Ostensibly congratulating Kirk on a book about restoring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s with a credit on his 1960 movie “Spartacus,” Maher could not resisting tweaking the 95-year-old actor, “You changed your name to Kirk Douglas...you couldn’t admit back then that you were Jewish.”
As usual, Maher misses the point. Kirk Douglas' career was 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.
The studios 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."
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 political blacklisting by giving Trumbo, who had been writing under aliases, credit for the screenplay of "Spartacus" and continued aging passionately before our eyes for decades.
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 best-known as Michael Douglas’ father and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ father-in-law, my role model adds another small notch to his belt of moral victories by using Bill Maher’s favorite two-word exhortation to put him in his place.
Kirk's younger admirers, as always, are grateful.