The scrawny son of Jewish immigrants transformed himself into an icon of US manhood. Yet a darker side lurked too.
by Andrew Pulver
Kirk Douglas in 1946. The actor was notorious for his aggressive personality as his career took off.
Photograph: AL ’Whitey’ Schafer/Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock
Handsome, muscular, noble – not words that would automatically have been associated with a Yiddish-speaking schmutter-seller’s son whose family were not long off the boat from what is now Belarus.
But we know better: in these nativist times, it is worth remembering that Izzy Demsky was the beneficiary of the ultimate Hollywood makeover: the scrawny, hustling scion of immigrants who evolved into Kirk Douglas, the acme of all-American manhood, and evolved once again into a sensitive, politically conscious standard-bearer for liberalism.
Douglas, who has died aged 103, became an unrecognisable figure from that of his childhood.
His story follows a near-mythic immigrant arc that the US has chosen to ignore in the Trump era. In this he was aided by physiognomy: like Bernie Schwartz (AKA Tony Curtis), his smooth good looks opened doors closed to the likes of Manny Goldenberg (AKA Edward G Robinson).
Douglas became an authentic star in 1949 with the brawling boxing picture Champion, only two years after Hollywood nervously tackled the subject of antisemitism in Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire, and fully two decades before ethnic minority-looking actors such as Dustin Hoffman were able to play romantic leads.