This week the Jewish community lost a giant of the film industry and one of my favorite actors, Kirk Douglas. While he was known around the world for his performances on screen and the dimple on his chin, he was appreciated in the Jewish community for the commitment he made to his faith later in life.
I must admit that I love Douglas not only because he was a great actor, but also because I actually met him once. He was born Issur Danielovitch to immigrant parents, but during his career Douglas barely observed his Judaism. That changed in 1991 when a near-fatal helicopter crash left him injured and shaken. Afterwards, Douglas reconnected with his tradition, studying Torah and getting more involved in the community.
Sometime after that, in the 1990s, Douglas paid a visit to Camp Ramah in Ojai, California where I was a staff member. I have a vague memory that he was there to learn about the Tikvah program for Jewish children with disabilities. When he made his way over to my part of camp I had the honor of shaking his hand. He was gracious and seemed interested in what we were doing.
Douglas was known for some great performances, but as a kid I loved him in The Final Countdown, a cheesy alternate history movie where a 1980s aircraft carrier goes back in time to 1941 with the chance to wipe out the Japanese fleet before it can attack the United States. What should the captain, played by Douglas, do: change history or let events play out as they should? You have to watch to find out.
Only later did I discover classic Douglas roles in movies like Spartacus and Paths of Glory. In these pictures I gained a deeper appreciation for his powerful screen presence. Douglas was known for playing tough guys, but I always think of him portraying righteous figures, men with a moral code who know right from wrong and are prepared to make great sacrifices for their principles. This quality was mirrored off screen was well when he fought the Hollywood blacklist and insisted that Dalton Trumbo be given an onscreen credit for Spartacus.
Perhaps the best example of these heroic roles is from one of Douglas’s most Jewish works, Cast a Giant Shadow, about the life of Mickey Marcus, an American army officer who goes to Israel to fight for the nascent Jewish state. For me, no matter the background of the character he played, Douglas embodied the best of the Jewish people – the will to fight for what is right, no matter the cost.