015, there was a local controversy when Kirk Douglas was not put in the inaugural Hall of Fame class for Amsterdam High School. It was rectified the following year.

Cudmore said Douglas also made lifelong friends during his youth, including Wilfred “Wolfie” Churchitt, an Amsterdam man who had saved the actor from drowning when both were children. Cudmore said Churchett was assistant city engineer in Amsterdam for 25 years, and Douglas helped him financially in his old age.

Peter Riccio, another childhood friend, convinced Douglas to attend St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he became president of the student body, a member of the Dramatic Society, and a standout on the college's wrestling team.

Cudmore said Douglas worked summers as a counselor at YMCA Camp Agaming in the Adirondacks while performing in plays at the nearby Tamarack Playhouse. It was at Tamarack that he changed his name to Kirk Douglas, keeping the “D” sound of Danielovitch and Demsky for his stage name.

Acting career

In 1941, Douglas played a singing telegraph boy on Broadway in "Spring Again," using the name Isadore Demsky, and was on Broadway four more times during the war years, making his official Broadway debut as Kirk Douglas in 1945's "Alice in Arms."

Earlier, on Jan. 30, 1943, it was reported in the Schenectady Gazette that Douglas was to begin training for an ensign's commission in the U.S. Navy. His parents had divorced by that time and his mother had moved to 1157 Parkwood Boulevard in Schenectady. Douglas served during World War II as a communications officer on an anti-submarine craft in the Pacific Theater and was medically discharged in 1944 after a depth charge went off almost immediately after being discharged. Douglas spent five months at a naval hospital in San Diego before heading back to New York City to resume his acting career.

With the help of Lauran Bacall, Douglas was lured to Hollywood and earned his first film role in 1946 in "The Strange Love of Martha Ives" with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott. It was his eighth movie, however, in 1949, that made him a star and established his tough guy image when he played a boxer named Midge Kelly in "Champion." The role earned Douglas his first of three Oscar nominations for Best Actor.

Later that year Douglas' star continued to rise in "Young Man with a Horn," opposite Bacall and Doris Day, and in 1952, he earned his second Oscar nomination as Jonathan Shields, a selfish and hard-nosed film producer in "The Bad and the Beautiful."

Douglas solidified his star status in 1956 and '57 with memorable roles as Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life," French army commander, Colonel Dax, during World War I in "Paths of Glory," and Doc Holliday opposite Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp in "Gunfight at the OK Corral." His performance as the tortured Van Gogh in "Lust for Life" earned him his third Oscar nomination, although he never won the coveted trophy until 1996 when he received an honorary Academy Award for "50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community."

In 1960, he played the title character in "Spartacus," a huge box office smash and the winner of four Oscars. Set during the Roman Empire, the movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick with Douglas serving as executive producer. Along with Douglas, the all-star cast included Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis. Douglas continued to be a huge box office draw throughout the 1960s, alternating between westerns and military roles in movies such as "Lonely Are the Brave" in 1962, "In Harm's Way" in 1965, "Is Paris Burning" in 1966 and "The War Wagon" in 1967.

Douglas continued to make movies throughout the next three decades but never with the same success he enjoyed in the 1950s and '60s. In 1986, he and long-time friend Lancaster were paired together in "Tough Guys," a film about two old friends who have trouble adjusting to life after being released from prison.

Douglas, who survived a helicopter crash in 1991 that killed two people, married his first wife, Diana Dill, on Nov. 2, 1943, and the couple produced two boys, Michael and Joel Douglas. He and Diana divorced in 1951, and Douglas married Anne Buydens in 1954. That marriage also produced two sons.


Return to Amsterdam

In 1985, Douglas returned to Amsterdam for Kirk Douglas Day. A park in his honor was dedicated on Guy Park Avenue Extension by then Governor Mario Cuomo. A parade was held on Guy Park Avenue.

Former Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa remembers the parade. He said he was a rookie on the city police department at the time, and his father Mario Villa was mayor.

"He had long-standing friends in the area, that he used to come to visit quite often, but it was mostly in private, and that was his first public trip back to Amsterdam," Villa said. "On his 100th birthday we did a proclamation, and he sent me a note that now hangs in the stairwell of city hall, thanking the city of Amsterdam for recognizing him."

In a 2007 column, Cudmore described Douglas' 1985 visit home, Douglas gave a speech where he spoke of his immigrant roots, saying his native Eagle Street was like a United Nations of nationalities with its Crocettis, Naples, Allens, Cudmores and Demskys.

Cudmore once wrote that Douglas said, "My mother, God rest her soul, used to sit on that porch sometimes and say to me, ‘Ah, America, such a wonderful land.'"

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said he was a young assemblyman in the state legislature when Douglas returned to Amsterdam. He said he has fond memories of walking next to Kirk Douglas and Mario Cuomo during the parade.

"Kirk started his great career on the stage of Amsterdam High School and today he is immortalized across Amsterdam, including his name emblazoned on the deck of our iconic Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook as a reminder of his roots, his strength and the values and spirit of community that come from growing up in the Mohawk Valley," he said. "Kirk’s Amsterdam roots gave us an enduring pride and faith to know the kid next door could make it in the bright lights of Hollywood."


Later years

Douglas acting career was often touched by politics and his fierce rejection of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. He also stood up against political bigotry and the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, and the infamous Hollywood "black list" of Hollywood writers and producers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1959 Douglas, through his company Bryna Productions, named for his mother, produced "Spartacus."

"Douglas earned a place in movie history by breaking the blacklist of left-leaning Hollywood figures by listing Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay contributions in the 'Spartacus' credits," said Cudmore.

Douglas maintained his outspoken views even after a severe stroke in 1996, which limited his ability to speak. It didn't stop him from starring, at the age of 86, in the 2003 movie "It Runs in the Family" with his son Michael, Michael's mother and Kirk's ex-wife Donna Douglas, and their grandson Cameron.

In a 2010 Daily Gazette column, Cudmore described Douglas as the "world’s oldest celebrity blogger" because Douglas, then 94, was maintaining a social media "Myspace" page, where he would air his political views.

"Douglas thinks he and other wealthy people should pay more taxes," Cudmore wrote.

In one of his last public acts, Douglas in 2016 at the age of 100, warned the public about what he thought was the dangerous rhetoric being used by then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"I was 16 when that man came to power in 1933.  For almost a decade before his rise he was laughed at ― not taken seriously.  He was seen as a buffoon who couldn’t possibly deceive an educated, civilized population with his nationalistic, hateful rhetoric," wrote Douglas. "The “experts” dismissed him as a joke.  They were wrong."

Douglas said Trump's rhetoric about immigrants terrified him and his wife.

"A few weeks ago we heard words spoken in Arizona that my wife, Anne, who grew up in Germany, said chilled her to the bone.  They could also have been spoken in 1933," he wrote of Trump's speeches.

Douglas was also active on the video app Skype, communicating with his family on the day his plaque was dedicated in Amsterdam in 2018.

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