Without irony or modesty, Kirk Douglas, who has died aged 103, saw himself as the archetypal American, a sturdy bridge between the abyss of the past and the bounty of the new world.
Indeed, he regarded his life story as worthy of some Los Angeleno Sistine chapel where he was posed – savage, muscular, radiant and determined – his arms linking penniless, uneducated immigrants from Russia and, say, his son Michael, a smooth prince of the city, a fabulously successful producer and actor. And I, Kirk would have cried to the fates and the heavens, I am the ragman’s son.
That was the title of his 1988 autobiography, in which he told the story of how an epitome of underprivilege had become world famous – recipient of the presidential medal of freedom, chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, fulfilling the roles of Van Gogh, Spartacus, Doc Holliday, a one-eyed Viking chieftain, and Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful, that model of Hollywood confidence, arrogance and alchemy who knows that being bad has its own fatal allure.
His autobiography stopped short of the night in 1996 when Douglas, gaunt and wrestling with the after-effects of a stroke, at last received his first Oscar – an honorary one at that – and told the world that he was proud.
No actor now would dare to perform with the zest and belief that drove him. In Douglas, we can recognise a kind of acting that seems as antique, as “period”, precious and charming as the way the
fluttered their hands and widened their eyes in the silent era. No one now is capable of the fun that Douglas had, or all the conviction he brought to good work and garbage alike. But he was Kirk Douglas – and others were not.
However, to begin with, he wasn’t Kirk at all. He was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, upstate New York, the son of Russian Jews, Herschel, a ragman who changed his name to Harry Demsky, and Bryna (nee Sanglel). The couple had only lately arrived from what is now Belarus – at the time a serious handicap to getting ahead. Yet Issur’s upbringing was founded upon the preposterous gamble that ambition (and competitiveness) would bring success. That was the American way.