Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kirk Douglas' Inner Issur

At 92, best-known now as Michael Douglas' father and Catherine Zeta-Jones' father-in-law, a movie legend is taking "an audit of my life" and, of course, doing it on stage and in front of cameras.

Kirk Douglas' career is at the heart of a larger 20th century American story: how the children of refugees from European cruelty went to Hollywood and, as John Updike put it, "out of immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

After World War II and the growing popularity of foreign films had paved the way for more realism, Issur Danielovitch followed a generation of Jewish studio heads and writers out there to explode on the screen with the kind of passion and intensity unseen in pretty-boy Hollywood heroes until then.

They changed his name, of course, and Kirk Douglas became the angry star of "Champion," "Ace in the Hole," "Young Man With a Horn" and "Detective Story," among other tales of irresistible (in every sense) male aggression.

Along the way, according to his first biographical book, "The Ragman's Son," Issur-turned-Kirk played his role of sex symbol as avidly off screen as on.

He went on to become a producer who finally buried 1950s political blacklisting by giving Dalton Trumbo, who had been writing under aliases, credit for the screenplay of "Exodus" and continued aging passionately before our eyes for decades.

Now he is playing himself by recounting his near-death in a helicopter crash that killed two, his suicidal thoughts after a stroke in 1994, the loss of his youngest son to an accidental drug overdose five years ago and still trying to make sense of his relationship with a father who could never show love for him.

Over the years, our paths crossed a number of times, but what stands out is the time we were at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever. To keep the conversation going, I suggested a game: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at Douglas across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between boys of dirt-poor immigrant parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

Now he has finally stopped impersonating others and is playing himself, letting his inner Issur take a bow after all these years. As always, it must be a riveting performance.

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