LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Ask Kirk Douglas for the proudest accomplishment in his 94 years and the iconic actor cites his actions in breaking the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
Douglas did so by giving writer Dalton Trumbo full credit for the script of the movie “Spartacus,” normally a routine acknowledgment. But in 1960, openly employing an accused communist or communist sympathizer was an almost guaranteed career killer, even for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and required an extraordinary degree of moral courage.
“I was always an impulsive guy and young enough not to pay attention to the possible consequences of openly hiring Trumbo,” Douglas, now 94, recalls in an interview at his relatively modest, art-filled home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will honor his deed on July 24 by presenting its Freedom of Expression Award to Douglas “for his courageous actions in support of artistic freedom.”
Douglas will be on stage at the Castro Theatre to accept the award and to introduce a 50th anniversary screening of “Spartacus,” in which he played the title role and served as executive producer.
Meeting Douglas, a visitor first notices the famous dimpled chin still jutting out, and that his full head of hair has turned from blond to white.
A near-fatal helicopter crash and a stroke in the 1990s forced him to relearn speaking, which he now does slowly and with a slight slur. His memory, however, is as good as ever, and he clearly recalls the mood and details of the red-hunting McCarthy era.
“Though people told me I was crazy and would never work in this town again, I was so disgusted with what was going on in the country and in Hollywood, that I had to do something,” he said.
Nevertheless, Douglas recalls spending plenty of sleepless nights — not in debating his decision, but in cursing “the stupidity of it all, in which some of the most talented actors and writers accused of [having ties to] communism couldn’t work anymore.”
“Then there was the utter hypocrisy because everybody in Hollywood knew that Trumbo was writing ‘Spartacus,’ though under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson.”
Trumbo later thanked Douglas, writing, “Thank you for giving me my name back.”
Douglas finally had his way, and it didn’t hurt that he was one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, the Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise of his day, and just off the box office hit “The Vikings.” The premiere of “Spartacus” in October 1960 was followed within two months by the opening of “Exodus,” also written by Trumbo and with his name openly listed in the screen credits.
Though the period from the late 1940s to the late 1950s generally is known as the McCarthy era — named for the demagogic Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy — the senator’s baleful work had precedent, and it was continued by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, even after his 1957 death.
Among the earliest HUAC targets were the Hollywood Ten, predominantly well-known screenwriters who refused to declare their political affiliations or denounce colleagues. They were cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned for up to one year.
While Trumbo was not Jewish, six of the other Hollywood Ten were, and among many politicians and compilers of “suspect” lists, charges of being a New York or Hollywood “commie symp” served as the code word for Jew.
Along with Douglas, “Spartacus” also featured two other prominent Jews: director Stanley Kubrick and Howard Fast, also blacklisted, who wrote the original book. It was based on the life and death of the Thracian slave whose followers nearly overthrew the mighty Roman Republic in the Third Servile War of the first century BCE.
So, Douglas was asked, was the campaign against “politically unreliable” artists fueled, at least in part, by anti-Semitism? Of course, he answered.
“Listen, all my life I’ve always assumed that everybody I met was an anti-Semite unless he could prove otherwise,” he said.
Douglas finds in the Spartacus revolt an analogy to the current uprisings in the Arab Middle East.
“If Spartacus were to return today, he would go to Libya or Syria to fight with the rebels,” said the actor, who in 1996 won an honorary Academy Award “for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”
Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, learned early about anti-Semitism from his boyhood fights in Amsterdam, N.Y. But as he made his way in Hollywood as a Nordic-looking leading man, he shed most of his religious upbringing.
However, he said, “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”
He returned to Jewish observance in 1991 after surviving a helicopter crash that compressed his spine by three inches and killed two younger companions.
“I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be a Jew,” he said.
In his mid-70s, Douglas embarked on an intensive regime of Jewish studies and discovered “the greatest screenplay ever written. It has passion, incest, murder, adultery, really everything. That’s why they keep making movies about it.”
Now he maintains weekly sessions with Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe and lights candles at home on Friday nights. Douglas celebrated his second bar mitzvah at age 83.
Still, he is ambivalent about religion in general.
“I believe in God, I’m happy to be a Jew,” he said. “But I think too much religion has not helped civilization. Caring for other people, that’s my religion.”
Douglas has embarked on two more careers — as a philanthropist underwriting hundreds of playgrounds in California and for Arab and Jewish kids in Israel, and as an author.
He has written nine books — autobiographies, novels, children’s books — with two more due to be published in late 2011 and early 2012. One is “I Am Spartacus,” playing off the movie’s most famous line and describing the making of the film and the breaking of the blacklist. The other is “Fragments of Memory,” about his tumultuous life.
In addition, Warner Brothers is releasing a DVD of “Before I Forget,” his earlier one-man show in New York.
After all that, Douglas promises at least one more book, “with lots of humor,” titled “It’s Hard to Be a Jew.”